FoundHer: Ravinder Bhogal, Jikoni Restaurant
Ravinder Bhogal knows exactly what success taste’s like. When her stylist friend nudged her try out for a competition on Gordon Ramsay’s reality TV series The F Word to find Britain’s new Fanny Cradock, the friend had a premonition that Ravinder would win. It was 2007, and Ravinder had been working her way up as beauty journalist on magazines like More, Grazia and Look, cooking casually – though often in heels - for friends after late nights out together. She won, beating 9000 other applicants to take the title. That moment kick-started a golden culinary career that has galloped along with TV shows, an award-winning cookbook (Cook in Boots) and a stunning restaurant called Jikoni in London’s Marylebone. Though Ravinder’s parents are Indian, she was born in Kenya and has spent most of her life living in London. Everything – her exotic cooking, the homespun aesthetics of Jikoni, and her strong values – is influenced by this medley of heritage. She has a new book out next year and is currently developing another idea for a restaurant brand.
I wake up at 5am everyday. I immediately go for a walk around my block in northwest London; the air at that time is fresh. I then take 20 minutes to make a physical list of things to do; I think about my goals and legacy, about what I want to do with this life and how I want to work. I put it all in Notes on my phone. Then I take some time to watch or read things I find inspiring, like the weekend supplements from the Guardian, the FT or the Times, a TED talk or a podcast (I like Jessie Ware’s Table Manners, Simple Pleasures by Ottolenghi and am very much looking forward to Jay Rayner’s Out to Lunch). I shower, eat breakfast, and go to work. For the year and a half after Jikoni first opened I was head cheffing it myself which meant incredibly long unsociable hours, seven days a week. Those days were tough but I am thankful for the education they gave me – now 2 years in I have a wonderful team in place who have allowed me to step outside the business so I can really develop all the different strands of it; so now work is different every day, from recipe development to strategising about new brands.
The red soil of Kenya runs through my veins. If you taste a tomato there it’s buxom and juicy, even eaten with just some salt. My grandfather was an incredible pioneer and set of from Bombay on a ship bound for Kenya. When he arrived and saw the blossoming landscape and red alluvial soil that seemed to love everything you put in it, he never looked back. My grandfather was Sikh and in that culture service is important. There is an open, free kitchen in temples and regardless of gender, caste and race you can come in, sit and be fed. He always said: “You must perform some sort of community service, and the easiest way you can do that is by feeding people.” That idea still compels me. He is very much the spirit of Jikoni and there is a photograph of him at the entrance for that reason. I wanted my neighbourhood restaurant to be an extension of my home kitchen – a place where strangers can come and have a relaxed, long dinner. I wanted to attract locals I could be social with - to know the names of their dogs, their favourite table, and how to fix their perfect G&T.
It was always my ambition to run a very maternal kitchen. I came to the UK when I was 7 years old. It was grey and cold compared to Kenya where we had guava trees in the garden and exotic animals and birds all around. What steadied me most were mealtimes; for a family that felt alienated, it was the taste of home that kept us feeling safe and happy. Jikoni’s kitchen is a space where people don’t need to be afraid or nervous. If you’ve got 100 people waiting to be served it can be fraught, but we have a rule of respecting everyone around us, and we bring up any differences in a mature and constructive manner. I’ve worked in kitchens before where I haven’t had the best experiences. There is such a shortage of chefs, so I believe it’s important they are treated well. If you work people ridiculous hours, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. My rule is no crazy overtime; if a chef is tired you’re not going to get much out of them anyway. Respect them, treat them well. For me, the best part is watching people blossom and grow.
I think of myself as a storyteller in the kitchen. I teach my staff in the most captivating way possible – I explain the inspiration behind the dish and tell them specific things about the ingredients. Aubergine, for example, is called ‘baingan’ in Hindi and comes from the words “beh gun” which means “without goodness” as the vegetable was thought to have no nutritional value (and some ayurvedic doctors tell you not to eat it at all as it’s related to deadly nightshade). The story is what captivates the chefs and helps them retain knowledge.
When you’re starting a business you have to know it inside and out. I was pushing for Marylebone for Jikoni’s location because I liked its neighbourhood atmosphere. I would stand outside a restaurants in Marylebone, pressed against the window to count the heads of diners at 7, 8 and 9pm to convince my business partners and investors it was a good area. When I walked onto a site there it was like angels were singing. I begged the Portman estate to let me pitch despite there being 40 reputable businesses that wanted the site. I had a very strong vision and I went in with a tight pitch: my figures, my menu, my brand, and my ideal design. I am all about longevity, not gimmicks, so I was very convincing in my argument. When they telephoned me on December 23rd 2016 to offer me the space it was the best Christmas present ever. I also believe one should learn every aspect of one’s business. I’ve worked front of house, back of house, I’ve cleaned toilets, I know the till system, and I have managed to get my head around the finances thanks to a very patient husband and co-owner. You can never be held to ransom if you know your business intimately.
I was shocked to win Gordon Ramsay’s show, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d always had this vision that I would cook. I’d played it out in my mind, so it felt natural to do it. The day the show aired I got calls from several agents. I found one I liked and within three months I had a book deal with a literary agent at the agency. The book “Cook in Boots” won awards, and I was asked to present TV shows for BBC 2 and Channel 4. My co-host on Channel 4 was the journalist and food critic Jay Rayner and he encouraged me to learn the restaurant trade. One opportunity quickly led to another. I took over a pop up, was offered another in Selfridges, and then was privately catering for well-known chefs. The critics came and one of them asked me why I was being such a coward not setting up on my own. The seed was planted!
I was once called “a grafter” by chef Rowley Leigh and I wanted to cry. I had sacrificed so much and I was happy that someone could see beyond the ponytail and the lipstick. Coming from a fashion journalism background and having won a reality TV competition called “Find me a Fanny” meant I really had to work hard to earn my stripes. I had to prove that I was serious and not just interested in the glossiness of it all. When my husband and I got married in February 2017 I sacrificed the honeymoon to work at my new restaurant, and I’m still undecided about children as I don’t know how would fit it all in. The restaurant business is all about giving. I’m constantly trying to make other people happy by putting out all my good energy on a plate to make them feel loved and nourished. I do get a high from it, but sometimes when you have had a tough day with lots of challenges you can be left feeling completely depleted.
In business, you have to be bloody-minded and not take “no” for an answer. If I could, I’d tell my younger self at the beginning of my career to rest while I can and not sweat the small stuff. But I’d also say, “Have a plan, visualize it, and be meticulous with the detail.” I’ve had a lot of luck and met the right people who have mentored and supported me. But I’m also a believer in making mistakes because they are the best education in your journey to success.
A banana cake is the bane of my life. It’s made with a miso butterscotch sauce, Ovaltine kulfi and peanut brittle, and I’m not allowed to take it off the menu at Jikoni. People go mad for it: they call ahead to make sure it’s in the kitchen and they make guttural, animal sounds when they eat it. One man said he didn’t eat dessert. He then tried it and came back three times just to eat the cake!
The quote that inspires me the most is also the 3 tenets of Sikhism.
Work hard & earn your livelihood by honest means.
Live in constant remembrance of God’s name - or live consciously.
Share the fruits of your labour as an expression of love & compassion for mankind.