The Ruby Tandoh I know is famous on the internet. Her Twitter feed is a luminous beacon of food positivity that encourages followers to reclaim their bodies by being "greedy and good," like Matilda's Bruce Bogtrotter. She references Little Miss Sunshine and self-care in her baking column for the Guardian, and loves One Direction.
This is not how most people came to know Tandoh. A finalist on the 2013 BBC baking show The Great British Bake Off (and first-year philosophy student at the time), she was mocked for her teary, self-deprecating demeanour—there's a Tumblr dedicated to her many emotive expressions. It's true that Tandoh isn't one to keep her feelings to herself—last year she came out as queer to her 66,000 Twitter followers, taking to the platform to call those who thought she fancied Bake Off host Paul Hollywood "massive shitting misogynists."
IRL, Tandoh is a mix of both public personas: shy and softly spoken but sweary, deliberate with her words, and perhaps one of the most authentic voices in British food.
I suggest we meet at Curzon Soho—a place I know serves Monmouth coffee—but soon find that Tandoh is no snob, cheerily asking for chocolate on her cappuccino. I shouldn't be surprised, really. This genuine appetite for unpretentious food has led to a fast food column for VICE, in which she reviews Big Macs and bargain buckets with hearty enthusiasm. Of all such high street eateries, Tandoh's favourite is Greggs.
"I think it is wonderful," she exclaims over her cappuccino. "I think the sausage rolls are absolutely delicious—same goes for Steak Bakes. I think it's really reasonable, I think anyone who has a bee in their bonnet about it needs to … "
Fuck right off? I suggest.
"It's sustenance and it's cheap and it's actually a lot more delicious than lots of the 'artisan' type things that I've tried from expensive bakeries," she replies. "I've tried a £4 sausage roll before and it was gross because it was actually meaty instead of that delicious pink foam that you get in Greggs. I stand by Greggs, it's absolutely the best."
There is still snobbery around the culture of eating out in chain restaurants, Tandoh thinks. She doesn't buy into it, claiming that if there was a choice between going to an "overpriced artisanal place where I don't know what to expect" and ASK, where she knows exactly what she's getting (the linguine with clams, if you're wondering), she'd choose ASK "any day."
It's the elitism she can't stand, whether from bougie millennials, celebrity chefs, or her fellow food professionals.
"It just feels like the overwhelming food trend right now is expensive fucking ingredients in tasteless ways. And it's an embarrassment. People make absolute shit from good base concepts."
She has a point. Why ruin a perfectly good spaghetti Bolognese with Spiralised courgettes? I ask what she makes of the tidal wave of health bloggers who perpetrate this very crime.
It's their rhetoric that troubles her the most. She describes the way in which one Very Famous Wellness Blogger conflates banning gluten with healthiness, telling me that it sounds suspiciously like the transferral of an eating disorder into the acceptable forum of "wellness."
"I just recognise so much of it from when I was really immersed in having an eating disorder, and I think that's what makes me so sceptical," Tandoh explains. "Some of the patterns that they describe are things that I really recognise: absolutely outlawing certain foods, saying, 'I will not go there, I cannot go there because it's against the rules' is so indicative, for me, of having a problem."
And, of course, gluten tastes so good.
"It tastes great. It tastes fucking amazing."
I never did watch Bake Off, so I'm nervous about broaching the subject. The whole "Keep Calm and Carry On" attitude towards baking has always seemed maddeningly fetishistic to me, but I wonder what Tandoh makes of the TV show's portrayal of Britishness. As it turns out, we're on the same page.
"It's a really closed view of Britishness—all the bunting and all this nostalgia for this bizarre, blown-up version of wartime Britain," she says. "It's all the imagery around that but without the poverty and sadness and awfulness, which is really weird. I don't know how you can make an aesthetic out of a period of conflict."
She pauses to add a caveat: at least the BBC made an effort to encourage diverse contestants (including Tamal Ray and Nadiya Hussain, featured in more recent series of the show), allowing them to bring their own heritage to the table.
"Mary Berry seemed very confused, but also quite impressed whenever Nadiya used any kind of spice or anything like that," she says. "They were encouraging of it, even if they didn't quite understand it, which was nice".
Tandoh's own heritage is mixed (her grandfather is from Ghana), though the Essex native didn't grow up eating a lot of traditional Ghanaian food. That is with the exception of her dad's favourite "Ghanaian salad," which she describes as "full of bits" and "the foulest thing in the world." Tandoh winces as she remembers its components: tinned sardines, wedges of hard-boiled egg, and raw tomato.
Keen to move away from canned fish, we fall into a discussion about One Direction. Which British food would each member of the band be?
"OK, this is good. Let me think. So, Niall—bless his heart—I think he'd be a roast dinner, because he's so homely and he's so warm. He's just nourishing for the soul."
Harry, according to Tandoh, is easy to place
"He's battered sausage and chips. He's greasy, I think maybe he smells a bit. I've actually heard a lot of stuff about how Taylor Swift told him to brush his teeth more and stuff like that, it's absolutely appalling. Can you imagine?" she grimaces. "He's such a grimer but obviously people keep coming back to him because he is delicious. He's lovely. He's the sort of person I'm very happy to love from afar because I do not wanna get too close to him. He is disgusting, God bless his soul."
Louis Tomlinson might be a savoury pie and Liam Payne a Chinese takeaway because "he's got delusions about how worldly he is." We don't discuss former One D star Zayn but I later come to the conclusion that he is most definitely a bottle of pomegranate molasses.
"I want to show you something," Tandoh says, plucking a hardback copy of Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Sicily from her bag and leafing through it quickly, stopping at a recipe for saffron risotto. "It's just soothing and warm and it's heavy and it just makes you sink into this happiness. It's really special. It really makes a difference—for me, anyway—to take the time to cook for myself because more than anything, it is a sign that I'm taking care of myself. If I'm taking the time out of my day to make something, that's gonna make me feel good. Whatever it is—healthy, unhealthy."
So inspired by this unabashed pursuit of pleasure that immediately after meeting with Tandoh, I turn sharply down Shaftesbury Avenue and into the Yoshino sushi restaurant, where I order 12 fat, freshly fried pork gyoza for £3. It's mid-afternoon and I've already eaten lunch but they are irresistibly cheap and dirty and delicious, like all the best things in this world. I send Tandoh a text, asking her if she's proud of me for following my gut.
Two minutes later, my phone vibrates: I AM proud! And I just got two of those pret lemon cheesecake pots. Good eating all round.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
For more good eating, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.