10 Minutes With: Ryan Riley, founder, Life Kitchen

The Staff Canteen

Food writer and stylist Ryan Riley is the founder of Life Kitchen, a free cookery initiative for those living with cancer.

Ryan lost his mother Krista four years ago to small cell lung cancer and having witnessed her struggle, and the impact that it had on the rest of the family, he wanted to do something in her memory. During chemotherapy, many patients lose their ability to taste or find their tastes change dramatically. Ryan’s mother was a keen cook and he has since followed in her footsteps with the Life Kitchen classes.

Ryan Riley, Life Kitchen cookery class for people living with cancer
Life Kitchen

Career in food

Ryan started his culinary career on Camden Market, cooking Japanese food with his best friend Kimberley. He then went on to work as an intern for Sainsburys Magazine, before becoming a food writer and stylist. Ryan’s work has been featured in many publications including Waitrose magazine and delicious, and he also worked on a campaign with Emirates Business Class Bar Lounge.

Inspired by his mother, Ryan wanted to give something back to people and his love for food sparked the idea for Life Kitchen - a free cookery class for those living with cancer, helping them to incorporate flavour and excitement back into their food. Ryan announced the class on Twitter on a Tuesday night and he did not expect the overwhelming response he received.

He said: “Now that’s why I always launch my campaign on a Tuesday. It went viral with a couple of hundred retweets! Then a mutual friend of mine and Nigella’s [Lawson] introduced us online and she got behind the campaign. A week later I was on Radio 4 and then we did a launch and raised some money… Then fast forward to this year, we launched in February at River Cottage, which was the most phenomenal launch. We did two classes on the Monday, with 20 guests in each and it was an incredibly busy time. From there, it’s gone from strength to strength.”

Having only ever set out initially to do the one class, there have now been six Life Kitchen classes to date. These were held at different locations across the UK including; Jamie Oliver’s Cookery School, London, Dalesford Farm in the Cotswolds, At The Kitchen - a cookery school in Manchester, and Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle.quote riley

Life Kitchen

Many celebrities have shared their support for Life Kitchen on social media, including popular TV presenter Sue Perkins, who is now their patron. Ryan and Sue meet regularly to discuss the classes and plan the events.

The classes are free to attend. Ryan explained that his family suffered financial hardship when his mother was unwell, and so he understands how important it is to keep them free.

He said: “We struggled hugely financially when my mother was ill because she had to give up her job, and my dad had to battle to keep his job, because there were so many hospital appointments that he had to be off on. I knew what it was like to struggle financially, so I’ve always said that these classes will be free.”

Cooking with cancer – how do you combat flavour loss?

In the free classes, they currently work on building flavour in dishes with a particular focus on umami. Ryan explained how a lot of the dishes they cook at Life Kitchen have ‘synergistic umami’ – umami on top of umami. One example is a carbonara recipe with smoky onions, parmesan and lardons.

Ryan explained that doing this stimulates the other taste senses and helps to combat the flavour loss that many people living with cancer experience. He said: “Umami is really good at stimulating the other four taste receptors as well, so not only are you getting that intense savoury flavour but you also get that boost of the sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It gives you a little bit more of a chance of getting the most out of your food, and enjoying it that little bit more.”

Carbonara with mint and peas by Ryan Riley, founder of Life Kitchen, cookery classes for those living with cancer
Carbonara with mint and peas 

When serving the dish, they garnish the carbonara with fresh mint. Ryan explained that mint and menthol stimulate the trigeminal nerve, which is the nerve between your eyes, nose and mouth. He described the response as: “…the thing that burns when you have wasabi or mustard or horseradish. If you think about those ingredients, none of them have chilli heat in them. Why do they burn? It’s because that nerve is stimulated by those ingredients. You get the same from menthol, when you have too much toothpaste, so we took that idea with mint and put fresh mint in a carbonara.”

Another dish that they teach at Life Kitchen is caramelised mushrooms with lentils and gremolata. They cook the lentils in a porcini stock to give an umami depth to the dish, then the freshness of the lemon, parsley and garlic in the gremolata adds an extra layer of flavour.

The future of Life Kitchen

The next Life Kitchen event is today, Friday, May 25th at Harthill Cookery School in Chester and then Ryan and Sue want to take Life Kitchen on a tour of the UK. He is already in talks with Gleneagles in Scotland and some restaurants and cookery schools in Ireland, and they’re also planning to visit Exeter, Wales and Somerset. After the tour, Ryan would like to set up a permanent site for Life Kitchen – a pop-up cookery school where different guests can come and help run the classes.


In order to help finance the classes, Life Kitchen runs fundraising events like their recent charity plate auction, which raised several thousand pounds. The House of Wine also recently held their own fundraiser - a seven-course menu cooked by chef Chris Laurie with matching wines from Paul Laurie. The event raised £1000 for the charity in just four hours.

Life Kitchen's current GoFundMe campaign aims to raise £250, 000 in order to formalise the initiative as a registered charity, hire staff, work with world-leading cancer, health and food organisations, and expand the classes into cookery schools across the country. Ryan also wants the money to go towards funding critical research into cancer, food and taste.

He said: “Life Kitchen is not about being in the grounds of hospitals – we’re trying to take people away from that and it’s about food and enjoyment. This is not about reminding them about cancer, it’s about living with cancer in the best way possible for you. We’re going to invite all of these cookery schools across the UK and say if you want to host a Life Kitchen class, come in, we’ll teach you our research, we’ll provide you the funds to run them and we’ll run them pretty much all over the UK for free.”

You can donate to the current fundraising campaign for Life Kitchen here and you can follow Ryan on Twitter here for updates about future classes and how to get involved.

By Jenna Lloyd


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The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th May 2018

10 Minutes With: Ryan Riley, founder, Life Kitchen