Not only has the Life Kitchen breathed new life into the Grade II-listed lodge in Mowbray Park, creating a striking kitchen space, it’s also helping those whose tastebuds have been affected by illness.
Chef Ryan Riley set up the Life Kitchen after the death of his mother Krista, who died from terminal cancer when she was just 47, after seeing how her tastebuds had been affected by cancer treatment.
Determined that others shouldn’t be robbed of one of life’s pleasures, at an already difficult time, he began free cookery lessons at the school in 2019 using ingredients and textures designed to combat the loss of taste and smell some cancer patients experience as a result of their treatment.
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It proved hugely successful, and Ryan and Life Kitchen co-founder Kimberley Duke produced best-selling books of the same name.
When the pandemic hit, they adapted and ran online sessions, whilst also producing a book for those whose sense of taste and smell was affected by Covid, which snowballed into a global story, reaching 2.8billion media hits, from Canada to Australia and even Russia.
Whilst former Washington School pupil Ryan has a full diary of recipe writing, cooking and media engagements around the country, he says it’s great to finally reopen the Life Kitchen in Mowbray Park, which is now running weekly free cookery classes for cancer patients and people whose taste is affected by Covid as well as their family members who want to create dishes for them.
"We had to transition to online during Covid, so it’s great to be back delivering the sessions in person. It’s all come full circle being back here,” said Ryan whose Sunderland school was originally opened by Nigella Lawson in 2019.
"We’ve come a long way since I was an 18 year old whose mother had cancer. I’m now 29 and I’m really proud of all the things we get to do to help people.
"One person came along to a session last week who hadn’t been able to taste for a year and they could actually taste our pickled cucumber. It can be quite an emotional experience for some people.”
Ryan’s recipes use five elements – aroma, umami, texture, layering and trigeminal food sensations (the tingling, burning and cooling we get from spices) – to help people regain their pleasure in food.
Around two to three sessions will take place at the school, including a Saturday session for the NHS, and they are completely free to attend, either by GP referral or by applying on the Life Kitchen website.
Speaking about the ‘Taste & Flavour’ book for Covid patients, which received funding from Sunderland City Council, Ryan said: "When Covid first hit we used the Covid Recovery Fund and the resources and research papers we already had to print more than 5,000 books, 3,000 of which were given free to Sunderland residents. It blew up and went around the world.
"We ended up becoming de facto world experts in taste loss – all from our little cookery school.”