A Call to Action

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.  

JIKONI, Lon­don

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.