“Time in a kitchen is a quiet luxury,” Ravinder Bhogal tells me, “your own space, your own thoughts.” The chef and restaurateur has just moved and is surrounded by boxes, living in that liminal space before a house becomes a home – stressful, she says, for someone who craves order – but she is content. She has a big kitchen, which is wonderful after many years in a one bedroom flat, and she happily anticipates cooking in it each day. “Tonight it’s going to be cold, so I’m making kitchari with poppadoms, lime pickle and lots of ghee,” she says. When I express surprise that she spends any of her downtime in a kitchen, she is quick to correct me, “Oh, cooking at home is a completely different practice – it’s a meditation.”
Ravinder’s life has arguably been committed to finding a room, or rooms, of her own, of which her new home is just one. In 2016, after six years of cooking professionally but without her own restaurant, she opened Jikoni in London’s Marylebone. Its name means “kitchen” in Swahili, but Jikoni’s food is “without borders”, native to nowhere except Ravinder’s imagination, but drawing strongly on her Indo-Kenyan roots. “It’s a reconciliation of the ache and longing for what you’ve left behind, and the wonder of your new landscape and what it has to offer,” she tells me.
Her family relocated from rural Kenya to urban Kent when she was seven, a stark culture shock for a little girl who had “run feral” back in East Africa. Ravinder had enjoyed visiting England before but the reality of living here was very different. They came to Erith, not far from Dartmouth, and lived in a flat above the shop that her father ran downstairs. She remembers the cold, her clothes freezing to the washing line; she remembers looking and feeling different at her new, very white, school; she remembers her homesickness for Kenya and the unease of her new British homelife, with a mother who spoke no English and was clearly becoming isolated. “We suddenly lived in a nuclear family, not the extended setup we’d had back home,” she says. “I looked for comfort where I could. The public library and the kitchen became my dual refuge.”
Books and food became axes for escape, and also for assimilation. “The adults in my world were so distracted by trying to settle in a new country,” she says, explaining that, without a desk at home, she spent a disproportionate amount of time in Erith library. She’d read her way through the long school holidays, remembering the kindness of the librarians, “Libraries are intrinsic to communities, not just for readers but for people who just need somewhere warm to be,” she tells me, a statement which seems more pertinent now in the winter of 2022 than perhaps it has ever been. “I was really confused by English traditions,” says Ravinder, "and books became a prism for understanding." She took recommendations from Mrs Lock, the elderly widow she was assigned to visit in a community service scheme run by her school. Mrs Lock told Ravinder stories about the war, gave her a library card with instructions to borrow novels by Danielle Steel and Barbara Taylor-Bradford, and introduced her to The Archers and Countdown, doughnuts and Fry’s Turkish Delight. Since becoming a chef, she has created a Turkish delight-filled, chocolate-dipped doughnut in Mrs Lock’s honour.
“Although we had very little, my mum always managed to put delicious things on the table – dahls, sabzi with whatever vegetables were seasonal – and she made it look very simple. Relationships at home weren’t always easy, but my mother’s love language was food.” Ravinder remembers “English food Fridays”, when her mother would claim a night off from Indian cuisine. “She’d still cook, but her perception was of English food being easier to make. Still, everything had a backbone of interesting spice. Her fish and chips had ginger and carob seeds in the batter, and her shepherd’s pie was laced with black cardamom and cinnamon. We weren’t used to frigid weather and the spice warmed us up.” Her mother guarded cooking closely, integral as it was to her identity, especially when she found herself in a new country; “but she would let me into the kitchen to cook with her, and eventually gave me a little bit of autonomy. It was a little world that was really important to me.”
Initially, Ravinder didn’t set out to work in food. She became a journalist, first in fashion, then beauty. “I got confused between things I really enjoyed,” she says, “but that world quickly became stifling. There are only so many new sells you can come up with for lipstick… I thought there must be something more. And all the while, I was cooking.” She describes herself as a “diet disaster” in the magazine world, arriving at the office daily with tupperwares full of her culinary creations. When a stylist friend saw an ad for The F Word, a television show presented by Gordon Ramsay, looking for “Britain’s new Fanny Cradock”, she entered on a whim and beat 9,000 other women to win it.
Ravinder began cooking professionally, first in restaurants such as Caravan, then pop-ups with chefs such as Anna Hansen and Mark Hix, also private catering for other chefs, like Bruno Loubet and Brett Graham from the Ledbury. “I spent six years like that – carting my makeshift kitchen around with me on the Tube.” Early on, Ravinder caught influential eyes – she cites restaurant critics Jay Rayner and Fay Maschler as key mentors; indeed, it was Maschler who took her aside during this time and asked her the question that would set the ball rolling for Jikoni: “When are you just going to find a room of your own?”. “It felt like a Virginia Woolf-esque challenge,” says Ravinder.
Jikoni opened in 2016 to critical acclaim and saw Ravinder look to her roots for inspiration. To this day, at the restaurant’s entrance is a photograph of her as a child on the telephone with her paternal grandfather, Karam Singh. He is, she says, her greatest influence, a man who didn’t just adapt to a new home but thrived in it, without losing touch with where he was from. In the 1940s, bored of provincial Punjab, he made the long and difficult journey from India to Mombasa in Kenya. “He fell deeply in love with the soil there,” she says, “it is red, alluvial, and clings to you in the most bewitching way. When it rains, the smell is magical – it is teeming with life.” But it wasn’t easy. He bought a dud patch of land which he toiled to make good; Ravinder says that he looked like an elderly man at the age of 60. “But he had such generosity of spirit. A practising Sikh, he taught me the principle of seva, which means ‘community service’. You work hard and you share what you have. He told me that the best way to do that is by feeding people. That’s a seed he planted in my heart early on.”
In Kenya, Ravinder says, her family may have been removed from India, but felt very Indian. “People who left in the ’40s held onto an idea of India and became precious about preserving it. We were expected to be very Indian, learning the language [Ravinder can read and write Punjabi, which she says is very unusual for someone her age], the moral codes, the culinary heritage, but inevitably adapting it to our new surroundings.” This happened again when her family moved to London, where ingredients that were new to them became woven into what they already knew, to create something wholly new.
In Ravinder’s family, Christmas is prime time for this kind of hybridised cooking. “Whether you’re Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish or Christian in Britain, there is a coming together at Christmastime. Not because of religion, but over food. I love to layer a traditional turkey or ham with things from my culture,” she says, remembering her dad’s penchant for gammon and pineapple – “we’d cover a ham in a paste of ginger, garlic, chillies, star anise, peppercorns, clove, tamarind and pineapple juice for a stick, sweet, sour and spicy centrepiece.”
This year, she’s hosting her husband Nadeem’s family and making turkey cooked with saffron butter, alongside her roasted veg panzanella made with panettone croutons. And then there’s the negroni jelly with orange granita she's shared with TOAST, a grown-up pudding for a party of adults, she tells me, although as 25th December was her late father’s birthday, there’s always a big cake, a lovely way of still feeling connected to him, this year in the house of her own.
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Marco Kesseler.
Ravinder wears our Patchwork Crochet Tank.
Discover Ravinder's Time to Make recipe for Negroni Jelly with Orange Granita.