The past six months have been some of real change for Bristol-based chef Romy Gill. Sat in her Thornbury kitchen at the dinner table (she’s only gone and made me lunch!), we do a quick recap. First came the release of her debut cookbook, Zaika, in September, followed by the closure of her popular Thornbury restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen. It was around this same time that it was announced she was to be amongst the chef line-up for the reboot of Ready Steady Cook, set to air this spring. (That’s right, get your green peppers and red tomatoes at the ready!)
Romy, who grew up in West Bengal, East India, could not have predicted when she arrived in the UK at 22 that all this was in store for her here. In fact, trying to get a food career off the ground was far from her mind – she had other hurdles to overcome.
“When I came here everything was different,” she says. “The culture, the language… Of course, I could speak English, but I couldn’t understand some people because the dialect was different. I didn’t have any friends and the weather when I came was so dull – the excitement soon turned into misery!”
Romy found the food she grew up with – like so many people who move abroad do – to be one of the biggest comforts she could turn to. So, she started cooking to sate her cravings, but also to make new friends, often creating feasts for people to share in her kitchen at home.
“I loved dinner parties,” she tells me. “I used to have lots and lots. I think that was my way of coping with missing my family and friends and things. Food kind of saved me in that sense.
“I felt happy cooking. Learning how to cook with different vegetables or fruits I could get here that I’d not seen before – that really gave me comfort.”
Romy wasn’t always so keen to spend time at the stove, though. Growing up, she was far more interested in running around and playing cricket or badminton with her brother and his friends than helping her mum in the kitchen. That said, mealtimes were still a priority.
“When I was very little, I just wanted to eat – that was all I wanted to do! I didn’t want to help my mum in the kitchen, I always had the biggest excuses.
“I’d eat the food that she would make me at home, but maybe I didn’t like something so I wouldn’t eat much, and then I’d go to my friend’s house or my neighbour’s house and say that my mum hadn’t fed me,” she laughs. “They knew she had, and that I just wanted to eat the food that they were having too.”
This community of friends and neighbours is how Romy developed her knowledge of food from across the subcontinent. In contrast to the way much Indian food is presented in Britain, it doesn’t have national commonalities.
“There’s no such thing as ‘Indian food’,” she says. “Indian food is very regional, every household will cook differently: methods, techniques, everything.
“I think with Dishoom [the small group of Indian restaurant in London] coming, a lot of things changed for British people in terms of Indian food. Their food isn’t just good, but it’s accessible for everybody, the students, the families – everybody could go there and eat. And it’s tasty – it’s not the generic food that people can be used to. Dishoom brought us food that was from the different regions.
“Of course, before that, there were Michelin-star Indian restaurants, but not necessarily everyone could go there. So good, regional Indian food was here, but it was high-end food.”
It just so happened that Romy lived in an area of real culinary diversity. See, her parents – originally from Punjab in the north – moved there for her father to take a job at the steel plant, one that people came from all over India to work at.
“So my food when I was growing up was not just the Punjabi food that I would eat at home, it was food that I would eat at other houses, and the street food,” she says. “We were very much a community that always stuck together and cooked together. Any excuse for a party – birthday, anniversary, or religious celebration, everyone would come together and bring the food from their own house and we would share.”
The dinner parties she threw in her new English home – and the resulting friends that the colourful spreads would net her – were the seedlings of Romy’s future food career. Encouraged by her guests, she started to teach her cookery, hiring the local community centre to hold classes.
“I think that kind of gave me the encouragement to be able to do all of this,” she tells me. “You really have to come out of your shell.”
Then she started making street food – samosas and such – before eventually opening her restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen, in 2013, which wasn’t without its challenges.
“The restaurant was in the pipeline for a while. It took three-and-a-half years to get the planning, then nearly nine months for the builders to finish it, and in between I had to fight for a loan because none of the banks would help me. But then the BBC came along and asked me to feature on the national news in a piece about the government giving loans to the banks to give to small businesses, except they weren’t handing it out. Thankfully, it worked and they started to.”
The restaurant became popular with locals, and soon enough diners were travelling from all over to visit. Romy had the lease here for 10 years, giving it up in autumn of 2019 when new owners took over the building and rates increased.
The food she cooked here, and indeed still does cook at events and for recipes, is about making use of the UK’s native bounty to create a new take on the kinds of dishes she grew up eating (and bribing neighbours to give her a taste of). She calls herself a British-Indian chef.
Before landing in the UK more than two decades ago, Romy had never laid eyes on asparagus, for instance, and took it upon herself to experiment with all this novel produce in the Indian meals that she missed so much, by combining them with spices. And this practice has informed her cooking ever since
She pulls a jar of garam masala from her kitchen cupboard that her dad gave her, having ground the whole spices himself. It smells warm, aromatic, even a touch sweet, and unlike any shop-bought version I’ve whiffed. This is a trusty spice blend for Romy, who has some definite favourites.
“For me, it’s the cumin. Cumin is the most versatile, earthy, warm… Then, when you chew it, it’s the lemony flavour that comes out. But I’m also totally in love with Nigella seeds.
“Then there’s a spice blend which is in the book – you can make it or buy it – called panch phoron, which is five whole Indian spices. If you were to leave me on a desert island, I’d want those spices!”
This kind of Indian cookery with a British edge is exactly what her book is about. The plant-based recipe collection that makes up Zaika wasn’t, interestingly, the original book she planned on publishing though, she tells me.
“I just wanted to do a book about the kind of food I grew up eating, my mum would cook and the ingredients that you can easily find. And growing up, for my parents, meat was not a necessity. Also, I’d seen people in India who didn’t even have clean water – how were they going to get meat and have milk?
“So I wrote to my publisher and was, like, I know we’re supposed to be doing this book, but how about a vegan book?”
Make no mistake, though: this is no vegan chef.
“I’ve always said that I eat meat, and we made sure the book was not criticising eating meat. I just wanted to show how people eat in India and also how people can introduce more vegetables to their diet. Years ago, the meat was very good quality in this country; we’d support our local butchers. We don’t do that any more and now you can buy a whole chicken for just a few pounds – how can you justify that? Writing the book was for all of that.”
Soon to make her debut on Ready Steady Cook – the whole series of which she’d just finished filming in Glasgow when we caught up – Romy is about to have yet another lifestyle overhaul, no doubt, as a TV personality. And the show is a particularly apt one for her to be a part of.
“When I came to the UK, at that point, 26 years ago, there was Keith Floyd on television, Two Fat Ladies (I used to adore them!) and Ready Steady Cook. I just got hooked – I always wanted to go and sit in the audience. And now I’m one of the chefs on that iconic programme.”
The well-known show ran from 1994 until 2010, presented by Fern Britton and later Ainsley Harriott, with two pairs of contestants pitted against each other to cook the best meal from a bag of ingredients, with the help of a chef. The new 2020 version of the show sees Rylan Clark-Neal take the role of host.
“The contestants they’ve got – my god, they’re amazing. They empty their bags and then you just have to think what to make from it all. For me, the challenge was creating Japanese or British food – all kinds. I was amazed even at myself!
“It was also great seeing the other chefs put ingredients together that I’d never have thought of. I learnt so much.”
Those other chefs, of which there are three, each bring a very different element to the show, says Romy.
“Ellis [Barrie] is so funny; he’s the youngest one, he’s like a hyper child but in a fun way, he’s very generous. Akus [Petretzikis] is from Greece. He’s very famous there, everybody knows him, so for him to come and be doing the Greek food… He fitted in so nicely. Anna [Haugh] is the most hilarious woman I’ve ever met, she’s so wonderful and is a great chef and is going to go a long way. And then Mike [Reid] is so cool, so chilled out, so calm. He really brings out the calmness in you. Just like Ellis’ hyperness brings out the energy in you and Akus’ competitiveness brings out the competitor in you… And then on the top was Rylan. He just eased us into it so well. There’s a focus on up-to-date food themes in the episodes too, including cooking on a budget and minimising waste.
“It was all very sustainable. There was no plastic, and even the oil that we used would get collected. No clingfilm, no plastic bags or jugs.”
Romy has heaps more plans in the pipeline. By the time you’ll be reading this, she’ll have taken part in Fortnum and Mason’s Culinary Salon along with columnist Meera Soda and the co-founder of Dishoom, Shamil Thakrar.
“It’s all Indian chefs – it’s a huge deal to be part of it,” Romy says. “And I’m so proud to be doing a vegan dinner at the James Beard Foundation in New York, too. I’m also doing some recipe cards and dinner events with Riverford.
“Eventually, I will open another restaurant. But I don’t want to do it just for the sake of it, so I’m taking my time. I’m also writing my next book, but it’s going to be very different to Zaika…”
There’s plenty more to come from this ambitious chef, then.