Ravinder Bhogal arrives at our photoshoot in a dress that is almost as colourful as the dining room of her Marylebone restaurant Jikoni. Now in its fifth year, Jikoni is still wildly popular, having cultivated a community of regular diners and visitors from further afield, who come here to sample the kitchen’s ethos of ‘cooking across borders’. The restaurant’s warm and cosy atmosphere is also undoubtedly part of its appeal - dining here, in the best possible way, feels a bit like going for dinner at your friend’s house (albeit, the friend of the group who is a masterful cook).
Bhogal moves around the space with a swan-like grace: she ensures everyone on set is offered a warm cup of chai, signs for deliveries of wine and greets each member of her small team who arrive for the night’s dinner service with a genuine warmth and regard for how they are doing. Perhaps this sense of hospitality should come as no surprise, considering Bhogal grew up in the sort of chaotic extended family that would see anywhere between 15 to 25 people gather around the table of her childhood home for dinner. It was this sense of community surrounding food that first piqued Bhogal’s interest, before she committed fully to pursuing a career as a chef after appearing on (and winning) the third series of The F Word with Gordon Ramsay.
Throughout our chat, Bhogal is thoughtful and eloquent, as well as brimming with enthusiasm for the topics she cares passionately about: sustainability, community and female empowerment. Being in her company, you can’t help but get a sense that she is leading the charge of a new brand of dining rooms - restaurants with a conscience that are truly setting out to change the world. Can a small, independent operation like Jikoni really have that much of an impact on the restaurant industry as a whole though? Well, with Bhogal’s steely determination that has seen her front TV shows, pen cookbooks and navigate a restaurant through a global pandemic, I wouldn’t bet against her.
Below, we chat to the chef about her female inspirations, her experiences as an immigrant and how her restaurant has achieved carbon neutrality.
Where did your love of food first come from?
I think it was primarily the produce I ate growing up in Nairobi, Kenya. There is something about the landscape there that is so bewitching and magical. The soil is volcanic, it is so benevolent and it gives so much - you can’t not be interested in food when you grow up eating that kind of produce. We had a little allotment that my grandfather farmed, so we tended not to buy things in supermarkets. We grew the things that we were eating so everything just tasted so wonderful.
Your grandfather’s photograph is proudly displayed by the entrance of Jikoni. Did he help inspire your love of cooking?
My grandfather was a lovely, joyous man. He was one of those people who ate with a kind of belt-loosening, brow-mopping joy. He loved to share food, he loved to eat and he bought me this little aluminum stove and I would cook on it. I just remember making awful things like burnt chapatis and he would eat them and say “oh you’re such a fabulous cook.” I think it made me fall in love with the idea that if you cook for people, you build a relationship with them and they fall in love with you and that was really magical.
I grew up in the community of Sikhs and one of our tenets is called Seva, which translates roughly to community service. My grandfather always said to me: “Look, everybody has to do Seva, and the easiest way to do it is simply by feeding people.” I think there was something about that, you know the hospitality of it, that really spoke to me. Then coming to this country aged seven, food was the thing that connected me to home so I retreated into the kitchen to find comfort and to find memories of home, so my cooking became a form of self-preservation.
Despite your love of cooking, you entered into a career in writing. What made you decide to ultimately pursue a career in food?
I think I’d always subconsciously dreamt of working in food, but I didn’t have the qualifications and I’d only really cooked at home. I was encouraged by a friend of mine to enter a cooking competition [Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word] - she has something of a psychic ability and said "I’ve seen this competition and I just feel that if you enter, you are going to win". Sure enough, she was right - 9,000 people entered that competition, but I won.
What was it like appearing alongside famous faces such as Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett in The F Word?
It was an incredible out of body experience in a way. I mean, what a way to break into a career, so yes, I'm very grateful that it happened. The show was 12 or 13 years ago so it feels like a drop in the ocean compared to what has happened now. I would never have imagined that the same girl trying out for that cookery competition would have her own restaurant. I would have laughed in your face if you had told me that.
Do you think Ramsay’s tough love approach still has a place in restaurant kitchens today?
I can’t comment on what you see on television and whether that is how his kitchens are run. I can only speak for my own ethos, which has always been one of hospitality and hospitality actually begins with your team. We are such a small family at Jikoni, we have had the same senior team for three years now and I think that speaks volumes in an industry which is so transitory. I feel that the purpose of a restaurant is to restore. That’s always been our purpose and if we can restore our guests, restore our team and restore the world around us, then we are having a good day in the office - we are doing something right.
After winning The F Word, how did you navigate your new found success?
It’s what you do with it at the end of the day. I was so apologetic as a woman to feel like I had to say “Oh my god, I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky”, but actually there was a lot of hard work involved and I really had to earn my stripes and prove myself.
I was a writer by trade, so I was writing a scrappy manuscript of a cookery book. I met an agent and she said get this proposal done and within three months of that I had a book deal. Then when the book did well, I ended up doing television and met [Observer restaurant critic] Jay Rayner, who went on to become my mentor. He really enjoyed eating my food, I mean he’s a mouth on legs, he loves food! He would always ask me if I had ever thought about learning the trade of restaurants. As I’d never had that type of mentor, I just really took what he said to heart and took it seriously. I was quite studious and went and started working in kitchens and learning. I did that for quite a while and then I started doing pop ups and supper clubs and getting booked for private catering.
I did that for about six years and one night, I was doing a six week pop up at a hotel. Fay Maschler [former Evening Standard restaurant critic] was there and she took me aside and said: “When are you going to stop being such a coward and find a space of your own?”
That night, and I credit Faye for this, the seed was planted. By then, I’d already had time to birth the philosophy of Jikoni and think about my menu, and where I wanted to be. I’d been offered money by an investor early on and I spent six years saying that I wasn’t ready. Then finally I built up the confidence and it took another woman to say to me “you can do this, you’ve got this”.
What do you think is the key to Jikoni’s continued success?
I think good ingredients play a major part, but I also think intent has a lot to do with it. We run a very maternal kitchen here - our intent is always to nurture and to nourish, rather than to show off and be newfangled or gimmicky. Sometimes people come in, who seem like they have had a bad day, and to put a plate of food in front of them and watch them unfurl and relax, it is instant gratification. We are one of the few jobs where you can see that transformation happen so instantaneously and for me, it is such a privilege to have that time with people and to be able to serve them in that way. It is not so much about being technically perfect all the time, although you should be, but it is about how you make people feel and I think that is the making of a good restaurant.
Jikoni has become the first carbon neutral independent restaurant in the UK, which is an incredible achievement. Why was that important to you?
Our purpose has always been to be restorative and part of that is restoring the world around us. I feel as a business, you need to be positive, you need to be regenerative and you need to be adding value, so naturally being carbon neutral ties in with that. Having grown up in Kenya and watched all these incredible rural communities, who live so gently and don’t have fridges or Range Rovers or anything like that, pay the price for our consumption just feels wrong to me. I felt quite strongly that we should be doing something towards that.
So, how has Jikoni achieved carbon neutrality?
We came across an incredible American company called Climate Neutral, who’ve made it possible for small businesses like us to be on that journey. The first step is to measure; they calculate what they think your carbon footprint is by looking at things like your waste disposal methods and how people are getting into work, then they add 15% to it, just to be sure. The next step is to reduce. We’ve been using green gas since 2019 and we use a waste disposal company that’s very green in the way they dispose of things. We also looked at our supply chain and have started an exclusive relationship with a biodynamic farm which is just 45 minutes away from the restaurant, so more and more of our produce is coming from them and they are in fact growing for us, so we can work in tandem through the seasons.
The final stage is to offset, so we have just offset all our carbon footprint for 2019. They have these vetted pools of carbon credits, so it could be cook stove projects in Africa or cardamom forests in South East Asia. You are clubbing together with businesses of your size and buying carbon credits which make a huge difference. Every year we hope to keep reducing, but at least we are offsetting.
You have also used sustainable practices for your vegetarian takeaway brand, Comfort & Joy. How did the concept come about?
During the first lockdown, I remember saying to my husband, all people need right now is comfort and joy. The minute I said it, it was the lightbulb moment. I had always wanted to do a vegetarian fast concept and it felt like this was the thing it had to be. It’s become a permanent element of the business, we now do it once a week, but we want to look at maybe getting a unit to be able to do it more frequently.
We were determined not to use plastic packaging for Comfort & Joy and we spent a good amount of time researching. The packaging we settled on is completely home compostable, so in 90 days it turns to soil. We shouted about that because we want to kick the ball forward in our industry and we want other independents and chains to go ‘we should be doing this too’. What has been the loveliest part about both of those things, Comfort & Joy and going carbon neutral, is how many people have reached out to us and asked how they can do the same thing. We feel that’s the whole point of it, so yeah it is a good feeling.
The Jikoni cookbook has the strapline ‘proudly inauthentic recipes from an immigrant kitchen’. How have you blended your heritage with your British identity in your food?
I feel that it’s completely within my right to experiment with food, in that I am East African, Indian, I have Persian ancestry, I am British. I live in a country where I arrived as an immigrant and of course, as an immigrant, you come to a new land and you have none of the things that you are used to and there’s that ache and pining for what you have left behind. As you begin to make a new place home, you reconcile those two things - both the wonder of your new landscape and the loss of what you have left behind and you end up creating a completely new cuisine, which is immigrant food.
I feel I was always put in a box as an immigrant - ‘oh you’re the Indian girl or the East African girl’ and I felt strongly that I didn’t want that. I think subconsciously, when I set up Jikoni, I was finally using my voice to answer back to that and say I am everything - I’m East African, I’m Indian, I’m British - I am a sum of all the different immigrant communities that I lived amongst, that looked after me, who fed me. I’m all of that and I think Jikoni represents that.
You’ve shown that blending cultures and cuisines can be a positive thing, but there has been a lot of talk in recent years about cultural appropriation. Do you think this is a concept that can be applied to food and restaurants?
I think it is about how it is done. It has to be done in a respectful way - in a way that is researched, that is not completely capitalist, in a way that gives back, that credits, that uplifts those communities. You know I had someone recently call me out on something about my Scotch egg. She said “I think you’ll find your so-called Scotch eggs are actually nargisi koftas which come from India”. I thought, well yes, and if you look at the word kofta, it’s actually an Iranian word and originally came from Iran. So where do you draw the line, you know? But ultimately, it is about educating yourself, educating your guests and giving credit where credit is due.
Which female chefs have inspired you in your career?
In terms of mentors, it was Anna Hansom who really gave me my first shot at doing a supper club and was very generous with her time. Even when I set up Jikoni, I knew I’d be able to call her up and ask for her advice, so she’s been phenomenal. Angela Hartnett is another one. I always feel a bit starstruck when I meet her because I immediately turn into that 27 year old girl again who won the competition, because I just have such respect for her. There are so many female chefs I admire though - I love what Ravneet Gill is doing with Counter Talk and her transparency about the industry, what Skye Gyngell is doing with produce and Asma Khan for shouting about bringing more women into restaurant kitchens. There are so many wonderful women doing wonderful things.
How have you navigated the pandemic as a business? Have you done anything differently and is there anything you will continue to do now that the world is slowly getting back to normal?
People keep talking about pivoting, but I think we pirouetted! We’ve certainly become really agile as people and I’m very proud of that - we have stretched our minds and stretched ourselves to become really creative. It also gave us a pause for the first time. Restaurants are so all consuming that you never stop, but for the first time we actually stopped and we were able to reimagine what kind of business we wanted to be when coming back. We used to be a Tuesday to Sunday operation, but we are now going to be a Wednesday to Sunday operation because we feel everyone here will benefit from having two days off together. If everyone is off at the same time, no one is calling anyone saying “where is the goat’s cheese?” or whatever it is.
Ravinder’s perfect match for Ayala's Le Blanc de Blancs 2014
The signature cuvée of Ayala’s chef de cave – Caroline Latrive – Le Blanc de Blancs is instantly recognisable for its pure and creamy style. An ode to Chardonnay, a silky texture and a light freshness blends beautifully with scents of yuzu, ginger, fresh butter and a salty tang on the finish.
The dish: Prawn toast Scotch egg
The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2014
Bhogal explains: "We chose the prawn toast Scotch egg, partly because we feel the Scotch egg is emblematic of who we are and what we stand for. It’s been a signature since the beginning of my career and it’s almost a political statement for us. We are saying here are two perennial favourites, a British Scotch egg and a Chinese prawn toast, so what happens when you bring them together? You are creating something new that is better than the sum of their parts. The Scotch egg with the banana ketchup and the acidity to it matches well to the intensity and freshness of AYALA. The Scotch egg also feels quite celebratory, so it’s always lovely to have it with a glass of fizz.”
Ravinder's quick bites
If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?
Always put hospitality to your team first and the rest will follow.
What is your favourite ingredient or flavour to use in cooking?
Curry leaves. There is nothing that can mimic or replace them, there are no substitutes. They are so fragrant and so delicious and they add such wonderful citrus notes to dishes - I love them.
Describe your cooking style in three words
Maternal, mixed-heritage and nurturing.
What is your favourite cooking gadget?
The Thermomix, I can’t live without it. In fact, our one at home has just given up the ghost and is in hospital for repairs, so I’m not very happy about that.
What is your favourite thing to cook at home?
There are two things; one is dahls, there are so many varieties of pulses and lentils, plus so many ways to cook them, so it never gets boring. They are so nourishing and always so comforting. The second thing is a bowl of pasta, you can’t beat it - for me, I love to add lots and lots of Parmesan and butter.
What is your favourite London or UK restaurant?
The Wolseley - the service is impeccable, the hospitality is always warm. It’s a mood and that’s what I love about it.
Where is your favourite foodie destination?
Italy or Mumbai.
What is your guilty food pleasure?
I just don’t believe in putting guilt with pleasure. What do I eat for pleasure? Crisps, of all kinds. I especially love salt and vinegar Kettle chips, I could eat mountains of those.
How do you relax?
I love to read - I always have a novel on the go. I’m currently reading a fabulous book by Leila Slimani called the Country of Others. She’s an incredible writer!
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I would be writing. I still write, so if I had to hang up my pans, then I’d pick up my pen.