Ryan Riley Wants to Help Cancer Patients Enjoy Food Again

published May 14, 2018
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Ryan Riley and his mom (Image credit: GoFundMe)

One of the brutal side effects of chemotherapy is that it can dramatically change a person’s sense of taste. Previously enjoyed foods might taste bitter or unpleasant, or sometimes people report that all food suddenly seems to taste like nothing at all. This makes it more difficult for people to enjoy going out, share meals with friends and family, and keep themselves nourished while battling cancer.

Now a new food initiative wants to provide free cooking classes designed specifically for people who are living with cancer.

According to The Guardian, 24-year-old food writer and stylist Ryan Riley was inspired to start Life Kitchen after losing his mother to lung cancer four years ago. Riley’s mother was a great cook who loved cooking shows, but she lost her ability to taste during her cancer treatments, and it was hard for her to lose something she loved so much during such a difficult time.

“My mother really was heavily affected by the chemotherapy,” he said in a video on Life Kitchen’s GoFundMe page. “And that really changed her taste buds. She couldn’t enjoy food as much as she wanted to and as much as she loved. She was a real keen cook. And that for her was a very difficult time.”

Riley said when he started looking for a way to help people who had lost their sense of taste and appetites due to chemotherapy, he realized it was an under-represented topic; there weren’t many resources available. So he decided to start offering cooking classes to try to help people whose taste buds had been affected by chemotherapy learn to cook things that would taste good to them.

The topic deeply resonated with people. The first Life Kitchen classes were completely booked up in a couple of hours. Nigella Lawson urged her followers on Twitter to support the program, and former Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins has signed on as a permanent patron and co-host of Life Kitchen. Perkins said she watched her father battle cancer for 20 years, and she remembers sitting at the family dinner table knowing he couldn’t taste anything on it.

“He loved his food,” she said in Life Kitchen’s video, “but he couldn’t taste any of it.”

Because chemotherapy affects people differently, there’s no single recipe that will work for everyone. But Riley has been experimenting with different flavors and textures. Sensory scientist Dr. Barry Smith, a professor at the University of London, has also joined the initiative, and his research is leading to the development of new recipes for people whose taste buds have been affected by illness or medication.

The first Life Kitchen classes centered on two dishes: a carbonara pasta with aged Parmesan and lardons with onion, peas, lemon, and mint, and pork with mushrooms, lentils, and gremolata. The dishes were based on the idea that the intense umami flavors help boost a person’s taste receptors and enhance the other flavors as well. Both were well-received by participants.

The dates for Life Kitchen have been filling up almost as soon as they’ve been announced. Riley has so far taught cooking classes for more than 100 people at venues around the U.K., including the Jamie Oliver Cookery School in London. There’s clearly a demand for the work Life Kitchen is doing, and Riley says he’s working to expand the concept by hosting more free classes, publishing recipe books, and producing YouTube videos to bring this work to a wider audience.

To help out or learn more about program, check out the Life Kitchen GoFundMe page.