Food therapy for chemotherapy – Life Kitchen cookery classes from Ryan Riley come to Norwich

Ryan Riley of Life Kitchen (C) Life Kitchen

Ryan Riley of Life Kitchen (C) Life Kitchen - Credit: Life Kitchen

After his mother died of cancer, Ryan Riley wanted to help others living with the disease rediscover the appetites - he will bring his Life Kitchen to Norwich in October with a free class for people undergoing chemotherapy and their families.

Garam Masala Crumbed Cod with Salt and Vinegar Cucumber Salad (C) Ryan Riley and World Cancer Resear

Garam Masala Crumbed Cod with Salt and Vinegar Cucumber Salad (C) Ryan Riley and World Cancer Research Fund - Credit: Ryan Riley and World Cancer Research Fund

It's a lesson Ryan Riley learned in the most tragic of circumstances - his mother, once an enthusiastic home cook and fan of cookery programmes on TV, lost her interest in food when chemotherapy robbed her of her love for eating.

"I remember we were out and drinking Champagne and trying to have a night where we didn't think about cancer and just enjoyed ourselves and I looked at Mum and by her face I knew she was miserable because she couldn't taste anything at all," said Ryan, of Mum Krista, who died five years ago of small-cell lung cancer aged 47.

"Food is such a huge part of who we all are. When we get together with people, it usually involves food and it's a way that we often show people that we care about them, by cooking for them and eating together. But if chemotherapy has affected the way things taste and your appetite, that part of your life changes, even if just for a short time."

After Krista died, when Ryan was 20, and after he had cared for her for two years, he admits that he found it difficult to "process" that she had gone.

Maple Brulee Pears with Coconut Yoghurt (C) Ryan Riley and World Cancer Research Fund

Maple Brulee Pears with Coconut Yoghurt (C) Ryan Riley and World Cancer Research Fund - Credit: Ryan Riley and World Cancer Research Fund

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A month after the mother-of-three passed away, a friend persuaded him to go on a night out in Newcastle - he is originally from Sunderland - and with only £5 between them, they optimistically went to a casino where they planned to try and win enough money to buy a few drinks.

What happened next turned a nightmare into something resembling a fairytale: Ryan placed a £1 bet on a blackjack table playing six decks of cards and turned up four aces of the same suit. He turned £1 into £28,000 and promptly moved to London with his best friend Kimberley Duke.

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The pair began cooking Japanese food on a stall at Camden Market before Ryan started work as an intern for Sainbury's Magazine as a food writer and stylist. Working for Waitrose, Delicious magazine and campaigns for large clients such as Emirates Business Class Bar Lounge, the pair came up with the idea for Life Kitchen, free cookery classes for those living with cancer, helping them to enjoy food againi.

Announced on Twitter, the post quickly went viral and caught the attention of Nigella Lawson, who backed the campaign. Officially launched at Krista's favourite TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Kitchen cookery school in February 2018 alongside TV presenter Sue Perkins, Life Kitchen has gone from strength to strength.

Ryan's signature dish, pineapple tacos with prawns (C) Ryan Riley and World Cancer Research Fund

Ryan's signature dish, pineapple tacos with prawns (C) Ryan Riley and World Cancer Research Fund - Credit: Ryan Riley and World Cancer Research Fund

With a new permanent home in Sunderland, a cookbook written and due to be released next year, a collaboration with the World Cancer Research Fund which has produced a recipe booklet full of delicious dishes which can easily be recreated at home (all look gorgeous, thanks to Ryan's food styling background).

On October 19, Norwich Science Festival will bring Life Kitchen to the city for a special class led by Ryan which is free to those undergoing chemotherapy and family members of those who are undergoing treatment for cancer.

"We keep the classes free because we know that people can struggle financially when they have cancer - my Mum had to stop working when she got ill and my Dad had to battle to keep his job because he went to so many of her hospital appointments," said Ryan, who co-founded Life Kitchen with Kimberley, a chef.

"Kim's Mum died of cancer as well so it's as close to her heart as it is to mine. I couldn't have approached doing this any earlier because I was still trying to cope with what happened to our family - even now I sometimes have difficult days, so it's great to be with someone who knows how I feel."

Ryan Riley with the recipe book he has written for World Cancer Research Fund (C) World Cancer Resea

Ryan Riley with the recipe book he has written for World Cancer Research Fund (C) World Cancer Research Fund - Credit: World Cancer Research Fund

In the Life Kitchen classes, Ryan uses clever combinations of ingredients - often using the fifth taste, umami - to heighten taste - he worked with senses specialist Professor Barry Smith from the University of London to create a menu suitable for cancer patients whose taste buds are altered.

Recipes are flavourful, easy-to-make and fresh - think miso paste, caramelised onions, mushrooms and citrus fruits

Although Life Kitchen is about helping people living with cancer, Ryan stresses that along with food that might help those finding it hard to eat their normal diet, it's also about fun and socialising - a main menu of enjoyment along the side servings of advice.

"Food is so important - I felt like my Mum lost her zest for life a long time before she died and that was the inspiration to start Life Kitchen because I wanted to give people living with cancer some enjoyment back. Even if it's just an afternoon out. Even if it's just one recipe that works for them."

Now with a permanent cookery school, Life Kitchen at The Lodge back in Sunderland, which was paid for by crowdfunding and donations, a cookery book in the pipeline and pop-up classes such as the one in Norwich, Ryan can't quite believe where one Tweet has led him.

"We are so grateful to everyone who has helped us and we just want to reach as many people as we can," he said, "but I don't ever forget how this started. At the end, all my Mum wanted to eat was ice pops, so there's a whole page of different ice pops in the book."

How does Ryan think his mother would feel about his Life Kitchen?

"She'd be very proud and surprised, I think," he says, before adding, "and she'd be worried about where the money was coming from and if I was getting enough to get by!"

- Life Kitchen with Ryan Riley, part of the Norwich Science Festival and supported by The Assembly House Trust, is at The Assembly House in Norwich on October 19 at 11am. Tickets are free for those undergoing chemotherapy and their families, suitable for those aged 15 and above, www.

Cancer and taste

- Around 50 per cent of people receiving chemotherapy experience a loss or change of taste

- Food may taste metallic or bitter or not have as much flavour as before

- Taste changes can contribute towards a loss of appetite and malnutrition

- Taste changes can be caused by different cancer treatments and their side effects. Dry mouth, damage to the nerves involved in tasting, mouth infections, nausea and vomiting, and dental or gum disease can also have an effect on the way food tastes.

- Chemotherapy drugs can change the taste receptor cells in the mouth. They can also cause an increased sense of smell and sensitivity to certain smells, which can change the way food tastes.

- The good news is these changes usually go away after treatment ends

Ryan's Life Kitchen recipes with World Cancer Research Fund

Garam masala crumbed cod


2 cod fillets

40g fresh breadcrumbs (ideally wholemeal)

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 lemon, zest only

Freshly ground black pepper

For the salad:

1 small cucumber, sliced wafer-thin

½ teaspoon salt

Small handful fresh dill, chopped

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon chilli flakes

2 cloves garlic, finely diced

1 lemon, sliced into thick wedges


Preheat the oven to 180ºC/Fan 160ºC.

Place the two cod fillets on a baking tray. Mix the breadcrumbs with the garam masala, lemon zest and a generous grind of black pepper. Top the cod evenly with the breadcrumb mixture and bake for 10 minutes, until the fish is cooked through and the topping is crispy.

Meanwhile, slice the cucumber thinly with a mandolin if possible or as thin as possible with a knife or vegetable peeler. Mix with the salt and set aside for 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes, rinse the cucumber well in cold water. Place it in a bowl with the dill, white wine vinegar, chilli flakes and garlic. Toss together and serve immediately with the cod and lemon wedges for squeezing over.

Pineapple tacos with prawns, chilli and lime


100g cooked cold-water prawns

1 red chilli, chopped

2 limes, zest and juice

1 spring onion, finely chopped

1 pineapple, peeled and sliced into thin rounds

Handful fresh coriander, chopped


In a bowl, mix the cooked prawns with the chilli and the zest and juice of 1 lime.

Add the spring onion and toss everything together. Fold the pineapple rounds in half to form a 'taco' shell and fill with the prawn mixture.

Sprinkle over the coriander and finish with a final drizzle of lime. Enjoy!

Maple brûlée pears with coconut yoghurt


2 pears, peeled, cored and sliced lengthways

1 tablespoon maple syrup

15g currants

1 lemon, zest and juice

100g fat-free, no-added-sugar, coconut-flavoured yoghurt


Preheat the oven to 180oC/Fan 160oC.

Place the pears on a baking tray, brush with the maple syrup and bake for 20-25 minutes, until they are just browning at the edges. Set aside and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, pour the lemon juice into a small bowl and add the currants. Allow to soak to plump up and take on some acidity to cut through the sweetness of the pear and yoghurt.

Divide the yoghurt equally between two bowls and top each with a whole pear. Sprinkle over the lemony currants and serve.

* For more recipes, visit World Cancer Research Fund.

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