Interview with an Innovator

Jikoni’s Ravinder Bhogal: 'I was a vegetarian, but I woke up one morning and really fancied eating a bacon sandwich'

From scrag end to Brussels sprouts, the much-lauded chef explains how she uses British ingredients to create immigrant cuisine.

14 December 2018
chefsindianingredientsmeatrestaurantsspicesvegetarian

Bhogal on Paper – CV

  • Came to prominence after being named the new Fanny Craddock by Gordon Ramsay on The F Word
  • Opened her first restaurant, Jikoni, in 2016, featuring a multicultural menu
  • Has appeared on numerous cookery shows and published her own cookbook, Cook in Boots

In her award-winning cookbook, Cook in Boots, Ravinder Bhogal describes herself as a “self-confessed greedy girl about town.” That hunger, however, isn’t just limited to eating. The British chef has an appetite for experimentation, drawing upon her mixed cultural background to create bold dishes.

Inventions like the Scotch egg with prawn toast – a perennial favourite at her debut restaurant, Jikoni – explain why Gordon Ramsay described Bhogal as “Fanny Craddock for a new generation.” Since then, Jay Rayner has implied she is one of the best cooks in the game, and Ottolenghi dubbed her version of Brussels sprouts the best he’s ever tasted.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole the food at Jikoni – the word ‘concept’ makes Bhogal cringe – but all of it is rooted in the chef’s Indian heritage, Kenyan childhood and British upbringing.

Keema sloppy joe

My earliest memories of food are growing up in Kenya and the militant kitchen my mother ran. We lived with extended family, so there were never less than 15 people in our house. I grew up in a Jane Austen-like house with four sisters. My mother was very Victorian in her attitudes: she believed young girls should learn to cook until they find a good suitor.

Growing up in Kenya, I used to sit in the courtyard with a sack of peas that was larger than me, and pod a mound of peas, squealing at the odd caterpillar that happened to be in amongst them. It’s a very visual memory, I’m a very visual person. I remember a red plastic bucket and these beautiful emerald-green peas being podded into this red plastic bucket. That was my afternoon

The backdrop of produce available in Kenya is incredible. The volcanic red soil is so rich and anything that comes out of it tastes like you’re watching something on Imax. It’s so intense: tomatoes are buxom, passionfruit are sweet and tart, and guavas fill up the night air with their fragrance. I have these very vivid memories of food and flavour and scent, and they take me hurtling back to my childhood in Kenya.

At Jikoni, we work with the seasons. It’s natural to me. My early memories are buying food from ladies carrying baskets on their head with all the produce picked from the allotment that morning. They’d go door to door and lay out their produce, which was all fresh.

We’re making a political statement with our food. We believe in cooking without borders. When you mix cultures, it’s always better than the sum of their parts. Growing up in Kenya, my mother would shop in Indian shops, Chinese shops and Persian shops, and we’d find ingredients and cook them in our way. That really inspired me.

My mother also cooked immigrant food. Nothing was ‘authentic’ as such; our food is made up of the longing and the loss of things we’ve left behind, and the wonder of our new landscape. It’s about balancing and aligning those two things. Immigrant food is about loss and longing, but also being proud of your culinary heritage, but mixing it with the new. That is survival. Our recipes here are always open to change because we’re immigrants. We don’t know who or what will come next.

I like to cook in a very open-minded way. To take something like the Scotch egg, where you’ve got two perennial favourites, a Chinese prawn toast and a British Scotch egg. Combining the two things makes something that a lot of people say is better than the sum of those parts. It feels like a very natural statement to mix those cultures.

Scotch eggs

I love British ingredients. Right now, it’s Brussels sprout season. We have a very exciting dish on the small plates menu of charred Brussels sprouts, crispy shallots, hot and sour dressing and bonito. I remember people saying it was going to be ‘the Marmite dish’ because British people have bad memories of Brussels sprouts as over-boiled at Christmas, but they are positively exotic to me. We had Ottolenghi come in – the king of vegetables – who said these were the best Brussels sprouts he’d ever eaten. I like creating an element of surprise with dishes like this, but also presenting eaters with what they’re familiar with, alongside an unexpected pop that comes in the form of the hot and sour.

Nigella called our scrag end pie the best shepherd’s pie in London, presenting someone with something very familiar but using scrag – the neck of the lamb – because we’re looking at interesting cuts as well. You cook it overnight for 24 hours very slowly with unfamiliar spices, but it is a shepherd’s pie, so people are familiar with it, but also pleasantly surprised because it has a pop of spice.

Spices are the backbone to all my cookery. The way I think about it is if I didn’t have spices, my cooking would be like elevator music – it would be one tone. Spices make it sing. My mother’s carrot cake was laced with ginger and turmeric. It was delicious. I think people are experimenting – maybe not in restaurants so much but at home.

I work with suppliers who are constantly sending me new things. I’m constantly asking them to send me new and interesting things. I love going to interesting shops from the immigrant economy where I can just go and nose around and go, ‘what is this?’

I recently discovered powdered dry limes, which are great for making lentil soup. They add this sharpness. There’s also this background acidity which is slightly gentler, so they add a really interesting touch to soups and stews and things. We’re also developing new dishes with brick pastry.

My culture lends itself to vegetarian dishes. For me, it’s natural. Meat-free Mondays [the social media movement] help create awareness, because there are people who need to be educated about the environmental impact of eating too much meat. But I think you’re not missing anything by being vegetarian.

I was a vegetarian, but I woke up one morning and really fancied eating a bacon sandwich. I don’t approve of fake meats, nature is so wonderful. There are well-flavoured, well-cooked vegetarian options. Think beyond putting things in boiling water: meals don’t have to be complicated, it’s about understanding the flavour of one ingredient. Look at something like Brussels sprouts, the texture, the flavour, they are so strong and distinct – they can stand up to almost anything you throw at them. I had some with olive oil pecorino and grated lemon zest recently; they were sensational. It’s about building up long-life ingredients in the larder like harissa and experimenting, having fun.

Sweet potato bhel

I don’t think meat will ever disappear from restaurant menus… but people will certainly become far more creative with vegetables. We just must now – the price of meat is going up, and there are so many mouths to feed, and we really should care about animal rearing practices. Meat might just become a treat again.

You must be so resilient as a restaurateur. No one goes into this business to make money because the margins are so thin; you must absolutely love what you do. Businesses can’t just make money, they must add something. We do lots of things here which are very much about the community. I look at my community as my team, my guests, and the larger community around us. You also can’t be gimmicky anymore: people are discerning about food, you can’t pull the wool over their eyes.

The most challenging part of my job is chef shortages. My theory is it should all be about education. I think something is broken in the industry: people aren’t being inspired or educated in the right way. There’s a huge burnout. Why are so many chefs leaving the industry each year? If you want to be a responsible business owner, you’ve got to find the answer to that.

In this industry people get used and abused and spat out: it’s not okay. It’s not reasonable, it’s not acceptable for owners, restaurateurs or chefs to expect people to work four doubles a week – I spoke to someone recently who was told they had to do four doubles a week. Okay, sure, it’s a fancy restaurant, but no one can survive those challenging hours. You have no life, you become depressed, you develop mental health issues, you turn to drugs, it’s all rife in our industry.

Being a chef should be like a normal job. You come in and do your hours, you’re supported, you’re fed well, you have a break and go home. Restaurants shouldn’t be an exception to every other profession. Chefs are losing heart. They want to have a family life and owners should be supporting people to do that.

Jikoni isn’t a chain, this is a stand-alone restaurant. I feel it has a distinct personality and story – it’s not a cut out formula you can transfer anywhere. Anything else I do will be tied to Jikoni, like a cousin, but it doesn’t have to be a twin. I love and respect what Dishoom has done, for instance, but I don’t necessarily think Jikoni is that.

I think there’s a great argument for opening in suburban neighbourhoods. People are eating out more and restaurants should be more accessible. People are just doing destination dining and going into central to eat out, so why not provide a great community service for your local community?

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