Romy Gill on the meals of her childhood, her love of sharing, and how food can be a saviour in troubled times
Interview: Clare Finney
In 2013 in Thornbury, a small town just outside Bristol, an unknown chef named Romy Gill opened an Indian—authentically Indian—restaurant. Being a woman, an immigrant from West Bengal and having no restaurant experience to speak of, her loan application had been rejected by numerous banks—so she sold her jewellery and used the proceeds, alongside her savings, to bring the cooking of her childhood to her new hometown. Two years later she was appointed an MBE in the Queen's 90th birthday honours list. Today, her restaurant has recently closed, but her cooking lives on in her writing, her demos, her TV appearances and her debut cookbook, Zaika, which celebrates the eclectic yet wholesome cuisine she grew up eating in West Bengal.
You are not vegan yourself, yet Zaika is a vegan cookbook and you have described it as a collection of recipes you “grew up eating”. What was the food of your childhood like?
When I was growing up, meat was for special occasions. It wasn’t regarded as a necessity, either by the rich, the poor or the middle classes. You might eat meat when you went out, but even then you would have plenty of dals, subjis and pickles alongside. For my parents, education was very important: neither mum nor dad spoke English, so their priority was that I went to an English-speaking private school. That’s what they saved their money for. Mum’s other priority was giving me good wholesome food. These are the dishes I grew up with, and I wanted my first book to be about that. The environment is very important, cutting down on our meat consumption is important, but my book is not so much about that. It is for my kids and their friends and anyone else to cook from.
Sadly, your mum passed away just before you started shooting the recipes for the book, many of which were her creations. How did you manage?
It was such a tough time. Mum had passed away, I came back from India, and within a week I had opened the restaurant and was doing the photography for the book. It was so emotional going through these recipes. I used to call mum whenever something didn’t work and she would always ask what mood I was in—if I wasn’t happy, she said it would be reflected in my food. It’s quite an old fashioned way of looking at things, I suppose, but actually when you look through the book now the recipes do sort of reflect my mood at the time. Somehow my photographer, Del Sneddon, and art director Matt Inwood, managed to capture how I was feeling, with darkness and light, and it was a form of consolation working with them. I’d say, “Can we do it this way, because that’s how mum would have done it”—and they’d see me holding back my tears, and they really captured those recipes in a way that would make her and my family proud.
To what extent do you feel a responsibility, as an Indian woman striving—and succeeding—in an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated profession, to serve as a figurehead for female chefs?
I am a good chef. Being an immigrant, brown, female—all that comes later. I want people to respect my food before that, so I don’t play the immigrant card or the woman card: I play with food. I don’t only want to help women. I have helped women, I want to help women—but there are a lot of men I have helped, and a lot of men who helped me: Alan Jenkins at the Guardian, Dimitri Houtart at the BBC, Jamie Oliver, not to mention my brother, my father and my husband. I’ve always had very good male role models and I don’t think divisions are helpful, in the kitchen or anywhere else. In my restaurant, I always tried to have a gender balance.
You did pioneer the Seven Sisters, a feast for Action Against Hunger cooked at Borough Market entirely by leading female chefs…
Seven Sisters came about because no male chefs agreed to do it. It was incredibly special, though. It was lovely to cook in a kitchen with no egos, and so many great things have come out of it. But at the same time, if anyone of any gender or background comes to my door looking for help in the industry, I am going to help.
You have spoken recently about food being a saviour in troubled times. How has it saved you?
I have only started speaking about my past very recently, after I spoke to my now-teenage daughters about it. Before the book launch, I spoke to them about my abusive first marriage, and what I went through, and how I ended up with their father, my amazing husband. I don’t want pity. I don’t want sympathy. I want people to understand that I can cook, that I love and respect the ingredients, and that I am creative—but yes, food saved me. Cooking the meals of my childhood saved me many times in my life.
You grew up in the industrial town of Burnpur, where people from all over India worked in the steel plant and ate together, bringing together an eclectic mix of cuisines and cultures. How do you think that shaped your own approach to food?
I am so lucky to have been born where I was. I think if my dad had stayed in the Punjab, I wouldn’t have had the same education, the same respect for other cultures. Where I grew up, everyone was born from the nose to the tail of India: they looked different, spoke different languages, wore different clothes and cooked differently, yet I realised that when food is put on a table it communicates something, even if you don’t speak the same language. You dig in and you enjoy the moment together. That sense of sharing in each other’s food is one of the really good things about the UK: there is a lot that’s bad, but one of the good thing is the immigrants who come here and start cooking with love, and the people who open their arms to them and their food and recipes. This is my homeland now, and I have learned a lot from being here. I love that sense of exchange.