I first heard of Ruby Tandoh in a conversation with some friends of mine. I remember them gushing over this black British woman who baked her way into the finals of 2013’s Great British Bake Off at the age of 20.
When she’s not being an extraordinary baker, she is often using her platform to address issues like fatphobia, eating disorders, mental health and the elitist, classist nature of the food industry.
For a black woman like me, Ruby is great joy and comfort. Her authenticity inspires myself and others to trust our bodies and, of course, eat what we want.
How long have you been baking? What is your earliest memory of being in the kitchen?
I wish I had a long, romantic story about a childhood spent baking, but the truth is I only really learned to cook once I left home and went to university. I’ve been food-obsessed for as long as I can remember (I used to come up with these silly recipes and draw cakes in the margins of my school notebooks), but it’s only when I had the freedom of being away of from home that I actually bothered to spin these daydreams into something real. I started with Nigella Lawson recipes to sate my sweet tooth with stodgy cheesecakes and crumbly cubes of fudge, but slowly I branched out into cooking whole meals.
You have such a satisfying and carefree approach to food. Have you always been this way? No way. It should be the simplest thing in the world, but somehow being relaxed and cool around food is really tough. There are the people who tell you that you should eat this, or that, and push a prescriptive, limiting diet agenda on you. Then there’s the body politics that values certain bodies over others, and then strips some bodies of their worth and rights altogether. There’s the culture of food shaming people who can’t afford to eat the ‘right’ diet. And for some, there’s the most punishing voice of all: the part of yourself that picks apart your desire to nourish yourself, and is scared of food, and scared of what it does to your body. That last one is what held me back for a long time, and I still have moments, hours, days of that anxiety even now.
You often talk about body positivity, how is your personal journey with your body reflected in your cooking?
I think body positivity is really important, and I really hope that my recipes channel a body-positive ethos – no calorie-talk, no portion control, no ‘light’ versions. But I have a huge mount of privilege as a slim, able-bodied cis woman, so I’m really reluctant to become a champion of body positivity myself. What I am happy to speak out on is anxiety, eating disorders and mental health, and the ways that these things can foster an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s about being positive about food, encouraging people to eat all kinds of food, and empowering people to eat as much as they want, when they want to. So there are recipes in Flavour for doughnuts and fried chicken alongside salads and soups. It’s about letting go, and eating what you want.
Who are some of your inspirations in the kitchen? I love Nigel Slater. I love the way that he talks about food as though he was in love with it. He can find joy even in a withered apple or a pickled onion. Theres something about the way he approaches cooking and eating – with pleasure and flavour and self-care in mind – that feels really good and nourishing.
What differentiates you from other young chefs? Would you say there’s a community of chefs who are women of color? I don’t think I’m doing anything particularly new or groundbreaking. If anything, I’m actually advocating a kind of back to basics cooking: no fads, no health pseudoscience, no pure aesthetic. I think there are loads of people doing this right now, though it is difficult to reach the community of them because we’re so drowned out by the roar of white, health-centric food blogging. But there are women of colour doing great food writing right now: Vanessa Bolosier with her Creole food, and Zoe Adjonyoh (of Ghana Kitchen) are just two.
This one kind of coincides with the last question, but do you think that, as a queer woman, you’ve had to mold out spaces for yourself, creatively-speaking? Do you think inclusiveness is an issue in the creative spaces you’re a part of? I think that the food industry is a strange space for queer women because in food writing, so much of that culture is predicated on this very traditional, very homely, very femme aesthetic and approach. So it’s weird piercing that traditional ‘domestic’ arena as a queer woman. There are a lot of people doing it, though, and it’s great forging our own queer niche with the heteronormative bubble of food writing/broadcasting.
A lot of young women of color have pressure placed on them to follow more conventional career paths, would you say that pressure is something you’ve experienced? If so, what advice would you give young women when overcoming it? I was really lucky that I didn’t really have that pressure put on me to pursue one path over any other. But I think that regardless of what path you get pushed to pursue, it’s really important to never be scared of quitting. Obviously quitting isn’t always an option, and it’s a privilege in many ways to be able to just walk away form a uni course, or a relationship, or a career. But if you can, and you want to – go for it. It’s an empowering thing to do, just giving the finger to all those expectations heaped on you.
Lastly, what would someone have to read, watch, or listen to in order to understand you? Or, alternatively, what are some things you’re into lately?