Ryan Riley is on a mission – to put the flavour back into Christmas, for everyone. The 27-year-old founder of Life Kitchen cookery school has published a book of Christmas recipes designed to stimulate the taste buds of people living with cancer, or indeed anyone whose sense of taste has been dulled.
The best part? With the help of hummus company Moorish, Riley is not charging for the limited-edition run of 7,000 hardbacks, bar £2.95 to cover the postage. “We made it free because I wanted to be sure that people who wanted it could get it,” he tells me over the phone.
Riley’s Life Kitchen was inspired by his mother, Krista, who died of cancer seven years ago at the age of 47. Riley was 20. His Sunderland cookery school was opened by Nigella Lawson in 2019, offering free classes for people undergoing cancer treatment, and Riley’s first book Life Kitchen, written with the help of Barry Smith, a University of London professor and founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, launched this March.
A Life Kitchen Christmas follows on from the first book, whose recipes include not just the maximum flavour, but also other taste stimulators such as horseradish, mint and “synergistic umami”, a technique of combining savoury tastes like tomato, parmesan and miso to create a palate tickler.
With loss of taste and smell a symptom of Covid-19, the book feels especially timely. “Covid is so new that we’d never make claims we can help,” Riley admits. “After all, we had two years to research Life Kitchen. But the principles are the same and people are saying the first book is a massive help.”
Riley is not one to sit still. With the school closed since the first lockdown, he had planned to launch socially distanced outdoor cookery classes in conjunction with Maggie’s Cancer Centres, of which he is an ambassador. Alas, new restrictions put paid to that after just two events, and the Life Kitchen food truck stands unused outside Riley’s house. “So, eight weeks ago, I said I want to do a Christmas book.”
He put the idea to the team, consisting of his father plus Kimberley Duke, food writer and his right-hand woman: “At first, we all thought, ‘maybe we’ll do it for next year’.”
But he reflects: “It’s been such a tough year for all of us – and if you are living with cancer it has been terrifying. Appointments have been cancelled, treatments have been delayed. I wanted to do something that might give people a bit of happiness and hope.
“So we wrote, tested, photographed, designed and published the book in eight weeks. It’s been 20-hour days nearly every day for eight weeks, but I’m so proud of it.”
Divided into three sections – The Night Before Christmas, The Main Event, and Boxing Day and Beyond – recipes include red cabbage cooked in pineapple juice with bits of pickled pineapple, a zinging mouthful that epitomises Riley’s methods to wake up treatment-deadened taste buds.
In the same vein, turkey is savoury and tangy with miso and tamarind; carrots are cooked with blood orange and pomegranate; and jacket potatoes are stuffed with cauliflower cheese. “It’s about making the most delicious spin on classic Christmas,” Riley explains. “Maybe not absolutely traditional, but definitely the most flavourful.”
A Life Kitchen Christmas by Ryan Riley and Kimberley Duke is available to buy online for free (with £2.95 p&p) at lifekitchen.co.uk