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The big interview   |   Eating & drinking   |   Inequality   |   Diversity

In conversation with Ruby Tandoh

As her unique new book Cook As You Are reaches readers, food writer Ruby Tandoh talks to Nina Pullman about cooking for ordinary people, following the joy of food rather than a glossy photo, and why donuts make the best snack.

Where did the idea for your new book come from? 

Ruby Tandoh (RT): I think a huge amount of it came from personal experience. Obviously I love cooking, I love reading cookbooks and trying something new. However, I also go through long spells of feeling like I cannot face cooking. I simply don’t want to, or I can’t drag myself up. I occupy both ends of the cooking enthusiasm spectrum at different times, and I wanted to create a book that would allow people to enter into it that way. Because not everyone is a committed food hobbyist. So it’s a cookbook that represents real life when you don’t always have the energy or the means or the inclination to do something ground-breaking.

It seems to be written with almost a deliberate list of things you see missing or want to correct in food media and food writing elsewhere: no photos, references to budget, a list of credits at the start of every chapter, racial diversity, and adaptions for physical disability. Can you talk me through a couple of those, and why you wanted to address them?

RT: I’ll start off by saying I love a photo cookbook – I think they’re beautiful, I’m as guilty as anyone of just picking one up and being completely taken in by that beautiful imagery. However, I also know that the downside of having those photos is that it presents a really narrow view of what cooking can look like. And the way cookbook photo shoots happen is you’ll go to a studio kitchen or set, and it’ll be so much more beautiful than your usual kitchen. And there’ll be food stylists and photographers and it’s an absolute ordeal that in no way reflects how cooking usually happens and what food usually looks like. And I knew I wanted to step away from that a bit and give people the opportunity to be led by the joy of cooking, rather than trying to replicate a photo. Using illustrations, we were able to portray loads of different kitchens, loads of different people, loads of different ways of cooking, and that kind of diversity is really difficult to get if you’re just doing one photo shoot in one kitchen.

You’ve addressed the fact people have different budgets – is that something you see missing from other representations of cooking?

RT: I did a shout out on social media and loads of people said they were really nervous about following recipes because they weren’t really sure about which things they could swap. They often felt overwhelmed by knowledge that was assumed in the recipes but not actually explained. And it was clear to me then that this [book] really needed to be as inclusive as possible. So including lots of swaps, whether that’s because you don’t have an ingredient in the house or you need something cheaper, or you need something that you don’t have to chop because you’ve got limited ability. It needed to have those adaptations.

We are hearing more about crediting recipes and influences, but you’ve included this in your book at the start of every chapter in a very visible way. Why was that important to you?

RT: It’s definitely a conversation that’s grown, and I don’t think I’ve done enough of it over the years. We all think that once we’ve made a recipe and reworked it in our own image, we feel like we’ve got a kind of ownership over that recipe. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of recipes have a lineage, that go back way further than one recipe tester. Most of us aren’t that blindingly original. So it’s about respecting that lineage and pointing people in the direction of where I got the recipe inspiration from, whether that’s a person, a YouTube channel, a cookbook, or generally from a culture using x or y ingredient. It’s making those links clear so that way people can go off and explore those if they want to.

Have you always been aware of this inequality in food, and this divide in what we’re told to cook, and ordinary experiences of food?

RT: I honestly think that food seemed fragmented to me before I got into the food writing world. Up to that point, I just found whatever recipes I was interested in, and then I got into the food writing world. There are lots of people working to make it as inclusive as they can, but there’s also a lot of being exclusive, assuming loads of prior knowledge and taking this magisterial tone about things. And when I entered into all of that, I realised this is not how most people cook. I wanted to try and bridge that gap.

What are your own influences, what kind of flavours and ingredients do you like working with?

RT: It changes all the time. One thing I’ve enjoyed learning more about is West African and Ghanaian food, because that’s one part of my heritage, like finding novel ways to use plantain. I find some of the richest sources of inspiration, and some of the bright and under-recognised talents of food knowledge sharing are people on YouTube. When I was developing a recipe for Puff-puff, a West African little round donut, I was really having trouble using cookbooks to get them to the right texture and crisp on the outside. It just wasn’t quite working. And then after watching a few YouTube channels that I’ve signposted to in the book, suddenly it was all clear. Cookbooks are not the beginning and end of sharing cooking knowledge.

It’s true cookbooks are a fairly small pool of exclusive people, and it feels like YouTube and some of the streaming channels like Netflix seem to be a bit further ahead in terms of the people they platform. Would you agree?

RT: [YouTube] is very inclusive as a medium and also it replicates the way that so many of us learnt to cook in the first place, which is watching someone and having them talk to you. That’s a basic way of sharing this knowledge and I don’t know why we’ve lost sight of that.

You entered mainstream media through Bake Off, and your Guardian food column. What did you see from those positions on the ‘inside’ of mainstream media?

RT: It’s a weird position to be in, because I know that through Bake Off I had a launchpad that was just absolutely undeserved and something that most people won’t have. Especially considering how not inclusive this world can be. So I’m really grateful for that. But also, the bigger the platform in food, I think the less room there is to try something different. Even with this cookbook, it’s been really difficult to spread the news about it because newspapers say ‘oh but there’s no photos we can print so we can’t possibly discuss it’. We can’t imagine working outside of the specific conventions or ways of sharing these things. I think that’s what I felt in some of these places: I wasn’t able to be creative or be curious in the way that I wanted to.  

Ruby Tandoh
Cooking for 'common people': Ruby Tandoh's new book celebrates the joy of food in ordinary lives. 

I write a lot about food sustainability and its impact on the world. How do you see that interacting with those issues of accessibility and inequality you’ve addressed in your book? What does sustainability mean to you?

RT: I think that in terms of just sustainability, there’s been massive progress. There’s a few books that have come out this year that are about cooking with less meat, or in ways that are energy-intensive. I would like to do better in that regard myself. But I think there’s a big split between cooking that recognises where food comes from, and whether it’s sustainable, and those kinds of lines backwards, and cooking that focuses on where food goes to, who’s eating and who’s not. I think there’s a real split between those perspectives and I’m more in the latter camp. But we need to weave these conversations together, don’t we? We need to find food that is sustainable but also inclusive, that’s also realistic about how much money people have and what access to certain shops people have.

It’s true there’s no point having a sustainable food system that’s only available to a small group of wealthy people. What do you think of some of the mantras we hear, like eat ‘less but better’ meat, eat a plant-based diet, eat seasonally? How can talking about a more sustainable diet be more inclusive and accessible?

RT: I think that a lot of these terms are useful for some people, but what strikes me as important is that they are not going to be one size fits all solutions. And they’re going to be more attainable for some than others. There’s a community centre in north west London called The Granville with a veg box scheme, and one box has ingredients like sweet potato, plantain, which are useful for people cooking from West African or Caribbean cooking traditions. They said want to be as local as possible, but they also recognise there’s no point in giving people just celery and leeks and carrots, if those are not part of their food vocabulary.

Your new column for [food newsletter] Vittles is called Incidental Eating. What do you love about these more peripheral food moments?

RT: I think some of it is oppositional, because I’ve got absolutely no interest in restaurants. Occasionally I eat out, and I enjoy it when I do, and I have massive respect for chefs who do a job that is so difficult. But it’s just not my interest – I don’t desperately love eating out. But I do love those moments of eating that come almost by accident when you’re on your way somewhere, or you see something out of the corner of your eye like an ice cream van. Or people selling hotdogs on the pavement outside Brixton station. I wanted to explore how these types of eating shape our lives sometimes more fundamentally and more powerfully than the restaurants we actively seek out.

Do you have a favourite recipe from the book you’d like to share with people and you back to a lot?

RT: I do have a favourite and I shouldn’t. But it’s gnocchi with chilli crisp oil and Parmesan, and capers. And it’s so simple: it takes literally five minutes and it’s one of the most delicious things in my life. I felt really nervous about putting it in the book because it’s an unorthodox combination. But actually people have been making that one more than I’ve seen any others. And they’re loving it, so I feel vindicated that I haven’t gone mad.

Talking about mini food moments in the day, do you have a favourite place or type of food?

RT: A donut. I think a donut is an anytime of day kind of thing. Because they’re a bread rather than a cake, I consider them a breakfast food, they’re a snack, a lunch, a dinner, they’re after dinner. I actually think there is no bad time.

Who do you most admire in the world and would love to have round for dinner?

RT: Honestly the more inspiring I find someone, the less likely it is I’m going to want to have them round for dinner. Keep people as ideals in your mind. I also hate the pressure of cooking for people.

Are you happiest cooking for yourself, or for friends?

RT: I think I get stage fright a bit cooking for other people. I think that’s why I gravitated a bit towards having an intermediary in the form of a cookbook. I can share the cooking with people but I don’t have to be having a nervous attack.

Talking of cooking in front of people, how did you end up on national TV? Did you enjoy it?

RT: I think you reach a level of stress where you just exit your body and just watch from above. I think that’s what happened.

Cook As You Are: Recipes for Real Life, Hungry Cooks and Messy Kitchens by Ruby Tandoh, (£16, Profile Books), is out now.

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