Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: How Sheffield food writer Ruby Tandoh’s life view was brought to book

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“I didn’t really know what to expect when I first moved here,” says Ruby Tandoh, thoughtfully sipping a mug of Earl Grey tea in a Nether Edge café.

“But I love it – it’s more vibrant, there’s a lot more going on, but also it’s not as overwhelming as London.”

Since making the finals of the Great British Bake Off in 2013, there’s been plenty of change in Ruby’s world – not least the decision to up sticks and move 200 miles from Essex to Sharrow with her girlfriend and fiancée, Leah Pritchard, last May.

“We more or less picked Sheffield out of a hat. We were both living in Southend, then Leah quit her job and I work from home anyway, so we could move anywhere and wanted a fresh start. So we visited a few places – we went to Manchester, Newcastle – but thought Sheffield seemed nice and gave it a go. It’s worked out really well.”

Living here ‘feels a lot more healthy’, she says.

In the past four years she’s been frank about her struggles with anxiety and an eating disorder, sparking a media controversy by describing the phenomenon of ‘clean eating’ – a regime that promotes a strict diet free of gluten and sugar – as ‘wellness quackery’ in a blog post.

She has outlined her own food philosophy in two successful books – Crumb, a guide to baking, and Flavour, a more varied collection of recipes – and has returned to the issue of mental health in a new homemade magazine, a project Ruby and Leah have worked on together.

The magazine – called Do What You Want – features articles, essays and comic strips on the theme of mental wellbeing. Contributions include interviews with Sara Quin, of the band ‘Tegan and Sara’, actress Mara Wilson, of Mrs Doubtfire fame, and Gail Evans, who runs the Cornerstone counselling centre in Greystones, as well as recipes by Nigel Slater.

It will be sold online and at stockists across the country, with all proceeds going to good causes, including the charities Mind and Beat.

“We just wanted to do a little pamphlet, it was only meant to be 10 pages long,” she says.

“But then it spiralled out of control and, before we knew it, it was 160 pages.”

A crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter was launched to cover the printing costs, raising 300 per cent of the initial target, and more than 2,000 copies of the magazine have been preordered so far, ahead of the publication date of April 28.

Ruby says it was important to make the project ‘accessible’.

“We’ve got such a diverse group of people on board and I’m hoping that encourages a diverse range of people to read it, as well. I’ve just learned so many things that I’d no idea about before.”

She continues: “If you broke your leg you’d call up to work and say ‘I can’t come in’, and everyone would understand that.

“But when it comes to mental health people are very shy about that and there’s not as much understanding as there should be.

“That’s why you end up calling in and saying ‘I’ve got a cold’, when the reality is you’re depressed, or whatever’s going on.”

People’s understanding has ‘got better’, she accepts, but quickly adds: “I’d like to see the awareness be a bit broader. I want the less palatable mental illnesses, like borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, to be embraced, understood and accepted in the same way.”

Ruby agrees there was ‘not much’ public sympathy during her time on the Bake Off, when she was sometimes filmed in tears during difficult challenges.

“At the time I didn’t really have much understanding of what was going on in my own head. I beat myself up for that, thinking: ‘I’m just a crybaby, what am I doing, how pathetic of me for crying over this stuff’, but of course it wasn’t pathetic.

“Looking back now I can see that – I hadn’t slept for weeks, I was exhausted, I was doing things that were scary in front of loads of people; of course that anxiety is understandable now, but it’s difficult to see when you’re in the moment.”

Ruby, aged 24, was born in Southend as the oldest of four siblings – her half-Ghanian father worked for the Royal Mail, while her mother was a school administrator. Enthusiastic about food as a child, she used to spend hours looking through recipe books belonging to her parents, who she has previously described as ‘keen cooks on a very limited budget’.

The television contestant of 2013 ‘feels like a different person’, says Ruby, who offers considered, eloquent answers throughout our conversation.

She’s wearing an eye-catching blue polka-dotted shirt, and large spectacles in a matching shade - an outfit with a hint of 1980s Morrissey - and her hair, drastically shaved off last year when she ‘wanted a change’, is growing back too.

“I think there’s a big temptation for me to be really dismissive of the things I’ve done in my life.

“My punchline historically has been ‘Oh, I hate myself anyway, so don’t worry’, but I don’t want to do that, I want to say ‘I did this thing and I’m proud’.”

There will be no cookery demonstrations or TV presenting gigs, however.

“I love writing. I find having the page in between me and whoever I’m talking to helps me to be candid about what I want to speak about.

“I’m not so good at demonstrations. I would never do TV again. It’s just not for me.”

The suggestion she might have been approached about the new Channel 4 series of the Bake Off elicits laughter, and she claims to have ‘not really been following’ the announcements of the new hosts Noel Fielding, Sandi Toksvig and Prue Leith, who will join Paul Hollywood, the sole team member to move from the BBC.

“What a strange bunch – it’s like a real muddle of people. I’m sure it will be very entertaining.

“I think they’d pay for me not to go near it. I’m no Mary Berry, let’s say.”

Ruby has another book in the works – ‘still about food, but not recipes’ – to be called Eat Up.

“It’s about our relationships with food, and how food interacts with wider culture,” she says, holding up a book about the links between cuisine and film. “I’ve been doing my research.”

The process has been ‘much more relaxed’ than the preparation for Crumb and Flavour.

“I don’t have to shop for ingredients, I don’t have to cook until midnight every night, I just have to sit down at my computer and write.”

Both Ruby and Leah, 26, an aspiring counsellor who is a receptionist at Sheffield University and plays in a band called Alimony Hustle, are running the London Marathon for Mind and Beat – their training sessions regularly finish with fish and chips from Two Steps on Sharrow Vale Road.

“One really good thing is the fact the Peak District is so near – so I can run out through Endcliffe Park and along the valley with the river, and out into the Peak.

“It feels like I’m settling in to a proper life, like laying down roots and building a foundation for something bigger.”

Visit www.dowhatyouwantzine.co.uk for details of the magazine.

Avoiding the conflicts of food

Ruby Tandoh says she is pleased the ‘clean eating’ fad ‘seems to be falling out of favour’ but warned: “It will be replaced by something else.”

She went through a spell of cutting out meat, fsh, dairy, sugar and eggs, and says much of her recovery came when she ‘really learned how to cook’.

“The more I obsessed about food the better I felt about it. For me it was about learning what ingredients smelled like and felt like, and how they acted when you put them in the frying pan – not thinking about food as this weird moral thing but as something exciting, to do with your senses. It was a big change.”

Ruby adds: “It’s horrible that people should feel conflicted about food. This is the essence of who we are, it’s awful to carry that around with you. I think every single one of us could benefit from stripping back that moral judgement when it comes to food and eating.

“It’s sad to see people denying themselves something. And when they do indulge, they really indulge, because it’s become a taboo thing for them.”

There’s ‘loads of good stuff’ on the Sheffield food scene, Ruby thinks, but she’s ‘not a big restaurant person’ – “I don’t like this culture of being really discerning when you go out” – and harbours an ambition to open her own café one day.

“It would be so wonderful,” she adds.