ruby tandoh’s new zine is proving that good things come to those who bake
She's shunning her post Bake Off limelight, and challenging the status quo around mental health with her own zine on the matter, Do What You Want
Ruby Tandoh emerged into the public eye as a Great British Bake Off finalist, but the label didn't last long. Immediately after the finale she wrote a scouring attack for The Guardian on the show's commenters and critics. It turned out the "dough-eyed" 20-year-old from Southend had fangs. And these fangs have sharpened since, hectoring politics-shy food celebrities, directing barbs at ex-Bake Off co-star Paul Hollywood ("peacocking manchild") and giving us the new dictionary description of Piers Morgan ("a sentient ham").
But Ruby isn't yet another reality TV provocateur. Far from it. "I'm sure I have the potential to become an awful media person," she tells i-D over lunch, "but being in Sheffield, I don't have the chance to get swept up in that circle of shame." Instead, she's chosen to land in a city very much out of the "London media shit", living there with Leah Pritchard, her girlfriend and fellow creator of Do What You Want, their new print zine about food and mental health.
When we meet, Ruby's wearing the most extraordinary suit; sharp and tailored and patterned like a medieval tapestry. It looks phenomenal if a little at odds with the woman I expected who sometimes seems as though she'd like to fold her body in on itself. Similarly, after her self-documented mental health issues and political motivations, the decision to appear on Bake Off seems uncharacteristically audacious. "I don't know how that happened. Somehow it didn't occur to me that if I got on it I'd be on TV, it really is very unlike me." Ruby has been very open about her struggle with eating disorders and equally her disdain for the cult of clean-eating. From a barnstorming Vice article on the wellness epidemic, one line continues to stick in my mind: "I had found wellness, and I was not well."
This was a crucial part of the motivation behind her and Leah's zine. "It started off as a 10-page pamphlet but we got carried away. At one point we had a one and a half ton shipment, I was genuinely concerned that the floor was going to give out." It's a massive undertaking and they're donating profits to mental health charities. I'm immediately struck by the calibre of some of her contributors, real food world big names. "Some of the people who got involved, people who I thought were so professional, top of their game, replied saying things like: 'I feel shit every day, I'm struggling to get out of bed.' Devastating to hear, but also kind of wonderful to hear."
In the notoriously cosy, everyone-is-wonderful food world, Ruby is braver than most, speaking publicly against orthorexia and the now-ubiquitous unqualified nutritional advice around every corner. "I get so furious sometimes. I understand it's important for people to have a refuge from the awfulness of the world but if you're just promoting some kind of awful diet and getting paid 25 grand for it -- like, what are you doing?" She gives food writers whose books veer between indulgent comfort food and clean eating short shrift. There is, she reckons, enough unhealthiness in our attitudes to eating without this kind of confusing, potentially damaging polarity. "I don't think it's a healthy way to live, to swing from ideology to ideology instead of being guided in the middle ground by your own boring appetites and cravings. That is life. Be frank about it. Acknowledge all the variety and magic that can happen every single day. I mean isn't it wonderful that your human body can take the most manufactured plastic-y burger and turn it into literal cells of life. That's magic."
Ruby is equally unafraid to take pops at the apparently untouchable food dudes -- she called Anthony Bourdain a prick and stands by it. "It's more of an instinct than a carefully evaluated judgement, but he's professionally aggressive and my gut tells me to assume that most professionally aggressive men in the food world are pricks. I think you can also judge people --and I know this isn't particularly fair -- by the people who love them. Every guy I've ever known who has loved him has been an absolute prick. So that's my methodology." I tell her I admire her no bullshit stance, she's had a lot of abuse along the way. "I love mute" she replies, dryly, "there are so many men on the internet screaming into the void towards my timeline." This no-tolerance attitude seems to be one of a few mechanisms Ruby employs to ensure she can keep doing what she loves. "I'm not very good at self-preservation but my most reliable thing is I don't want to do any more TV. I want to exist in the world, I'm writing a book and at some point in the distant future I'd like to open an ice-cream shop. I'm very good at ice-cream."
The book, her third after Crumb and Flavour (Eat What You Love) is called Eat Up and is about "everything around food". Not just recipes but "the context in which we eat food, the emotional context, the social, the spiritual, all of that stuff". Eat Up seems to straddle the space between political and personal that Ruby so naturally inhabits. "There's a really long history of people feeding the revolution." She explains using the activist group Sisters Uncut as an example, The people who feed them are not at all interesting to the media, even though they're absolutely crucial. And one of the Black Panthers' main achievements was providing free breakfasts to schoolchildren. For every revolutionary movement there has to be core of people who are feeding it, literally feeding it."
On that note, somehow we've managed a three hour lunch of oysters and fried okra, gumbo and strawberry cream pie. We talk about everything from the gentrification of the word 'peasant' to Katy Perry's obsession with consumption; offering herself up almost literally as a dish ("she's been doing it since Teenage Dream"). How we both get a weird Brexity vibe from Mary Berry ("She's like somebody's Tory nan.") and Theresa May's mental health initiative ("She's a nightmare, she's awful. She'll promise something then she'll whisk it away.")
Ruby has now been profiled in everything from The Telegraph gossip pages to The New York Times. But since the earliest days she's done it being totally true to herself. A notable achievement. She's still only 26, and bloody hell, can she write. God only knows what she'll get up to next. Since our lunch I hear she's been speaking to Jacob Kenedy owner of our lunch venue, Plaquemine Lock and chef behind the hugely lauded ice-cream business Gelupo, about her Sheffield gelateria idea. Definitely still shunning the limelight, definitely still entirely remarkable. I wonder whether if she were to go back in time, she'd even do Bake Off given the option? "Yeah, yeah. I don't think some strange loser from Essex could have got here without that platform. Not saying it's a perfect platform. But it is what it is."