Inside the Cookery School for Teenagers with ADHD
Run by London social enterprise Goma Collective and rapper Loyle Carner, who grew up with the attention deficit condition, the community centre lessons help the 14 to 16-year-olds find calm through cooking.
Walking into a community centre kitchen near London's Old Street roundabout, I'm confronted by the sight of London rapper Loyle Carner (a.k.a. Ben Coyle-Larner) advising a group of teenagers on how to season the pots of chicken ramen they have standing in front of them.
Evidently, this isn't your standard cookery class.
One of the kids, Noah, jumps in to say he found the soy sauce they added too sweet for his liking. Coyle-Larner is trying to make sure everyone has switched on their hob, while someone thrusts a spoon at me to try a guy called Herbie's stock. Eric, who stands next to Coyle-Larner, is tapping a beat with a sieve, while fellow students Mia and Anna chop some spring onions. A girl called Cameron simply awaits the next instruction.
All of the kids and a couple of the teachers in the class today—including Coyle-Larner—have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It's a condition defined by the NHS as "a group of behavioural symptoms that include inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness," and is usually diagnosed between the ages of six and 12 years, with many experiencing symptoms into adulthood.
"This is something I've wanted to do for a long time because I grew up with ADHD. One thing that really used to calm me down, aside from my music, was cooking," explains Coyle-Larner. "I figured that if it worked for me, it could work for other kids in similar situations."
I visit the cookery school on the kids' fourth and final day in the kitchen, ahead of a dinner for friends and family next week, and a pop-up barbecue in Dalston in early August. Chatting to the kids in the kitchen, they're clearly engrossed in what they're doing.
"My favourite thing to cook this week was the salmon en croute yesterday," says Mia. "It was really fun and I loved spending time decorating the pastry."
Anna, who suffers from anxiety rather than ADHD, agrees: "I liked making the salmon too. There were lots of steps to concentrate on but it was made really quickly."
The two girls laugh over the fact that Anna bet Mia that she could eat the whole thing. Mia says she did, but whispers to me: "I didn't really, but I think I got away with it."
It's one of the hottest days of the year and the kitchen is steaming with seven saucepans of stock on the go, frying chicken and soft-boiling eggs. But the teens aren't shouting or running about. Coyle-Larner gets the attention of the room in a couple of minutes and everyone is focused on the task at hand: getting all the eggs in the boiling water at the same time, so they'll cook at an even rate.
Eggs in, Cameron and I discuss the texture of the uncooked udon noodles they'll be using in the ramen.
"They feel like guitar strings," she says. "My aunt always has this kind of thing [ramen] at Wagamama."
I ask if she'll make this dish for her in future.
"Yeah, I think I will."
Later, when I ask Cameron what her favourite dish of the course has been, she seems distracted—more interested in telling me about the onesie she wanted to wear today "because it's just comfortable as hell." But she's still focused on the ramen. Lucky aunty.
Of course, there are times when the kitchen becomes a bit manic (the kids skip ahead of instructions, add chicken to the pan before the oil, and a couple of eggs are split in the peeling process) but there are never raised voices. The methodical steps Coyle-Larner demonstrates force the kids to zone in on what they're doing.
It helps that every one of them seems to be proud of what they're doing and eager to share. Noah is about to pour the sauce in with his chicken when he beckons me over and asks if I want to get an action shot.
His favourite dish this week has been pancakes: "They were blueberry pancakes with caramelised banana. They were the one."
To enrol in the cookery lessons, the students sent in applications that were reviewed by Coyle-Larner and Goma Collective, who judged which teens would benefit most from taking part. Recipes were then developed with Get Stuffed to cover a range of cuisines, vegetarian options, and sweet dishes.
Final garnishes to the ramen added and team photos taken, the kids break to eat their creations. Eric, however, is still in the kitchen. Acting like a true chef, he is cleaning down his workstation. I ask why he doesn't want to dive into his dish.
"I'm just enjoying taking a moment before I eat," he says. "I'm proud of it. I don't want to eat it right away. I'm going to savour it."
Taking a break from the kitchen, Coyle-Larner seems happy with the outcome of the lesson.
"I was quite apprehensive because I didn't know if they were gonna come true on it but the second they came into the class, they were focused and behaved. It reinforces everything I was saying about ADHD and cooking," he says. "Even though they have fun, they're also producing brilliant plates of food."
Sampling some of the finished ramen, I'm surprised at the quality.
As the kids sit down to eat, all is calm. Someone says that it feels like the last supper.
Coyle-Larner comments: "The quickest way to make a connection with someone is to cook for someone or cook with them. It's quite an intimate thing."
It's a sentiment echoed by the kids—having people around with whom they can identify seems to be the best thing about the cookery lessons. Anna tells me that she usually cooks by herself at home but "here it's nice to have fun people around and there's always something going on in the kitchen."
Herbie agrees: "I do catering as one of my GCSEs so I cook every Wednesday at school, but I'm not that skilled and I get into trouble in those lessons. I'm comfortable here and I can relate to these people. I don't necessarily enjoy cooking but today I really did."
While the link between cooking and mental health has been explored, specific research into ADHD and cooking isn't extensive. Some studies have found that "meaningful occupations" like cooking and art can promote social skills in children with ADHD and better nutrition, which can come from home-cooking, can help improve mental health. The NHS also promotes a balanced diet and food free from additives to ease symptoms like hyperactivity.
I certainly notice a difference in the kids behaviour after they've finished cooking and eating. They're suddenly boisterous, running around the dining room and easily distracted when I ask questions. Mia elbows Cameron, who's started talking about how she should tie her hair up instead of discussing the classes, and says: "Hey! The ADHD is kicking in—we're meant to be talking about the food!"
As I leave, the kids get ready to return to the kitchen for the final time this week. I get a fist bump from Eric as he whizzes past on a skateboard and Cameron tells me about a photo of herself from the day before.
"My hair was all sideways but I didn't care," she says. "I still had a huge smile on my face because I was in the kitchen cooking."