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Food by VICE

Why I’m Starting a Cooking Class for People Living with Cancer

London-based food writer Ryan Riley, who lost his mother to cancer as a teenager, is developing a free cooking course for those undergoing cancer treatments.

by Ryan Riley
Mar 14 2017, 11:00pm

When I was 18-years-old, my mother found out she had cancer. It was such a shock and the worst time. I spent the next two years looking after her and was her primary carer because my dad had to work and my sisters were at university or working. I had first-hand experience of all the problems she faced—like her losing her hair and the depression that comes with getting a terminal illness. Even though the chemotherapy and the radiotherapy were going to prolong her life, they weren't ever going to cure her.

My mum also lost her sense of taste. You eat so many times a day and knowing that flavours would be dulled for the remainder of her life made it a really depressing time.

My family didn't know then what to do and how best to support her. I wasn't in the food industry, I was young, and I was trying to cope with her diagnosis myself, as well as trying to look after her. We were just cooking the normal food that we always cooked and when we'd go out for meals, nothing was ever good enough—not because she felt it wasn't good food, but just because her sense of taste was dulled.

That experience stayed with me over the years after my mum lost her battle with cancer. Having since gained some success in the food industry, I want to give back. I wasn't able to help my mother with food at the time, so maybe now is the time to help other people.

Life Kitchen is a charity initiative that will provide free cookery classes to people living with cancer and their families. The recipes will focus on flavour and classes will be delivered by top food writers and chefs. At the moment, Chantelle Nicholson of Tredwells (the restaurant owned by Masterchef judge Marcus Wareing) is the patron of the charity and helping deliver the first classes and devise the recipes.

A statistic I've seen is that about 50 percent of people undergoing chemotherapy experience a loss or change of taste. But, judging by the the hundreds of people who've reached out to me on email and Twitter, it seems to affect almost everyone. The more research I do, the more I've found that it's not just chemotherapy that affects taste. All forms of cancer treatment can have an impact in some way.

It can be loss of appetite, a dulling of taste, food having a metallic flavour, or experiencing a sore mouth. Even memories of chemo can have an impact on taste. Some people who come out of chemo but still have cancer find that certain food reminds them of chemotherapy.

It can be loss of appetite, a dulling of taste, food having a metallic flavour, or experiencing a sore mouth. Even memories of chemo can have an impact on taste.

There are several elements to what I want to do with the classes. The first thing is to ensure that people's cooking skills are up to scratch because, as Chantelle says, "If people can cook, caramelise, and season, they can get the best out of the ingredients they've already got." So, we're going to allow time to show people techniques that bring the food they're already cooking to the next level, meaning it automatically has more flavour.

Then Chantelle will devise recipes that can enhance the flavour of food and help mask any metallics tastes. She is developing a seasoning with green chili, sesame oil, palm sugar, rice wine vinegar, sesame seeds, and roasted peanuts that could be used as a topping for anything from fish to chicken and salad. It's about things that are going to have a really big impact on flavour and are versatile.

We also have the support of the Macmillan cancer charity. Their lead nutritionist is going to look over the recipes, give us the nutritional breakdown, and advise on what we can improve. But as much as nutrition is important, there has to be an element of comfort with these classes—in the same way that baking a cake can make you feel better.

As well as those living with cancer, we're hoping that a friend or family member will be able to attend the classes. People living with cancer often don't have the energy to cook, so by bringing someone along, friends and family will be able make these things for them back at home. Embarking on anything alone isn't great when you have cancer, so we wanted to make sure that it's the most comfortable environment possible and everyone is getting the most out of what we're trying to do.

Cancer is a complicated issue and obviously we can't solve every part of it, but all I'm trying to do is make some difference.

As told to Daisy Meager.

Life Kitchen is currently raising funds to launch its first classes and find a permanent kitchen.