With her restaurant Jikoni helping to put Marylebone on the map, we speak to acclaimed chef and food writer Ravinder Bhogal about her foodie influences
In the basement of the Monocle Café, Ravinder Bhogal is taking me on a kaleidoscopic journey of global influences and characters that have inspired her life in food. Now, she has started the next chapter of her story, with the opening of Jikoni: her debut restaurant on Blandford Street. It’s a scorching afternoon in Marylebone; the perfect day to dream about the exotic dishes the chef is cooking up.
Ravinder knows Marylebone well, and says that it has always been her first choice for Jikoni; her business partners, on the other hand, needed convincing. “They’re Soho boys – they understood the pace of Soho. But one Monday or Tuesday, we walked around Marylebone and couldn’t find anywhere to eat. Every single place was full. I think that’s when the penny finally dropped for them.”
She says that the feeling of community within the neighbourhood is what attracted her to Blandford Street. “There are these beautiful music shops; there’s an antiques dealer who’s been here since 1970. It feels like a place where there is longevity – where there’s meaning, depth and substance. I love that it’s a neighbourhood and that there’s a sense of community. I wanted to buy into that.”
Ironically, Ravinder never intended to open a restaurant; as she says, “restaurants were never part of my psyche”. It was while working as a fashion journalist that an opportunity came that would change the course of her life. “When I was working in fashion, I was the diet disaster for people. I would make things at home and bring them in to the office,” she says. “A stylist from this magazine I worked for – who I was constantly feeding – said: ‘I’ve just seen this advert for a TV show – Gordon Ramsay is looking for a new Fanny Craddock.’ She said that she had this really strong feeling that if I entered, I would win. And I did.”
Once the show, The F-Word, had aired, Ravinder’s star begun rising fast. “I started getting calls from agents, saying, ‘You could have a career in this, come and see us!’ I was a journalist, so I didn’t really believe anyone – I thought they were talking rubbish.”
Soon, Ravinder found an agent she trusted. Three months after showing her agent a manuscript, she had a book deal.
Published by HarperCollins, Cook in Boots became a surprise hit, garnering a Gourmand World Cookbook Award for the UK’s Best First Cookbook. Ravinder thinks that it was the book’s grounded tone and focus on women in their mid-twenties that led to its success. “It was an authentic book, in that it was my voice. It’s fun to read – it’s how I talk to a friend. I think it was original at the time, because as much as there had been Nigella writing for a certain sort of audience, no-one was writing for girls in their twenties.” Ravinder says that her book also appeals to women with an interest in both fashion and food. “I come from a fashion background, and the book was very true to the London ‘girl about town’. That’s exactly who I was. I wrote about that experience. I think that’s why women who love to buy Vogue but who love to eat as well, were able to relate to it.”
The endorsement from Ramsay, plus the success of her first book, led to Ravinder’s first taste of telly. Appearances on BBC and Channel 4 followed, Ravinder joining critic and presenter Jay Rayner for the latter’s, Food: What Goes in Your Basket. It was while working alongside Rayner that Ravinder first entertained the notion of cooking for customers. “I was working with Jay on Channel 4, and for part of that, I had to cook.” Ravinder says that it was Rayner who planted the seed in her head. “He really liked my food. He said, ‘I think you should go and lock yourself in your kitchen for a couple of years and learn; I think it would do you good.’ So I did.”
Ravinder immersed herself in London’s pop-up scene, which by this point offered the most original and sought-after dining experiences for the capital’s food lovers. “My first one was with Anna Hansen at Meza; shortly after, I was approached by Mark Hix to do a takeover at Selfridges, which was the most incredible night. I really enjoyed the thrill of doing service.” It was at this point that Ravinder met Ratnesh Bagdai – partner to Hix, and now partner to the Kenyan chef. Despite Bagdai’s frequent suggestions of teaming up, it wasn’t until four years after their initial meeting that the wheels of the opening were put into motion. “I kept bumping into Ratnesh. We’d start the conversation, but he was so busy by this point because Hix had grown so much, that it never really came to anything. Jay Rayner told me to tell him that I was no longer interested, and to see what happens. So I did.
“The very next morning, Ratnesh emailed me and said, ‘Can you put a date in your diary? We have to do this thing – meet me this week.'”
Having honed her craft over her four years of pop-ups, Ravinder had a clear vision as to what her debut restaurant would be like. “I went to Ratnesh with an entire plan, and he totally got it. He’s also from an East African and Indian background. The word ‘jikoni’ means ‘kitchen’ in Swahili – so he understood immediately. It was like fate; it was our destiny to do this restaurant together and have this kind of shared heritage and understanding.”
Jikoni is the result of Ravinder’s exposure to many gastronomic traditions. From African culinary customs absorbed while growing up in Kenya, to the Indian flavours that permeated mealtimes at home with her family; Ravinder has channelled these disparate inspirations to create a uniquely multicultural offering. Ravinder’s biggest influences, however, have been the strong, matriarchal figures for whom cooking has been a part of daily life. “My mother is a fantastic cook. She is one of these incredible women under whose hands these wild flavours blossom and behave.
“She was quite Victorian; she really believed that girls should learn how to sew and cook and clean the house. It really forced me into the kitchen, against my will, very early on,” she says with a smile. Ravinder remembers other women that passed on their knowledge, including Kenyan ladies that brought produce to the family home; and those she has met on her travels. “I always find myself in someone’s house with a woman teaching me how to cook. I just think there’s a maternal generosity; it’s such a shared wisdom, such a generous thing to do to cook with someone and share a recipe.”
Ravinder says that her male relatives also gave her plenty of inspiration and encouragement. “I’d say my grandfather was the reason I fell in love with cookery. Even when I made the most horrible things aged five – burnt chapatis and things like that – he would always say, ‘Oh my god! This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten. You’re so talented – even better than your mother!’ As a five year old, you believe that. He would give me money, and I would go and buy toffees – I felt rewarded. He was the guy that showed me that cooking is almost like a currency for love… I’m all about that!”
Her father, an aeronautical engineer, also introduced her to an array of international produce that would impress upon the budding chef’s mind. “There were lots of international influences in Kenya – and I was in the thick of it because of my father. He travelled a lot, so he’d turn up with interesting things like Iranian watermelons. I was exposed to a very international palette.”
Of course, African food culture was formative in Ravinder’s education. “We were so embarrassingly hungry all the time, like our mother never fed us – so we would run to people’s houses and eat, or we would go to the local kiosk to buy things like baobab. I used to get told off for eating it, but I loved it. They put loads of food colouring, sugar and chilli with the baobab seeds, because it’s quite sharp. You suck on them like candies, then you spit the seeds out – but they dye your mouth,” Ravinder recalls. “I used to eat it in secret and my mouth would be lipstick red – and we’d be furiously brushing our teeth before our parents came home.”
Ravinder says that the Kenyan landscape offered an abundance of quality ingredients. “Kenyan soil is so volcanic; it’s a beautiful, lush, red earth place. Things grow so well. Tomatoes taste completely, insanely different. That sort of produce really inspired me.”
These influences have culminated in Jikoni’s menu – a collection of dishes Ravinder is clearly proud of. One of the most anticipated is Ravinder’s take on the scotch egg – a dish perfected over her pop-up years. “The scotch egg is something I really honed over time. It’s become a signature.” One is a prawn toast scotch egg with banana ketchup and pickled cucumber – which marries “something so Chinese restaurant, and something so British” to innovative effect. The all-important crust uses spicy Thai prawn crackers – puffing up and crisping when deep-fried – to encase the runny centre. Another features pork with fermented carrots and tamarind and date chutney; and a vegetarian option comprises pumpkin with dukkah, tahini and pickled chillies. Other highlights on Ravinder’s menu include scrag-end shepherd’s pie, spiced with black cardamom and cinnamon; and a daily-changing plate offering curry and rice dishes from across the globe. For dessert, guests can devour gooey banana cake with miso butterscotch and Ovaltine kulfi; and meringue roulade with pistachio crust, mascarpone with orange blossom water and apricots cooked with verjus, bay leaves and mint.
The food at Jikoni is rooted in home cooking, albeit elevated to exacting standards; and Ravinder wants the atmosphere of the restaurant to reflect that. “Originally, I said to Ratnesh that all I wanted was a kitchen with a few chairs and tables. I feel like Jikoni is an extension of my home and an extension of my personality as well.” She says that she wants guests to feel at home during their visit. “I want people to come and feel part of an un-restaurant. It’s a place where strangers can gather to eat, drink and maybe talk to the table across. I’m not really about luxury – everything we do is a humble luxury.”
Jikoni, 19-21 Blandford Street.