Life Kitchen offers recipes and cookery classes for people dealing with cancer. Ella Walker meets co-founder Ryan Riley to find out more.

You'll likely find Sunderland-born Ryan Riley in a bright and brilliantly patterned shirt, being incredibly open and making everyone in the vicinity feel utterly welcome and valued.

He's got chat and charisma, and at 26 is co-founder of Life Kitchen (, a not-for-profit community interest company that runs free cookery classes and creates recipes for people living with, and recovering from, cancer.

Aged 18, Riley became his mother Krista's carer after she was diagnosed with terminal small cell lung cancer. "That put me in quite a unique position to see everything that was going on with her, from the treatments to the sadness," he explains. "She used to admit to me on the sofa that she didn't want to die.

"She was scared to the very last moment," he continues. "And that was terrifying for me."

Krista died when Riley was 20 and on holiday. "My dad called me, he said, 'You need to get back', and I never made it back home in time. I had this real connection and this real tragedy with my mother."

Just a few weeks later, Riley won £28,000 pounds at a casino. "Part of me just wanted to just go off the rails," he recalls. "My mother was dead, I thought, 'What did it matter? My life is over'."

Instead, he went home, said to his best friend (and Life Kitchen co-founder) Kimberley Duke, whose own mother died of cancer when she was 15, 'Come to London' - "and she needed no persuasion," says Riley. "We left the next day."

His winnings went on rent. "That is how I've always been," he says. "I just go for it."

The pair set up a fashion magazine and started 'Jamie's Sundays', where they'd cook something from a Jamie Oliver cookbook on a Sunday afternoon. One time, while "lovely drunk" and whipping up gyoza (pot sticker dumplings), they said to each other: "Imagine if we did this as a business?" They sent a sample menu to Camden Market and spent the next two years running a street food cart.

Life Kitchen combines the strands of this shifting education - from taking care of and honouring their mothers, to cooking for hungry punters every day. And the new Life Kitchen cookbook means people who can't make their classes can still access the recipes.

"I want it to sit on the shelf like a Nigella cookbook," says Riley. "I didn't want people to think, 'I'm getting this cookbook because I'm ill', but, 'I'm getting it because it's about reviving flavour, enjoying food'.

"Life Kitchen isn't medicinal, it isn't nutritional, it's about enjoyment," he adds. "Having cancer treatment, that is always missing. It's, 'Get through this', it's survivorship.

"I wanted to say, 'Come have a good time', because that's underrated. My mother was always going to die, so if she could have had more good times, I would have given her more good times. And that is the very centre of why I wrote this book."

Life Kitchen collaborates with Professor Barry Smith, founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, on flavour combinations and ingredients that will offer punch for those whose sense of taste and smell have been altered.

"People who come to us so often have been on treatment, or they've finished treatment, and they don't want to eat because it's all been bad memories," says Riley, acknowledging that attending a cookery class on top of that can be daunting.

But then he gets people making pineapple tacos - a slice of pineapple, folded and stuffed with prawns, chilli and lime - all zing, ideal for triggering saliva production: "It's novel, it's fun and it gets people back into the idea that cooking and flavour are possible."

There's no pressure to make huge feasts or dig out hundreds of ingredients either, with Riley offering easy 'flavour hits' at the beginning of each chapter, to be chucked on whatever you're eating for a little pizzazz.

"If you can't be bothered to cook the rest of the book because you've got no energy, if you're getting a ready meal, you can throw this gremolata on top, you can boost the flavour, you can add interest," he buzzes. "If you're doing a poached egg on toast, that's not that flavourful, but if you put this on - with garlic, lemon, olive oil and salt - it'll bring it to life.

"Put it on a shop-bought pasta, on a salad - we're not trying to make life harder for anyone."

He's great at offering little tricks to "amp up" a dish, be it by adding cardamom to lasagne, mixing hot with cold for contrast, creating a 'library' of mayonnaise, or just grating fresh ginger into ketchup.

"I want people to know that it doesn't have to be scary," he says, adding that the mental boost of making and eating something delicious cannot be overstated. Take his Parmesan crusted cod: "It feels elegant. If you've got cancer, you've got no energy and you're making this for yourself at home and you put it on the plate, it feels like an achievement."

Even better if you pair it with Life Kitchen's swift salt and vinegar cucumber, inspired by Nigella. "She just got behind Life Kitchen," says Riley of the beloved food writer. "She lost her mother, her husband, her sister [to cancer]; she had such a connection to it. The day she followed me on Instagram was the best day of my life."

While he's corralled the support of Nigella, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Sue Perkins, amongst others, has run free classes for hundreds of people dealing with cancer and been dubbed the creator of "food therapy", he considers himself "a very normal working-class boy in a very weird world".

And while he and Duke spearheaded Life Kitchen with real purpose, Riley says "it doesn't mean it's easy. I get emails about people saying they loved Life Kitchen, but unfortunately, they've died. It can be really relentless. I'm really glad that survivorship is on the up, and that those emails are hopefully few and far between."

The cookbook he says, is a way to "invoke a spark of joy", and while it's for people living with cancer, it's also for everyone else too.

"And it's as much for me as it is for everyone," says Riley. "It has helped me come to terms with a lot of things. It also pushed me to a place where I was very sad in the middle [of writing it]. There was a point where I was just running away from everything because the pressure was huge. And I guess it's about bringing back the focus; it's done now. It's about sharing it."

Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley, photography by Clare Winfield, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20. Available March 5.