Blogger-turned cookbook author Ella Risbridger found more than mere pleasure in preparing food. Struggling with anxiety, depression and heartbreaking bereavement, cooking turned out to be her salvation, writes Katy McGuinness
Most ‘cookbooks’ written by 26-yearolds are not like Ella Risbridger’s Midnight Chicken. But then most 26-year-olds are not like Ella Risbridger, who says that she was “born very old”. Ella has also had considerably more life experience than most of her contemporaries. The title recipe, for instance (which is absolutely delicious and I recommend highly), came about after Ella spent hours lying on her kitchen floor crippled with anxiety, wondering if she would ever be able to get up, before being coaxed upright by her boyfriend.
“I still love the recipe for Midnight Chicken,” she says. “My best friend Caroline [O’Donoghue, Irish author and journalist] once asked me if I was worried that I had peaked too early. ‘You will never do a chicken recipe as good as this,’ she said. ‘It’s the best chicken I’ve ever had.’ I can’t believe it was me that came up with it.”
Most of us came to know Ella through her beautifully written blog, Eating with My Fingers, or on Twitter, where she chronicled her life through food in the Tiny Flat in London with John Underwood, aka the Tall Man, whom she met on Twitter soon after she arrived in London to study comparative literature at university at the age of 18.
John, a few years older than Ella, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2015, and during the course of his illness the couple raised more than €130,000 for the Anthony Nolan Foundation, which maintains a register of potential transplant donors to match with those diagnosed with blood cancers. John died last year, just as she was finalising the book.
Ella is far too smart to go along with trite aphorisms, but she’d probably agree that learning to cook — and writing about learning to cook — saved her life. She’s a survivor of mental health problems and a suicide attempt, all of which she writes about in Midnight Chicken. The clue is in the book’s subtitle: (& Other Recipes Worth Living For).
A condition of this interview is that, even though there is quite a lot about John in the book, we are not allowed to talk about him. Fair enough. Having shared so much online in the past, it now feels prudent to be more circumspect. “I’ve been on the internet for years,” she says. “My first website was when I was nine, and my friend’s dad helped us to code it. There was a chick that jumped across the top of the page because it was during the Easter holidays. We wrote little articles about what was going on at school. There was one called How to Build a Den; I was very proud of it.
“These days, though, I put a blog post up only very occasionally. I just don’t have the time. I’ve got to make a living, for one thing, and I’m more careful than I used to be about what I put up.”
She is still a prolific tweeter, though. Sharp, funny, kind and exuberant. “Twitter is only little blogs,” she says. “And I’m incapable of writing one tweet when 30 will do. But these days I just have so many more people watching what I do. When I had a hundred followers, I wanted to be friends with all of them. I made ‘in real life’ friends on Twitter; I met John on Twitter. Every friend I have in London has been from a connection that started off on Twitter, or their friends or friends’ friends.”
While many cookbooks from authors in their 20s focus on plant-based diets and ‘clean’ eating, Ella’s recipes are robust and democratic, with no hint of dietary issues. “I don’t think they are joyless per se,” she says diplomatically.