Romy Gill On Being An MBE & The First Female Indian Chef Owner In UK
When the envelope informing Romy Gill that she had been selected for the Queen’s birthday honours arrived at her home, it lay unopened for quite a few days. Just another bill, she thought. This was 2016, and she got quite the shock of her life to realise that she had been appointed an MBE in the Queen’s 90th birthday honours. She is among the few female Indian chef-owners on the UK food scene and is currently writing her first cookbook. She’s come a long way from a self-taught chef, who began with just her love for food.
Growing up in Burnpur, West Bengal, she learnt cooking from her mother. When she moved to the UK, she began cooking for friends, running cooking classes and giving cookery demonstrations. She went on to launch her range of sauces, pickles, chutneys and spice mixes. Launching her own restaurant in 2013 was a bit of a struggle, but it was what catapulted her into the public eye. She had applied to every bank for a loan and was turned down, which led her being featured on BBC News on the struggles entrepreneurs face. NatWest gave her a loan, and the rest, as the overworked cliché goes, is history. Romy’s Kitchen opened in 2013, in Thornbury, making her the first female Indian chef-owner in the UK. Today, Romy is a vibrant player in the Indian food scene in the UK, completely self taught and constantly looking at upping her game.
SheThePeople.TV’s Ideas Editor Kiran Manral speaks with Romy about her journey, the challenges and why she never takes no for an answer.
I am self taught so there were many people who waited for me to fail and many said now that you have opened your restaurant, why are you cooking you can keep a chef to do all the hard work.
You spent your early years in India and then migrated to the UK? How much of a culture shock was it, and what were the most difficult things to adapt to in your new environment?
I was born and brought up in a steel plant township and lived in a very sheltered environment, so coming to the UK was exciting but at the same time it was a culture shock because although I spoke English now I had to speak all the time and the way I spoke was different too. I had never seen supermarkets or frozen vegetables among many other things. Necessities are must so I soon adapted very soon and by making friends and eating the foods that I never had tasted before.
How did your journey with food begin and what was the moment when you knew that you were going to make your career as a chef? What were the struggles you faced and any sexism you encountered in your journey?
While growing up I wanted to go in the hospitality industry but my dad within five seconds said no, because he thought I won’t be able to survive. It wasn’t that I shouldn’t be a chef (in my dreams and all honesty I wanted to be a spy because I used to read a lot of spy novels the characters fascinated me.)
When I moved to the UK, and went out to eat Indian, I found the food so sweet and terrible that we couldn’t finish it. I said then to my husband that I will open my restaurant one day. He knew I would but we didn’t know how and when.
When I found a property and had to apply for a change of use to restaurant and it took three-and-half years to get the planning and nine months for the builders to finish the job. I am self taught so there were many people who waited for me to fail and many said now that you have opened your restaurant, why are you cooking you can keep a chef to do all the hard work. I just put my head down and worked hard to keep pushing myself and be creative.
I found the food so sweet and terrible that we couldn’t finish it. I said then to my husband that I will open my restaurant one day. He knew I would but we didn’t know how and when.
Given that the push in our culture is towards engineering, medicine or the civil services, did you face any resistance from your family when you decided to become a chef?
My dad and mom worked really hard. They didn’t speak English and they wanted their kids to go to an English-medium school and do well in life. For them it was not about what profession I chose. My parents wouldn’t say anything to me, and they supported me no matter what I did. My husband is the most amazing person who is my rock. Yes, we have our ups and downs, after all no family life is perfect, but we support each other a lot. I work in a very male-dominated industry and he knows I am a very strong person. But when I need him, he is there.
I work in a very male-dominated industry and he knows I am a very strong person. But when I need him, he is there.
When you applied for a loan to set up your business, you were turned down by many banks. How difficult is it still for women to turn to entrepreneurship?
There were so many things against me. Firstly, I had never run a restaurant. Secondly, I was a woman and thirdly, a brown woman. There were three things against me. When I applied to get a loan which was not a huge amount, four banks refused me and in the meantime, I had sold my jewellery and spent all the savings we had to set up the restaurant. BBC national news approached me for a feature on how the banks weren’t giving loans to small businesses, and the very next day I got a loan from NatWest. Things are changing now though, and more and more Indian women are opening restaurants and becoming successful.
Firstly, I had never run a restaurant. Secondly, I was a woman and thirdly, a brown woman. There were three things against me.
What are the lessons you would like to pass on as a successful entrepreneur to other women seeking to start out their entrepreneurial journeys?
It’s very important to find a good mentor who will guide you and help you in your business as restaurants fail within a year. I think small businesses like mine don’t have the money for PR and need to push themselves, not sit and wait for others to come along to help them. I didn’t have a godfather in the industry, I had to write to journalists and food writers about myself and the restaurant. One has to be very active to execute what you believe in.
I didn’t have a godfather in the industry, I had to write to journalists and food writers about myself and the restaurant. One has to be very active to execute what you believe in.
What did receiving the MBE mean to you, as well as the many other awards you have received? How important is it you think that achievers like you, who break gender and race barriers are visible so that other women can take heart from their journeys?
I came from a very small town, started my catering business from home, then started teaching and participating in food festivals and cookery demos which helped and gave me the confidence to open my own restaurant. I have been nominated for and won various awards but never thought in a million years that I would ever receive an honour like the MBE. It’s very important people appreciate what you do and the hard work that goes in setting up a new business. I didn’t see my daughters properly for two years. I still have to mum and wife, clean and cook in the house, I can’t say I am tired. There are so many strong women I know who have helped me in my journey and they are very powerful, strong and knowledgeable about their work.
There are so many strong women I know who have helped me in my journey and they are very powerful, strong and knowledgeable about their work.
Your forte is “modern but faithful Punjabi-Bengali cooking.” How has the mix of these two cultures influenced you and how do you stand apart in the slew of “Indian” restaurants and curry houses in the UK?
I was born and brought up in West Bengal to a Punjabi family, so my food is influenced by my growing years. What I have done is use the spices used in street food I have grown up with and cook with the ingredients that I never knew about until I came to the UK. As a chef one has to be creative and keep learning. I am always very inquisitive and ready to learn every day. That’s the beauty about food, for me it’s all about sharing and knowing about different cultures.
As a chef one has to be creative and keep learning. I am always very inquisitive and ready to learn every day.
What are your challenges now as an established and awarded restaurant owner to stay on top of the race?
I want a new challenge now, Romy’s Kitchen in Thornbury gave me a vision and hope that I can be respected for my food. I am very proud to be called a chef and I have damn well earned it. I now have new challenges in my kitty. Watch this space.
How do you see food trends as far as Indian food goes in 2019, both in the UK and across the world?
Food trends come and go, and I personally think food should be wholesome, comforting and creative. It should like the scene where Harry met Sally! As Indians, we are so lucky that we have so many regional food and the spices work as magic.
As Indians, we are so lucky that we have so many regional food and the spices work as magic.
And finally congratulations on your book, do tell us what is the focus of the book and how has the process of researching and writing it been for you?
While growing up my parents’ focus was all about giving us a good education and good pure food. It was not about eating meat or fish every day. My mom never cooked in ghee either. So our food was very plant-based, this was the food I grew up eating. Veganism has become so much like a rat race, that people don’t understand that in India we have regional food, and amongst regional food we have the caste system, rituals, celebrations and poverty. So, I wanted to write a book about the food I ate in India and the plant-based recipes that I cook now. I had to convince my publishers about it and they believed in me. I am very excited about it and I have worked really hard on it.
I wanted to write a book about the food I ate in India and the plant-based recipes that I cook now. I had to convince my publishers about it and they believed in me. I am very excited about it and I have worked really hard on it.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV