Ella Risbridger does not like to cook for herself. “It’s a very weird time to be a cookery writer,” says the 27-year-old author over Zoom from her flat in London. “I normally cook for other people. There are usually people popping in and out all the time.”
But 2020 was not, on the whole, a year for feeding friends and trying out new recipes on a grateful crowd. Risbridger has largely been cooking for her flatmate or eating toast alone.
What she really wants, she says, is “to go to a lot of expensive restaurants and have people bring me a lot of little expensive plates of things. Or just to go to someone else’s house or dinner.”
Still, audience or no audience, cooking has long been a salve for Risbridger, a way through the darkness of anxiety and depression in her early twenties. Throughout that period, she was taught to cook by “the Tall Man”, as she refers to her then partner, the writer John Underwood, who died of cancer in 2018, aged 28. She learnt to embrace it as a way of “being useful”.
After Underwood’s diagnosis, cooking and writing about food became a lifeline. She cooked for them both, and wrote at his bedside in hospital and in a church across the road.
When Underwood died, Risbridger was just 25. In 2019, her first book — the fruits of that terrible time — Midnight Chicken (& other recipes worth living for) was published. A genre-bending foodie memoir, it is both a beautiful book to cook from, with a wide range of soul-soothing recipes, and one to curl up with in bed.
It was an instant hit. Risbridger has a magpie mind, collecting snippets of information and inspiration to create dishes as disparate as “Weekend Oatcakes” and an Ottolenghi-esque “Fig, Fennel, Freekeh and Cauliflower”. Most of the focus is on savoury dishes and she begins a short dessert section with: “Let me start this chapter with a confession: I don’t really make a lot of sweet stuff.” Still, there is a decent selection of snacky puddings, from “Whisky & Rye Blondies” to “Paris Cookies”. The recipe for the latter went viral last year and is now nicknamed “Lockdown Cookies”.
Recipes are prefaced with engaging entries on how and why a particular dish has saved her and when you should cook and eat it. The book begins dramatically with the eponymous midnight chicken, a recipe that helped Risbridger during an acute depressive episode.
“It was dark outside, and I was lying on the hall floor, looking at the chicken through the door . . . And wondering if I was ever going to get up . . . Eventually the Tall Man came home, and he helped me up. ‘Come on,’ he said, and we went into the kitchen together, and I made this, late at night.”
Yet there is also light to counter the darkness, a host of colourful characters and plenty of twentysomething chatter. “I met a girl at a party, and she gave me a pirate pop-gun, and a recipe for bagels, and then she was deported. All of this is true. This is her bagel recipe: she lives in Paris now.” Recipes are often presented as a balm, a way to brighten one’s day — “Uplifting Chilli and Lemon Spaghetti”, “Glumday Porridge” — or for specific occasions: “First Night Fish Finger Sandwiches”, for that tricky starter evening in a new home, “Saturday Afternoon Charred Leek Lasagne”.
But such playfulness conceals a rigorous approach to recipe development and testing. She tells me that on average she tested the book’s recipes four or five times before they made the cut.
Food wasn’t a passion for Risbridger as a child, growing up in a village in the English Midlands — she was more of a bookworm, going on to study comparative literature at King’s College London. “My mum was an ‘I have four children to feed and a job and I will get dinner on the table’ sort of cook”, while her father liked to be left alone to immerse himself in complicated recipes.
She had a peripatetic teenagehood, moving to Dubai at 15 for her father’s work, and later taking a job in Paris as a nanny. At 19, she landed in London. “I will never be an authentic cook for any region,” she says. “I didn’t learn a cuisine at anybody’s knee.” In Dubai, she went to an international school and ate everything from burgers to Lebanese cheese bread. In Paris, she subsisted mainly on baguettes and Nutella, but she also tried Vietnamese food and sushi, which she considered the height of sophistication.
Risbridger’s easy expressiveness about cooking for her various states of mind reminds me of another debut cookery book — Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. Indeed, she has been called “The New Nigella”, an enviable moniker for any young food writer, and has been praised by Lawson herself. “It’s a cookbook, but it is also a manual for living and a declaration of hope,” is a Lawson quote on the front of her paperback.
There are similarities between the two women beyond their approach to food writing. Both lost partners called John at a young age from “weird cancers”, as Risbridger puts it, and both wrote and cooked their way — often late at night — through their partners’ illnesses, producing bestselling debut books, almost exactly 20 years apart.
She is astonished by how Lawson has taken her under her wing. On speaking at a joint event last year she says: “I was very nervous when I met her, as ‘New Nigella’ suggests she is going somewhere. Which is wrong, as she is the absolute queen.”
Aside from Lawson’s Guinness cake recipe, which she says “she follows to the letter”, Risbridger describes herself as an experimental cook who starts with an ingredient and then googles what to do with it. “I very rarely cook from somebody else’s recipe — it’s a following-rules thing,” she says, laughing.
Today, Risbridger lives in the south London borough of Lewisham: “Within 20 minutes of my house there are supermarkets catering to a dozen different cultures . . . I can pick up one thing and something from somewhere else and wonder if they go together.”
Life as an established food writer in a vibrant, cosmopolitan city means she can afford to experiment with ingredients. But she also feels a sense of responsibility towards readers who might not be so well off or may live miles away from a Turkish grocer: “You kind of have to cross-examine yourself — are people actually going to buy this ingredient? Are these ingredients accessible to my grandparents in Staffordshire?”
She is also mindful, she says, of other people’s finances: “Every recipe in the world is on the internet. So, you have to think, what makes my book important and worth people’s money? Some people’s cookbooks — people who have never cooked domestically — have recipes that require five egg yolks. What are you supposed to do with the whites?”
I ask what recipe she is working on right now. “Something with condensed milk and coffee,” she says without hesitation. “I’m going to try muffins. I’m thinking a banana could add something . . .” Could a new cookbook be in the works? Not exactly, she tells me. Since the success of Midnight Chicken, she has released an anthology of poetry and is working on some children’s literature.
What would Risbridger prescribe for the mood in Britain this winter? Quick as a flash, she replies: “I think the best January recipe I know is Chao xa ga, a Vietnamese rice porridge. It is like a Thai risotto with lime and coriander so it feels bright and springy and like we are going somewhere. It has that very rare combination of comfort and going forward. We are going forward and we are going to be fine.”
From ‘Midnight Chicken (& other recipes worth living for)’, published by Bloomsbury and available now in paperback, £9.99
Rebecca Rose is editor of FT Globetrotter
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