The food of Ravinder Bhogal, writer and chef patron of Mayfair’s Jikoni, tells the story of her life. Her early childhood years in Kenya, her parents’ Punjabi roots, and the cosmopolitan mix of London (the city she moved to as a 7-year-old) is all blended together in her truly original dishes – like her restaurant’s much loved Scotch egg with prawn toast.
Ravinder describes her signature cooking style as “immigrant cuisine” and her new cookbook, Jikoni: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from an Immigrant Kitchen, explores this inventive, cross-pollination of inspirations and ingredients. It also has a really quite wonderful cover, and as great food and great design really tickle our tastebuds here at Papier, we were hungry to learn about all the things that make Ravinder, and her food, such a unique proposition.
What did your Kenyan childhood give you?
I think my Kenyan childhood gave me a love for nature and amazing produce. The soil is so rich, benevolent and volcanic that everything that comes out of it just tastes incredible. The buxom tomatoes need little more than a pinch of sea salt to taste amazing.
What's your earliest food memory?
Probably eating ice cream at a kitsch 1950s-style ice cream parlour in Nairobi with my grandfather. I was particularly fond of their chocolate dip cone and their bar stools at the counter that you could spin around and around on until an adult yelled at you and asked you to sit still!
The parlour is still there and I revisited it in December for nostalgia’s sake. I found we were both older and wearier.
What did you learn from your parents?
From my mother, I learnt to cook. She is an incredibly talented cook. Intuitive and brilliant, she can cook for 5 or 50 without breaking a sweat. I also learnt from her that cooking for others is, and should always be, an act of love.
My father left me with a love of poetry, antiques and music but mostly he taught me to hustle – I have inherited his immigrant’s work ethic.
Who has most inspired your career?
My grandfather. He instilled the idea of “seva” or “community service” in my life early on and always said the easiest way to serve others was by feeding them. My restaurant Jikoni has always been very community focussed. We always try and think about how we can have the most positive social and environmental impact.
What has been the biggest “pinch-me” moment of your career?
There have been so many. Having Yotam Ottolenghi name our restaurant as a favourite in the book Where Chefs Eat was pretty momentous. Having my ultimate food heroine Nigella Lawson name our Scrag End Pie as the best shepherd's pie in London. Meeting and cooking for my food heroes like Claudia Roden, Nigel Slater, Simon Hopkinson, Yotam.
But there are simpler times too. Like when I finish work in the evenings and look back to see the restaurant twinkling with warm light and looking magnificent, full of happy people, our team being their good, genial selves, and I just feel such a real sense of accomplishment and also disbelief that our vision has come to life.
What's the ethos of Jikoni the restaurant?
We are a neighbourhood restaurant – I sometimes like to say an “unrestaurant” because Jikoni is so special. It's a place where friends and strangers gather to eat food that is an expression of the immigrant experience – a longing for what we left behind and the wonder for our new landscape. Our food is what happens when those two powerful things are reconciled.
“Food is the thing that unites us all.”
How would you describe “immigrant cuisine”?
Immigrant cuisine comes from a place of lacking and resourcefulness. When you don't have access to what you had back home, you find new ways to recreate that as best as you can. Immigrant cuisine comes from reconciling your longing for the things you left behind and the wonder of your new landscape. Our recipes are always open ended and open to adaptation as we move through different landscapes.
Your new cookbook has a wonderful cover design. What was the inspiration?
The inspiration for the design of the book comes from reading the first few lines of the poem The Season of Phantasmal Peace by Derek Walcott. The first few lines must have seeped into my subconscious when I read it many years ago; the “nations of birds” with “multitudinous dialects” and “twittering tongues” spoke to me about how places become more cosmopolitan with the influence of immigrants. He creates such a beautiful image and I think this influenced the use of birds as a metaphor for immigrants on my book cover.
Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it.
Excerpt from The Season of Phantasmal Peace by Derek Walcott
How do you hope people will feel when using your new cookbook?
Happy and moved. There are lots of stories in the book aside from just the recipes that can be read in bed. The stories are very personal and while many are uplifting, there are also moments of tragedy. I think it's important to talk about grief, sadness and loss in the context of food too.
What are the ingredients you couldn't live without?
There are so many – Maldon salt is a staple but equally there is something about the fragrance of fresh curry leaves sputtering in oil that just transports me to a safe happy place.
Do you think there's a lot that needs to be done to battle racism in the food industry? What do you want to see change?
There is no excuse for any kind of discrimination in any field. If you are in a position of power (with that comes responsibility and privilege) you have to actively create and show support with opportunities that are more representative. Do not stay silent about a lack of representation either – because silence in the workplace equals complicity.
And one last question before we part – what does food mean to you?
Food is the thing that unites us all. It is the great leveller. It is life.