This week OVERDUE speaks to Journalist, Author and Restauranteur Ravinder Bhogal, Chef Patron at Jikoni in London’s Marylebone, about cooking for NHS frontline workers and the homeless, her pandemic pivots and the importance of regeneration.
Words Miranda Wilkinson
“At the beginning of 2020 my husband Nadeem and I were really excited as it was our fourth year in business with our restaurant Jikoni. We felt we had finally found our groove in a way. The first two years of any business are a massive learning curve and now we’d finally found our dream team, gathering a group of people who shared our vision and our values.
At the restaurant, we’d been running an amazing project called Civilised Sundays. Every six weeks we were inviting who we thought were cultural leaders to give talks over dinner, with a menu I created that told the story of each speaker’s life. We had some very eminent people like William Dalrymple, Sathnam Sanghera, Nitin Sawhney, Tishani Doshi and Salman Rushdie and Claudia Roden were booked for March and April.
And then suddenly this thing just came out of nowhere and completely blind-sided us…
We closed our restaurant before the government mandated it as many of our employees lived with vulnerable people and those in the at-risk category. It was very painful for a restaurant like ours, which is all about neighbourhood and community and always has a lovely buzz to see bookings plummet. So, we cut our losses and closed and took two weeks out and at that time, we both got ill, not sure whether it was COVID or not.
After that, I started reading all the coverage about NHS workers and what they were going through, and I said to Nadeem, we have to do something. This felt like a call to action, for people who could, and we could as we were healthy and had a kitchen that needed to be put to use.
By chance, a friend’s wife from University put up an appeal on Facebook for the NHS Wellness box, providing the light relief of basic toiletries and snacks for NHS staff working eye-wateringly long shifts. I called her and asked if the staff at King’s College hospital would like hot food delivered and she said yes.
We made 60 meals twice a week; I cooked and Nadeem washed up; it was just a really brilliant experience, it was wonderful to get messages from nurses or staff who had taken their meals home post a 13-hour shift and didn’t have to cook.
My feeling when I was cooking those meals was, this is a time that is so challenging and we all feel slightly alone and it’s all a bit jarring and I wanted to give people a taste of home – comfort food, not restaurant food. When we were thinking about the hospitals, they have such vast international communities, so I wanted to provide globally inspired meals that would remind them of home; so we made dishes from Palestine, Egypt, India, always something different every week. We eventually got a call from King’s College to say that things had stabilised, so we decided to partner with a charity.
We then started cooking meals for Nishkam Swat, who are incredible, due to the rise in homelessness and the lack of food available from restaurants and other food outlets having closed. This also felt very close to home as lots of individuals from the hospitality industry, our industry, had been affected, losing their jobs and at times their homes. We were so inspired by the work that they do and felt we had to continue because this need isn’t going to go away.
The weird silver lining of Lockdown was time to think, when the restaurant is open it’s incredibly busy. We’d always wanted to launch a vegetarian delivery business and I finally had the time to work on it. I sat down on the sofa and said to Nadeem, all people really want right now is comfort and joy and at that moment I knew that was what Jikoni’s little sister should be called.
I emerged two weeks later with recipes and started testing them. With everything going on we felt strongly that we didn’t want to compromise at all on this new brand. Comfort and Joy is a vegan and vegetarian meal box, inspired by meals I had as a child, a balanced and flavoursome selection of dishes but with a Jikoni global infusion. All of the packaging is 100% home compostable; in 90 days it turns to soil, there is nothing left. All the food is cooked on green renewable energy sources and all our gas is carbon neutral. We then decided that for every meal box we sold, we would donate a meal to Nishkam Swat, so it just felt like a very regenerative and positive thing to come out of something like Lockdown, which has been so challenging.
I think for me, of course it’s not been easy to have to close the restaurant and the pressures that come with that, but I think it’s an opportunity for us to re-engineer the world that we want to be part of and think how do we change once things are better. How do we not forget about this and go back to our old ways? How do we stop and think and create things that we can feel proud of and things that are positive and things that are adding to society and things that feel regenerative and are closing social divides?
It’s wonderful for me as an employer to be able to give my team something so positive to work on; you can literally feel the purpose with which people are working, they know that this is something that actually gives back and it’s a real feeling of pride for me to work with such an incredible organisation, like Nishkam Swat, who provide meals to people most in need, whatever their situation, no questions asked.
You always need to look towards regenerative ways of coming out of challenging situations, it’s important to keep going and keep relevant. I also launched my book during Lockdown which was tough but again it was great to have messages from people and seeing people cook my recipes during that time.
We’ve now partnered with Supermarket of Dreams to provide boxes for them to retail, which means I can offer my team shift work and help with their mental health.
And this week we launched our Christmas hampers, available on our website which can be delivered nationwide. We have such a wonderful team and I want to keep creating opportunities for myself and them; this is what keeps us agile.” Ravinder Bhogal.