To reduce The Chicken Soup Project to an Instagram profile (@thechickensouproject) would be to miss the point. Its grid, filled with steamy, generously portioned comfort dishes (mainly, but not exclusively, takes on chicken soup) does not try to sell or promote anything, nor will it ask you to click on any links. Instead, it simply invites you to be comforted, or to comfort others.
Established and run by food and portrait photographer Patricia Niven, an Aussie living in London, The Chicken Soup Project began in March, at the start of the first lockdown. I gave her a call to find out more.
“Food photography chose me,” Niven told me, recounting how she steadily built up a portfolio. “But things sparked when I met Sarit and Itamar from Honey & Co.” The husband-wife team — who Niven affectionately calls “The Honeys” — were Ottolenghi head chefs before branching out to create their own Middle Eastern empire, which includes a cafe, deli, and restaurant as well as three cookbooks. Niven shot all three, and is working on a fourth.
This explains why, though Niven first conceived The Chicken Soup Project (TCSP) a few years ago, it only transpired when she — and the world — slowed down in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Locked down in London, Niven was sick with what she now assumes was COVID-19. “It was almost a bit hallucinogenic and weird. My sleep was messy and all my dreams were saying to start this project.”
Asking chefs and cooks she’d worked with for recipes to contribute “was a way of being in contact with people when I felt quite ill and lonely.”
The cynic in me wondered if it was hard to source recipes. The project is, after all, an unusual act of generosity — a high-quality, intimate (each recipe comes with a lengthy introduction written, in most cases, specifically for TCSP), free resource. But the community spirit was apparent from the very beginning. Those initial chefs and cooks connected Niven with others, and the project began to gain followers. As word spread — “I have some very kind super fans who are always sending it to others!” — more recipes came flooding in. “I think I’ve had two declines,” said Niven. “Most people are really happy to share something that’s important to them. It’s a really lovely aspect of the page.”
Quickly, she explained, The Chicken Soup Project became “something that’s not just chicken and not just soup. It’s whatever’s comfort in a bowl for the contributor. Chicken soup is a catch-all name for dishes that are comforting for many people.”
Fittingly, Niven’s own attachment to chicken soup is humble. Her mother wasn’t a keen cook, so the only kind she remembers from childhood is the tinned variety. “It was great because it was really salty and it had little strands of noodles, which I really loved.”
Is there still time and place for a good tin of chicken soup? I asked her. “I’ve actually got some at home, but it’s much more fancy than the ones I grew up eating back in Brisbane… this week I’ve been craving it.”
In the last few years, Niven has started making soup from scratch, though seemed surprised when I asked if she’d considered sharing her recipe. “I haven’t even thought about it! I’ve been so busy contacting everybody I’ve ever met for theirs!”
She does, however, cook many of the recipes at home. Particularly this chickpea bake, which she’s made “nearly every week since it was submitted… It’s become a staple in our home.”
So where does the project go from here, once life returns to some sort of normalcy? I asked.
“It seems to have a quiet little life of its own, so I hope that that maintains. I’d love to start a video project to go and meet people who have been sharing their recipes — when we can start moving around the world again!” Plus, Niven mentioned, there’s a website to come and perhaps a cookbook, too.
I suspect that The Chicken Soup Project is only getting started. Watch this space.