She was one of Great British Bake Off’s most popular contestants. Ruby Tandoh tells Daniel Dylan Wray why she wants to make people feel good about food.
Ruby Tandoh says: “When I was a kid I had a Mr Men book where he had this birthday party and one of the pages was just a picture of a plate of cakes. I used to look at it for hours. I’ve always had a very strong interest in food.”
Tandoh grew up in Essex and in 2013, at just 20, was runner up in the Great British Bake Off. Two years later she was voted the nation’s all-time favourite contestant by Radio Times’ readers. Two cookbooks followed, Crumb and Flavour, and now she has just released her third, Eat Up.
However, Eat Up is not your typical cookbook. While it contains recipes and beautiful, mouth-watering, descriptions of food like most do, it also operates as something more. Eat Up is part manifesto, part memoir, combined with an exploration of food through history, science and pop culture.
“In most books there’s so much emphasis on the food itself,” she says. “Like, how to cook the perfect whatever or asking what nutrition is in the food, all the minutiae of what’s on the plate. So I wanted to explore what it actually means to eat, what it means to cook for someone, to zoom out of this really tight focus on food itself.”
Tandoh’s book is the antithesis of diet, wellness and food fad books. She says she wants people, on their own terms, to have a rewarding relationship with food. “There are so many diet books, and that’s an industry in itself, but even within food writing that is ostensibly not diet writing, there’s so much of that language in it.
“Food writers who I really respect, I see them saying stuff sometimes and I wince. They’ll make some comment about everyone being obese these days and it’s just like, ‘Uugh’, it’s not necessary.
“You’re writing a recipe. So I was very determined to write something that didn’t play into that stuff. I’m not saying that this will be an antidote to that culture, but I didn’t want to write something that would make it worse.”
The result is a book that uniquely honest.
“There’s no such thing as good taste, only good tastes,” writes Tandoh at one point in a line that ultimately sums up her approach; one that is anti-food snobbery, anti-judgemental and challenges the deeply-rooted classism that often exists when telling people what they should and shouldn’t eat.
“I have no time for foodie people going on about things like how supermarket bread is rubbish, you must have sourdough. It’s rubbish. We all have our reasons to eat and the things we do and it might not always be the most healthy, the most authentic or most high quality thing, but if you enjoy something then you enjoy something. It’s not a radical idea but for some reason, unfortunately, it needs to be reiterated when it comes to food.”
In Tandoh’s book, alongside innovative recipes, you’ll find evocative descriptions of food, underpinned by a clear passion. However, these descriptions may include everything from the simple love of corner shop chocolate to the cheese-encrusted wrapper of a Burger King burger.
“Writing this book was quite full on,” she says. “So I was just getting takeaways or eating ready meals or making a soup just to keep going and I found, as a result, that I was appreciating the food I was eating a lot more.”
The book moves the focus of food from plate into culture and society. This is something that deeply excited Tandoh.
“The good thing is that I could include things that are integral to my experience of the world and my pop culture knowledge. So I could talk about Rihanna or a movie I liked and take away from these things – things that aren’t really about food – and use them as the basis for actual research. I enjoyed that meshing of stuff.”
Tandoh is trying to avoid the selling of a lifestyle, as this is something she feels is already being dangerously oversold. “I think the problem is the food industry and diet industry, and food writing, is dictating from above what people should eat and telling them what is good and bad. If someone doesn’t want to eat gluten anymore then I don’t want to tell them not to do that. I don’t want to tell anyone what to eat, I just want to make sure that the information being passed to people is fair and balanced and not sensationalist.”
Tandoh continues to explain why she thinks wellness movements and often scientifically bogus food fads continue to thrive.
“I think as a species we are very sociable and empathetic and a lot of the decisions we make in life are based on feeling, no matter what we’d like to think. So if you go on Instagram and see someone smiling and having a lovely time and living this kind of dreamy life, it doesn’t matter if the dreams they are selling are factually incorrect.
“You’re taking the feeling of it, the aesthetic and emotion of it and saying ‘that’s what I want’. That’s what resonates with people, so that’s why so many diet book writers have such success because they are trying to sell happiness.
“I think most people have genuinely good intentions, it’s just sometimes the way they go about it is misguided.”
This has led Tandoh to avoid making definitive statements in her book and instead exploring food as something to be loved and savoured.
“I don’t want to make anyone any promises. I can’t promise you that you’re going to cook my recipes and feel great and get thin and I don’t want to sell that. I just wanted to put something out there that says eat what makes you feel good, give it a go and if that doesn’t work for you then the book is filled with reputable sources to look up things in more detail. I genuinely want people to have a good relationship with food, I really do.”
Reflecting on her life, post-Bake Off, Tandoh feels that she owes a lot to it and wishes to use her resulting platform for good. “When I went on the show I was a working class girl from Essex, I didn’t even finish my degree. There was no chance, realistically, that I would have got where I am without the show. I’m so lucky to have been given that platform.”
For now she is totally content in Yorkshire after leaving the capital. “I love Sheffield. I feel like a human here. We rent a house, we can stretch our arms out without touching the walls, and we have a washing line in the garden. In London I felt like an animal in a cage.”
Despite her new book gaining love from the likes of Nigella Lawson, Tandoh is happy to avoid the TV chef life and seek something less consuming.
“I worked briefly as a pastry chef in Sheffield but it didn’t work out for various reasons. I got up at 6am and was in work by 7am, I absolutely loved it. So I think in the long run I’d love to work in a kitchen, I really would, it’s just a case of finding the right kitchen. I feel like I’ve spent so many years putting myself out there as a product with the books that I kind of just want to be a cog and get on with the job. To come home at 5pm and not have to think about it.”
Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh is published by Serpent’s Tail priced £12.99.