The Irrepressible Romy Gill

What I like about Chef Romy Gill is her neversay-die spirit. A Member of the Order of the British Empire, this award-winning chef of Indian origin, made her cookbook debut in 2019 with Zaika: Vegan Recipes from India, despite it being rejected by 15 publishers. She sold her jewelry and exhausted her savings to partially fund her first restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen (opened in 2013), a popular culinary establishment that took Gill almost seven years to launch. However, it cemented her spot as the first Indian woman chef to own a restaurant in the U.K.

Over the years, Gill has become a force to be reckoned with, despite being a South Asian woman from a small Indian town with no prior experience in the white, male dominated hospitality industry. Across continents, connected by a phone line, Gill opened up about her pivotal life experiences – including overcoming the trauma of an abusive first marriage and losing her mother to cancer – that have helped make her the culinary giant she is today.

“EVERY RECIPE NEEDS TO TELL A STORY, BECAUSE ALL OF US HAVE DIFFERENT STORIES TO TELL.”

What is your fondest memory of cooking in your childhood home?

My father worked at a steel plant in Burnpur, West Bengal, where people came from all over India to work. So we lived in a multicultural community with a diverse range of cuisines. When I was young, I used to visit my friends’ houses and eat their home-cooked meals. When I’d return home, I’d ask my mother, “Why does your daal taste different from others?” I realized that people from Kerala, Kashmir, Rajasthan or Gujarat cooked differently – their cooking techniques were different, but the spices they used were more or less the same. That’s when I realized that I wanted to learn more about food. I began asking my mum when she was cooking in the kitchen, “Why are you putting this in the dish and not that?”

When I was giving my 12th standard exams, my mum was diagnosed with cancer. That was really the turning point for me. It made me realize that I wanted to become a chef. Coming back to your question, I think my fondest memory is going to my friends’ homes when I was probably nine- or ten-years-old, eating their food and then returning home to pester my mum by asking her all cooking-related questions.

Was there a special dish she prepared that inculcated your love for cooking?

I think it’s always going to be her parathas. My mother could make a hundred parathas using different techniques. She was fantastic in that way. Whether it was sattu ka paratha or aloo ka paratha – she created magic. Also, in our culture, we don’t really measure ingredients. Here, in the UK, if you are a chef, you have to weigh everything. I think our technique of cooking is so different. So, I will always remember my mom through her parathas and the way she cooked.

You mentioned that all the dishes in your debut cookbook, Zaika: Vegan Recipes from India, are connected to family. To what degree did your mother inspire your cookbook?

Zaika turned out to be a homage to my mum when she passed away (Gill initially had plans to go in another direction with her cookbook). When I spoke to my publishers, I asked
them if I could write about the dishes my mum would cook for us. For instance, Sundays were important days as a family, because that’s when my dad had the day off. We would
all sit together and watch black and-white television. My neighbors, who did not have television, would come over and we’d watch cartoons. Or, when we traveled by train,
my mum would pack food for the family. There would be things like bharre karele (stuffed bitter gourd) or parathas prepared by her, which kept us satisfied during travel. Those train journeys have been deeply memorable. So, for me, a cookbook is not just a recipe book. It has to have meaning to it. Zaika is like a memoir.

Two days after attending my mum’s funeral in India, I had to return to the UK to do the photo shoot for the book. My publishers had been unable to change the dates of the scheduled shoot, since we had already rescheduled it a couple of times before. When I began cooking, I think the photographer was able to capture what I was feeling. My emotions reflected in the way I cooked. People grieve differently; they have different ways
of coping. This was my way. All of that shows in the book. That’s why I think the book has done really well, because people really connected to it. I think they could understand what I was trying to convey.

I’m writing my next book, which will not come out till 2022. However, I don’t want another book on the shelf which is only a recipe book. The book has to be about establishing a connection. Every recipe needs to tell a story, because all of us have different stories to tell.

What prompted your shift to the U.K. in 1993 and what experiences led you to take on the ambitious, yet daunting task of opening a restaurant?

I don’t talk about this often, but when I was young, I really wanted to study in the U.K. My parents thought it might be best if I was married to someone who lived in the U.K. I was 21-years-old and naive at the time, and Burnpur was a very small town. So, a proposal came and we took it. I think it was a naivete on my parents’ side as well, because they didn’t think there was a need to do a background check. However, after getting married, when I came to the U.K., it was a completely different scenario. My former husband’s family did not want me to go to a university, nor were they very nice people.

“THE BANKS WERE NOT GIVING ME A LOAN. ONE, I WAS A WOMAN. TWO, I WAS A BROWN WOMAN. THREE, I HAD NEVER OPENED A RESTAURANT BEFORE. SO, ALL THESE THINGS PUT ME IN A CERTAIN CATEGORY. ”

I think the turning point in my life came when my ex-husband brought me back to India, took away my Indian passport and left me there. I was 22 at the time. I told my parents, “Look, you have given me the best education in my life. You’ve given me everything, but you have to send me back to the UK.” So, we filed a police report, wrote to the British Embassy and got another passport. It wasn’t easy; I suddenly grew up. Later, I fought for my divorce in the UK, and eventually went to a university to study. That’s where I met my current husband who is absolutely a wonderful man.

I think the experience with my former husband made me so strong that it eventually led me to open my restaurant. In life, there will be a turning point where something
will happen to you, which will make you so strong that you will be able to do anything after that. I didn’t have a godfather or a godmother in the hospitality industry. I did
what I did on my own. I always tell my daughters, one traumatic experience in your life cannot make or break you. You cannot let it define you.

I didn’t talk about this earlier, because I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I wanted them to talk about my cooking, not about my past. But now I’ve started talking about it to motivate other women and help them in some way.

You also sold jewelry to fund your restaurant?

Yes. Diamonds and other jewelry are things your parents gift you. I rang mine and told them that I didn’t want money from them or anyone else. I just wanted to start my restaurant. It was no one else’s decision, except my husband’s and mine. My daughters were also very young at the time. So, I sold my jewelry. Moreover, the banks were not giving me a loan. One, I was a woman. Two, I was a brown woman. Three, I had never opened a restaurant before. So, all these things put me in a certain category. But when I came on BBC News, then NatWest Bank gave me the loan I needed and it was brilliant to have their support. However, it hasn’t been easy for me. Nothing has come easy in life.

“DO NOT WAIT FOR OPPORTUNITIES. MAKE YOUR OWN.”

What advice do you have for young South Asian women aspiring to be entrepreneurs?

I’ve learned from my parents that giving is very important. When the pandemic struck, I realized that everything on my calendar was canceled. So, I started cooking for the NHS [National Health Service] staff. Then, a friend of mine suggested that I should help raise money and I thought it was a great idea. So, I was cooking Tuesdays and Fridays for 10 weeks straight and I was raising money for the NHS. In addition, if you go to my Instagram page, [you will see that] I used to post one recipe each day. I published 80 recipes on Instagram for free. What I am trying to say is, do not wait for opportunities. Make your own. Of course, there will be people who will say, “No, no, no!” However, eventually somebody will say, ‘Yes’. My motto is, write to people. You never know who might be in the right frame of mind to say yes to you. Youngsters should never be scared to follow what they want to do and they should never be afraid to ask for help. I’ve always told my daughters that you have to fight for your corners. You might be lucky or it might take years for you to get recognized, but make your own opportunities.

Also, never forget the people who’ve actually helped you. You really need to acknowledge those people. However, the hard work is your own. It is important that if you believe in something and [make sure] you are good at it. Then you have to work for it. You cannot expect other people to do it for you.