How do you teach people to cook when they’ve lost their sense of taste or smell? That’s the question that cooking instructor and author Ryan Riley has dedicated the past four years of his life to as the co-founder of the U.K.-based cooking school Life Kitchen, alongside recipe developer Kimberley Duke.
“It was inspired by the loss of my mother,” Riley said. While caring for his mother as she underwent treatment for cancer, he noticed that one of the hardest things for her was that she couldn’t taste food or enjoy eating as a result of chemotherapy—something common among cancer patients. In the years following his mother’s death, Riley became a food writer. Having discovered a lack of resources about cooking for people with an altered sense of taste, he realized that he could apply his knowledge to helping other people who were experiencing the same issue.
What started as a one-off cooking class became Life Kitchen, a non-profit specializing in teaching recipes and cooking techniques to people experiencing changes in their sense of taste or smell as a result of cancer or cancer treatment. Things changed in 2020: COVID-19 hit, and people everywhere began reporting a sudden loss of smell and taste. A Mayo Clinic Proceedings review of 24 studies, combining data from over 8,400 COVID-19 patients, found that 41 percent and 38.2 percent of patients experienced olfactory and gustatory dysfunction, respectively. According to an article in Nature, most people who’ve had these side effects recover their sense of smell and taste within a few weeks, but some continue to experience them long-term.
A commonly cited statistic is that anywhere between 75 to 95 of what we think of as taste actually comes from smell, though the psychologist and sensory expert Charles Spence has disputed this claim. No matter the breakdown, the difficulties of dealing with smell and taste impairment are clear: New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao has written about how COVID-19 turned foods she loved “muddled and ugly,” and food diaries in Eater have detailed the long-term influence of COVID-19 on eating. In response to the surge of people experiencing taste loss, Riley and Duke released Life Kitchen’s free cookbook, Taste & Flavour, last week.
With recipes like cucumbers in an umami-rich dressing of miso and mustard and spicy tomato soup with sesame seed-covered toast, the book is meant to inspire people to cook and eat again, even if their sense of taste and smell has changed. We talked to Riley about how to make good food even if you can’t taste the way you once did and why even in a pandemic that has changed our relationship to food and dining in myriad ways, there’s value in gathering at the table. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
VICE: When did people start reaching out to you with COVID-related concerns about losing taste and smell? Ryan Riley: It was early. Everyone kept saying, “Have you seen that people are seeing that this is a symptom? Maybe you can help.” We started working on this book in November , and if I’m really honest, I was very reluctant to do it. It was such emerging science behind what was going on that I didn’t feel comfortable enough until Kimberley Duke, my co-writer and business partner, said, “Look, I think we need to do it; everyone’s asking us.” I’m so glad that she made us take the jump.
**When you’re teaching people to cook with an altered or lost sense of taste or smell, what food qualities or cooking techniques are you focusing on?
**Generally, for cancer patients, we’re always looking at using the five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami—which we do use on the COVID side. But the COVID side is very, very difficult, because there’s three different ways you can break it down. People with COVID either lose their sense of taste and smell for two weeks, while they’re ill with it; they lose it completely in terms of smell, which is anosmia; or they have a distorted sense of smell, which is parosmia.
**In the book, you mention the idea of stimulating the trigeminal nerve through food. Why is that important?
**It doesn’t create flavor, but it creates sensation. When you’re eating, everything is such a multi-sensory experience—whether it’s the texture that we bite into, whether it’s the flavor. When you’ve had too much mustard or horseradish and it really burns in the bridge of your nose, that’s just your [trigeminal] nerve being stimulated. That really psychologically connects you to the food.
We try to use all of those flavors and all of those ingredients to create a connection to the food where one might have been missing. Imagine not having a sense of taste or smell: Food and eating becomes [something you feel disassociated from]—you don’t enjoy it, you don’t feel like it benefits you. Trying to figure out any way to get people back into the idea of eating has been our goal for many years.
**Got it. So it’s about playing up the parts of the eating experience that aren’t just “salty,” for example, and tapping into the other ways that food might make you feel.
**Yeah, exactly. The most important thing I will ever put into food is umami—things like soy sauce, parmesan, miso. And then you need to look at adding texture; you need to look at adding brightness, putting it on a plate nicely, and then stimulating the [trigeminal] nerve. It’s all about building and layering different flavors and techniques to try and get people into the idea of tasting, eating, and also making food again. We’ve spoken to so many people who have kind of given up on the idea of eating other than for pure necessity, and that, to me, is extremely depressing.
**So is the book targeted at people who were enjoying cooking before COVID-19 and want to still have that experience?
**I think it’s kind of aimed at everybody. There’s such a mental health pandemic in itself about eating. I see it in cancer all the time: People who aren’t eating don’t get around the table; they don’t see their friends. Most of our lives are built on socializing, eating, and getting together, and once you can’t enjoy it, there is no reason to go to the table. We wanted to create something that will unite people and hopefully bring them back around the table, but also to use everything that we’ve learned to trigger an emotional reaction to food again.
**That makes sense. COVID-19-related taste loss differs a bit from your original mission with Life Kitchen. How has the past year enriched the work you do?
**It’s really put us out there a lot in terms of the public eye. We always used to be like, well, we’re pretty much one of the leading people in the world doing what we do in cancer, but not many people [understand] it, because unless you have cancer [and] have taste loss, you don’t understand. What [this year] has really brought to light for the majority of the public is how important it is when you can’t taste and smell and how depressing that can be.
We’ve actually had a lot of people come to us and say, “I really understand and love what you do more now, because I’ve got a personal understanding of it.” That has been really helpful for us, because it’s enabled us to do more stuff online. We’ve always tried to keep most of what we do free and accessible to everybody, and it’s had a massive impact; we’ve had 100,000 hits on our website in the last two weeks.
Taste & Flavour is available for free digital download at Life Kitchen.