Confession: I’ve never actually seen The Great British Bake Off. Nope, my deep and growing love for food writer Ruby Tandoh stems almost entirely from her scathing condemnation of the ‘clean eating’ movement …though her brilliant columns in The Guardian and ever-acerbic Twitter posts may also have something to do with it. Ruby’s love of food and its place in our lives, relationships and rituals shines through in her recipes, and her advocacy of normal eating in the face of a world that wants to sell us a deeply disordered version of ‘wellness’ is refreshing and important.
Recently voted the UK’s favourite ever Bake Off contestant, Ruby stole hearts when she appeared on the show in 2013, at the same time as studying for her degree. Shortly after, she came out publicly, giving the finger to critics who suggested she had flirted with presenter Paul Hollywood to ‘get ahead’. Since then, Ruby has gone on to become a freelance food writer and the author of two recipe books: Crumb: The Baking Book and the newly-published Flavour: Eat What You Love.
In this month’s Follow Your Arrow, Ruby tells the story of how her work has developed from that initial moment in the spotlight, offering a window into the life of a freelance food writer who never quite intended to become one but has found a calling in sharing her love of food.
Ruby Tandoh, food writer
Age 24, Sheffield, UK
Hi Ruby! Can you introduce your work in a paragraph?
I’m a freelance food writer, so I write a mixture of recipes and articles for various media outlets, including the Guardian, Vice and ELLE UK. I’ve written two cookbooks, both published by Chatto and Windus, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
How would you describe your approach to self-employment or business?
I used to be a real chancer, just taking commissions as and when, and working all night to meet deadlines that I’d forgotten I had. As time goes on, though, I’ve got much better at keeping on top of work, logging my assignments as they come in and taking control of my work-life balance.
What personal qualities inform your approach?
Obviously cooking is a really creative, tactile thing, and I love that way of working. I think that pushes me towards visual approaches to my work — drawing sketches of foods, making recipe mind maps, colour coding literally everything. I like my work to feel colourful and woven through with my personality.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine?
I’m terrible at keeping a routine, but I’ve been trying harder recently. I have to get up and get showered before my fiancee leaves the house, or I just can’t muster the energy. The days when I try to work in my pyjamas are the days that I end up rolling back into bed by midday. I’m really bad at taking breaks once I get working, though, and I can get kind of stuck in my head. But in the evening is have dedicated down time, which helps.
Most of my work is writing – whether that’s recipes, books, columns or one-off commissions for newspapers and magazines. I spend a lot of time on the laptop, either writing or doing admin. What I love most is researching food though. I love going to restaurants and cafes and bakeries and tasting whatever I can, I love trying recipes, I even love going grocery shopping.
What is your workspace like?
I have a desk in the living room but I rarely use it. It’s beneath this massive poster of Serena Williams, which is pretty cool. Most of the time I work at the kitchen table — it means I can be close to the food I’m writing about.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do? And what were your early goals, your first steps?
I’ve always loved reading cookbooks. I read them like novels, cover to cover. When I was younger, I thought this was just because I was fascinated by food and flavour, but as I grew older I realised that I also immersed myself in these books for the words themselves. Whether that was Nigel Slater’s odes to garlic or Claudia Roden’s luxuriant descriptions of middle eastern food, I loved it all. I knew that I wanted to be able to do something similar. I wrote a little food blog for a while, but I seldom updated it and the writing was silly and overblown. I look back at it and cringe. It all started in earnest when I started a baking column at the Guardian, in the wake of the Great British Bake Off. Every week I relished writing that column — I never wanted to stop basking in the glory of food and words and cooking.
As you said, Bake Off opened some exciting doors for you. Do you think you would have pursued the same career if you hadn’t been on that show?
I doubt it. As I’ve mentioned, I have long loved food writing, but I doubt I would ever have had the confidence, the stamina or even the talent, to be honest, to make it in that world if I hadn’t had the launch pad of the Bake Off. The truth is, food writing is terribly elitist and classist. It’s tough finding people in that world who aren’t privately educated, well travelled, comfortably off. As a working class girl from Essex, that wasn’t really a world I would have fitted in to. I might have ended up writing in some other field, though. It was always a dream to write things that demystified a topic, stripped it of intellectualism and made it accessible to people — maybe I would have done that for philosophy or for art history (my degree subjects). I was really lucky to be able to take that path within food.
From the outside, it looks like your work straddles two worlds. There’s the one where you write for the Guardian and publish lovely, quite mainstream-looking cookbooks, and then there’s the Ruby I see on Twitter, Vice and other websites with a counter-culture message about normal eating, critiquing the current obsession with ‘clean eating’ and so on. Does it feel to you like two separate worlds?
It definitely does feel a bit weird sometimes. You’re right that there’s a gap between the mainstream, kind of traditional aspects of my recipe writing and the more polemic things that I write about eating disorders, wellness, classism and bodies. Food media is really insular and tries hard to be apolitical, but I don’t think it should be that way. I want the two strands of my approach to food — personal/practical and political — to come together in what I write.
What makes you spring out of bed in the morning? What’s the best thing about the work you do?
Eating! I just love eating. I keep this food diary — a little mustard yellow book where I write down everything that I eat. All of these things are precious to me, they are milestones and memories. I live for it.
And the worst?
The bittiness of it all. Chasing invoices, emailing pitches, replying to editors, proofreading, testing recipes, shopping for ingredients, reading around the subject, filing tax returns… sometimes I feel a bit all over the place, although of course I feel lucky to even have the luxury of variety in my job.
What are the key challenges you face in your work? What are your tactics for overcoming these?
I personally find it really difficult navigating the world of publicity. I come across really outspoken and confident on social media, but in person I’m really, really shy. I get sweaty and shivery and sick before interviews; I hate groups of people; I feel ill with stress in a crowd. So standing up tall and promoting myself can be really tough for me. I’m working on it, by practising being assertive and by attending therapy sessions, but it’s a really stressful thing for me.
How do you approach time management?
I actually thrive when I’m given a last minute deadline. I think I need that pressure in order to be able to deliver the goods. If I’m given too much time to complete a job, I begin to overthink and second-guess, and I get so stressed about just the prospect of the work (not matter how straightforward it turns out to be) that I use up a ton of emotional energy just being anxious. I’m trying to manage this better by entering all my jobs in a diary/calendar so I can compartmentalise a bit better.
And what about work-life balance? Has your social life been impacted?
Because I don’t have a boss keeping an eye on me, I can be guilty of letting my work sprawl over the weekend and seep into all the cracks of my life. I need to get better at having set work and leisure times! I have plenty of time for friends and for my partner, but I get so tangled with the work that this time often passses me by.
Can you tell us about your financial situation when you started out? And did you have start up costs?
I was a student when I started, so really had no money to spare. Luckily there were no startup costs — all I need was my laptop to get going. I feel fortunate about that.
Is your work/business sustainable now? How do you feel about the money side of ‘following your arrow’?
It’s more or less sustainable, at the moment, but I’m always hyper aware of how much money I have left, and I’m definitely considering getting a supplementary job (in a cafe or bakery, I hope) to help make ends meet if ever I begin to run low on cash. I have some savings, which I’m really proud of, but nothing too impressive. I have this budget spreadsheet that my fiancee helped me set up! I try to be careful with money.
Where would you like to see yourself in five, ten years’ time?
Ideally, I’d love to be writing cookbooks and food books, still, but that might not be realistic! It’s a market driven by trends, and there’s no predicting whether my style of cooking will still be relevant then. I’d also be really happy working as a cook or baker, so that’s an exciting option too.
How do you market your work?
A lot of the marketing for my books is done by the marketing team at my publishers, and when it comes to my freelance writing jobs, they don’t really need any marketing. I guess to a degree I market myself as a personality, too, but that idea feels really uncomfortable to be honest! I mainly just use my social media platforms to share my ideas, chat to people, get a sense of what’s going on in the food world around me.
What’s the most valuable tool in your kit?
My editors! They are the ones who pull my sometimes sloppy prose into shape, and correct my awful grammar.
How does being LGBTQ — and in particular how did your public coming out — impact on your work (if at all)?
It hasn’t really had an impact to be honest. Or at least, it hasn’t had an impact that I’m aware of. Maybe if I’d been pushing for a job in the more commercial, glitzy world of TV cooking then things might have been different, but to be honest in food writing it isn’t really a big deal. I wish there were more LGBTQ food writers, though — it can be a pretty stiflingly traditional (read: heteronormative, and very white) world.
What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to work for themselves?
Find a network of like-minded queer women to work with, seek advice from and befriend! We gotta stick together.
Ruby’s latest book is Flavour: Eat What You Love, and you can check out a whole load of Ruby’s recipes at Flavour (make mine those gorgeous carrot and feta bites…). She tweets at @rubytandoh and you can also catch her and many beautiful food photos on Instagram @ruby.tandoh.
Are you a queer woman working for yourself? Wanna share your story with Autostraddle? Brilliant! Drop me an email! beth at autostraddle dot com.