Tuesday 24 September 2019

The chef Critic

A runner-up of Bake off 2013, Ruby Tandoh has a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue. A vocal detractor of the diet industry - and the food writers who buy into it - she tells our reporter why people should just eat up

Cookbook author Ruby Tandoh
Cookbook author Ruby Tandoh
Piece of cake: Ruby (left) was runner up on 'Great British Bake Off' in 2013.
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

'Until last year, I had never boiled an egg. Even now, I can retain in the murky corners of my mind the full recipes for lemon meringue roulade, butter maple ice-cream, Catalan fish stew spiked with garlic and saffron, but I can't for the life of me remember exactly how to cook an egg. I am always typing 'Delia soft-boiled egg' into Google, cutting straight to the authoritative voice of simple cookery. Are you meant to put the eggs into boiling water or cold? Do you boil them or simmer them or turn the heat down so low that they barely stir? I know that you absolutely should - or absolutely should not - put the eggs in the pan straight from the fridge, but I just cannot, will not, remember which it is.

"(As it happens, I have just Googled how to cook a soft-boiled egg for the millionth time and the trick is to put room-temperature eggs in cool water, bring to the boil and simmer for 1 minute. Turn off the heat, put a lid on the pan and leave to sit for precisely 6 minutes for a perfectly runny yolk.)"

So writes Ruby Tandoh in Eat Up! It's a relief to hear that even cookbook authors such as Ruby - you'll remember her from the fourth series of Great British Bake Off in 2013, in which she was the runner-up - have trouble remembering how to boil an egg, and resort to the same oracle as the rest of us to put us on the right track for breakfast. (Delia is never, ever wrong.)

Since her appearance on the show, Tandoh, now 25, has established herself as one of the most interesting contemporary writers and commentators on food and politics, someone who doesn't shy away from calling out the great and the good. (Paul Hollywood, for instance, is a 'peacocking man child', while Piers Morgan is a 'sentient ham'.)

Piece of cake: Ruby (left) was runner up on 'Great British Bake Off' in 2013.
Piece of cake: Ruby (left) was runner up on 'Great British Bake Off' in 2013.

Even poor Nigella (she who can do no wrong) caught the sharp end of Tandoh's keyboard, when she tweeted of "cookbooks written by rich women who were hobbyist cooks but never once made the family dinner… and then it continued through generations of food writers, nearly exclusively white and always rich ... just Marie Antoinetting their way thru this fetishistic 'domesticity' … then Nigella (God bless her) unwittingly bolstered the foundations for this aspirational just-look-how-rich-I-am kind of cooking."

Chef Tom Kerridge - author of Dopamine Diet and Lose Weight For Good - got it in the neck too. "He's an amazing chef and a nice man," says Tandoh, "but he has gone on a diet that worked for him and translated that into a logic that sells cookbooks. Diet culture has always existed. I don't have a difficulty if someone wants to go on a diet, but I do have a problem with the diet industry, which sells false promises. And I have a problem with prominent food writers buying into that rhetoric."


The most vociferous of Tandoh's criticism has been directed towards Ella Mills, the Hemsley sisters and the rest of the 'clean eating' brigade, whom she calls out for promoting gluten-free and other restrictive regimens as just another way of re-branding fad diets.

Even though Tandoh now says that "Ella seems to have changed, she's not as prescriptive as she used to be", the focus of her own new book, Eat Up!, is on the way that food has been made a battleground, exploited by gurus shilling for supermarkets and contributing to the increasingly dysfunctional relationship that so many of us have with food. She examines the idea that food and pleasure are contingent on worth, and the dream that we can reinvent ourselves by going on a diet. Why, she asks, is Instagram full of pictures of food but none of anyone eating?

In Eat Up!, Tandoh writes of, "upper middle-class white girl heaven - chia seeds and yoga and suppressing all your natural urges. The idea that if we eat that way we will have lustrous hair, an apartment in Chelsea and razor-sharp abs." (We have plenty of our own home-grown Irish versions.)

She doesn't have much truck either with the idea that by spending enough money on superfoods, you can cheat death, or with the fantasy world perpetuated by food writers who spend £20 on a chicken and tell their readers not to bother buying a bird unless they are prepared to do the same. (The hilarious paragraph slagging off Nigel Slater - the most sacred of sacred cows of British food writing - and his paean to autumnal seasonal eating is worth the price of the book alone.)

Tandoh grew up in Southend-on-Sea in Essex, in a family that she describes as working class - her father employed by the Royal Mail and her mother an administrator in a school. Her grandfather was an immigrant from Ghana, but Ghanaian food was not a feature of her childhood. It's something that she is now exploring through recipes sent over by her aunts, whom she hopes to visit soon.

"My parents are good home cooks," she says. "I was never particularly interested in cooking, but I was very interested in eating!

"When I went away to university [she studied art history and philosophy at University College London, but after four years left without a degree but with 'a lot of student debt'], I had to make an effort to learn to feed myself, and I thought that being on Great British Bake Off would be a good way to learn how to cook, so I sent off an application. I always like to set myself projects; I get really into something for a week, and then I lose momentum.

"Doing the show, I was baking every day for six or eight months; I thought that I might as well go for it. The show was shot over 10 weeks, and we'd go to Bristol every weekend for filming. It was stressful but at the same time I quite enjoyed the deadlines. In many ways, it suited it me perfectly because I am polite and neurotically perfectionist.

"I found it more stressful when it actually went out on television. The show got bigger every year and when I applied I hadn't quite realised how big it was going to be - it was an accelerated life lesson, in learning not to second-guess what people are going to like and not like about you."

After GBBO, Tandoh was approached by a publisher.

"I really enjoyed the process of writing the books [Crumb: The Baking Book and Flavour: Eat What You Love], and being hands on with the food, but I was frustrated at not being able to be as thoughtful or as political as I like to be."

So, although there are a few recipes in Eat Up!, it is more a radical manifesto that aims to bring back joy to eating than a cookbook.

"When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers," says Tandoh. "We are too conflicted to take a bite."

And whilst she is clear that we need to get away from judging other people on what they eat, she acknowledges that "the supermarket checkout makes Inspector Clouseaus of us all …. [I'm] the same, with tampons and Haribo buried under herbs, fresh fish and fancy chocolate."

Tandoh is at pains not to tell her readers what to eat, and neither does she propose a magic formula for health and happiness. "The book has no rules - that would have been a contradiction," she says. "I want you to follow your own appetite, to eat spiralised carrots one day and a cheeseburger the next if that's what you want. To have a good relationship with food, whatever that is. Food should not be a bad boyfriend."

These days, Tandoh, who suffered from an eating disorder in the past, has moved to Sheffield with her fiancée, Leah, who works for a mental health charity and is training to be a counsellor ("she psychoanalyses me over dinner,"), says that she is enjoying her own cooking.

"As much as I write about food, sometimes I slip into a food rut, but I'm pleased at the moment; I'm going through an adventurous phase. At the moment, I'm cooking from Fuschia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice; I love the aubergine with Szechuan bean paste. I also like Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pjo's My Korean Kitchen. And it's Mini Egg season, so I'm eating a lot of those."

While her writing is often political, advocating for food education in schools ("I remember at school we had to design a noodle box and put all the nutritional information on the side, but none of us could boil an egg"), adult cooking classes, more breakfast clubs and subsidies for healthier food to be part of a broader social care package, Tandoh says that she has no plans to run for office.

Last year, she worked as a pastry chef for the local cinema. "They put me in charge of making the ice-creams for the scoop counter," she says, "my absolute dream job. I've no plans for a restaurant of my own at the moment, but maybe in the future I'll put my name to something."

For now, though, Tandoh will keep on thinking and writing, and taunting the wellness posse with passages such as this one about waffles for breakfast, inspired by writer and director Nora Ephron's last book, I Remember Nothing.

"The concept of waffles is the idea that breakfast is there to be savoured, slowly, on a Sunday morning. The concept of waffles is that you can pile indulgence on top of decadence and finish it with a drizzle of hedonism, and that this constitutes a real and valid meal. The concept of waffle is that a waffle will never, ever be a staple food, or a convenience food, or a health food, and that it is all the more special for this uselessness. They are just there to be enjoyed."

'Eat Up! Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want' by Ruby Tandoh, is published by Serpent's Tail at £12.99.

Oaty brown sugar bread

There's a chapter in Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking where the author (she's American) reminisces about English food. She describes things that I'd scarcely even noticed, through curious virgin eyes. Through this lens, things as mundane as eggs, fudge and roast dinners became new and wonderful. I found myself thinking about Cheddar and polystyrene cartons heavy with chicken shop fries. I realised that I was in love with Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles and sachets of Angel Delight, and took to every shopping trip as though I was surveying some brave new world. Needless to say, I was smitten with the book. This easy bread takes things that are abysmally dull (especially compared with the technicolour palettes of Mediterranean kitchens) and gives you the chance to magic up something magnificent from them. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4. Combine 200g of wholemeal flour, 50g of rolled oats, one tablespoon of dark brown sugar, three-quarters of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and a quarter of a teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. Stir in 60g of full-fat Greek yoghurt and 100-125ml of water - just enough to bring the dough together to a soft, slightly sticky mass (it's important that it's not too dry and rubbery, or it won't rise). Form into a rough cob shape on a greased baking tray, sprinkle with some more oats and score a cross in the top with a sharp knife. Bake for 50 minutes, then leave to cool slightly before serving with salted butter and jam - blackcurrant jam on this bread is the stuff dreams are made of. Makes one small loaf.

Hazelnut porridge for diabetes

For those living with diabetes, it's important to keep blood sugar levels as stable as possible. That means avoiding foods that are high in simple sugars, such as sweets, chocolates and fizzy drinks, and trying to balance sugar intake with slower-release carbohydrates, proteins and fats. That's not always easy, especially at breakfast time when hunger strikes with that particular urgency, and so many of the usual foods on offer are sweet treats: Belgian waffles heaped with whipped mascarpone and summer berries, blueberry pancakes drizzled with maple syrup, granola clusters so sugar-packed that they leave me woozy. There is another way, though. Ground roasted hazelnuts bring a mellow, nutty sweetness to porridge without the need to add any extra sugar at all, making a frugal breakfast into a feast. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4. Roast a small packet of blanched hazelnuts in the oven for 10 minutes or so, until they're golden and fragrant, then grind to a fine powder in a food processor or coffee grinder (some supermarkets sell them ready roasted and ground). Combine the hazelnuts with 200g of porridge oats, a pinch of salt, 850ml of milk and 1½ mugs of water in a large, heavy-based pan and set over a medium heat. Stir the porridge often, and once it reaches a simmer, cook for a couple of minutes before serving with berries and, if you like, a drizzle of cream. Serves four.

Life-changing energising drink to LIFT your spirits and KICKSTART your day!

Put a can of Fanta, or Coke, or ginger beer (amen) in the fridge until it's really chilled - it should be cold enough that when you take it from the fridge, perfect little jewels of condensation cluster around the edge. Hold your breath while you crack the top, and hear the fizz, then let the hiss of gas sting your nose as you take the magic first sip. I was lying when I said it was life-changing, by the way. It's just a can of pop. But it'll feel amazing while you drink it, and isn't that enough?

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