Earlier this summer we were invited to party at Jikoni. It was to be a celebration of the fleeting mango season, and it was the first time we’d been out in what felt like forever. Arriving at the restaurant with its hum of conversation, sitting amongst pretty block-printed tablecloths, and feasting on delicious mango curry was nothing short of heaven. It was like being brought back to life, which seems entirely in the spirit of Jikoni, the ‘maternal kitchen’ Ravinder Bhogal intended. One of London’s most feminine and warm restaurants, we had to go back to interview the founder herself.
Where did you learn to cook?
Very reluctantly at my mother’s side. I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya amongst an extended family that was quite chaotic. There would be up to 25 people every day for lunch and dinner. At the same time it was a bit like growing up in a Jane Austen novel because we’re 4 sisters and my mother was very Victorian in her attitude that girls must learn to cook and clean. I am the youngest, and the rebel. But my mother hoiked me off my tricycle when I was about 5 and marched me to the kitchen. I was quite huffy about it initially and really upset because I could feel the gender bias. All the boy cousins were outside playing in the garden whilst all the girls were in the kitchen!
What made you want to continue cooking?
My grandfather – he was the inspiration for Jikoni. He was the kind of guy who ate with belt-loosening, brow-mopping joy and fervour. He loved sharing food; it was his greatest joy in life. He was also a Sikh and I grew up in the Sikh faith. One of the tenets of Sikhism is community service. He showed me that the easiest way to do community service is to feed people. That stuck with me and made me fall in love with food.
What was your favourite dish as a child?
I loved to eat raw mangoes that you’d buy on the roadside. They would make deep cuts all around the stone and then fill it with salt, chilli and sugar. Our Mango Margarita was inspired by that taste of sour, hot, salty, sweet.
I also loved baobab which is now something that clean eaters sprinkle on their cereal. In Kenya it was not served as a health food! There they would extract all the powder from the pods, and then make a sugar syrup adding spices, cardamom and chilli as well as bright red food colouring. Then they put the seeds back through it so that the powder formed clumps around the seeds for you to eat like fruit. The natural flavour of baobab is very sour, an explosion. I was banned from eating it because it would dye your mouth bright red. I sort of loved it because it made you look like you were wearing lipstick. At 5 that’s very exciting.
When did you move to London?
I was 7. It was a rude awakening. I had come from a colossal backdrop of ever-blue sky that was giant and never ending to a tiny flat above a shop. It was November and cold and we didn’t have central heating or a washing machine. It was really tough and led me to the kitchen even more. As an immigrant you really connect to the memories of home through food. It’s self-preservation as well.
Where you working before founding Jikoni?
I started my career as a beauty journalist. I worked for Look and Grazia, that was my thing. I knew I wanted to be a writer but food was my calling, my destiny. I made a very huge leap from working on magazines to finding myself in the food industry, mainly writing about food. Then I did a bit of television and found myself hosting a Channel 4 series with Jay Rayner who became like a mentor to me. He is basically a mouth on legs and would eat the food I was cooking and say – you have an incredible palate. He encouraged me to consider the restaurant trade.
So from there you began cooking professionally?
Yes, I started working in kitchens and doing pop-ups and supper clubs. Six years passed that way and Fay Maschler began coming to a few of my things. I was doing a six-week run at a hotel when she asked to speak to me at the end of the night. ‘When are you going to stop being such a coward and find a space of your own?’ she asked. It was a Virginia Woolf, Room of One’s Own type moment. I credit her for planting the seed and making it happen. It took another woman saying, yes, you’ve got this. And so I did it!
How did you find your restaurant?
It took me two years to find a site because I only wanted to open in Marylebone and there are just no sites. The competition for restaurant sites is ridiculous. I had done a pop up at Carousel and walked past when the space was boarded up. I went to the Pullman Estate and they said there’s no way in hell you’ll get this, there are over 40 interested parties. But I pitched my idea and I pestered them! Passion and persistence paid off. They didn’t have any female chefs in their estate, so I was bringing something different.
Why were you so keen to open in Marylebone?
It goes back to community. The word restaurant comes from the French word ‘to restore’ – the purpose of a restaurant is to be restorative to your team, to your guests, to your community, to the world around you, to your suppliers. I wanted to be in a neighbourhood where I could get to know the residents and find out what their dogs are called and how they like their gin and tonic poured. I have lots of regulars here.
What’s the top dish at Jikoni?
I think there would be a revolt if I ever took the banana cake off the menu. People call ahead to book it!
One of my other top dishes is Cereal Killer Prawns. They’re inspired by these Nestum prawns I had in Singapore that were fried in crushed sweet Nestum cereal, garlic, chilli and curry leaves. You can’t get Nestum here so I do a similar thing with porridge oats. Super popular!
Can you tell me about your tablecloths?
It was always my vision to have a place that felt like an extension of my home. I’ve always been obsessed with textiles and these are all hand-blocked by women. We now sell our tablecloths and napkins too, as well as hampers with them inside.
How has your heritage shaped your restaurant?
I feel it’s about bringing my ancestors with me. I come from a community where women are often just expected to join the cult of domesticity. It’s thankless and it’s hard and you don’t get any praise for it. I remember my mother saying to me, you will cook for your husband and your children. And I’ve not done that, I’ve taken it to a public forum where I’m paid for what I do. I feel I am representing and bringing to the fore those marginalised women. I feel very strongly that every time I stand at the pass my ancestors are standing shoulder-to-shoulder beside me and I feel incredibly proud that I am bringing their wisdom to the fore.
Does your husband cook?
No! He does and he can but I am too bossy to allow him in the kitchen. I turn into a devil with tongs and chase him out.
Does your husband work for Jikoni too?
Yes we are founding partners. He also runs a company called Creative Family that do branding, strategy and design for sustainable businesses mainly in the food space. He’s also just launched this amazing new company called Wildpress. The idea is to help farmers become more biodiverse whilst creating a new kind of apple juice using lesser-known varities. It’s delicious and feels more like drinking a natural wine than a sweet fruit juice.
Who have you got coming up in your Sunday Series?
Next up is the wonderful Anoushka Shankar on 14th November.
How do you create the menus for the Sunday Series?
I interview them about their childhood memories, favourite foods etc. It’s so lovely – depending on who it is the menu takes a different turn. We did an event with Tishani Doshi, which was one of my favourite menus because she’s half Welsh, half South Indian and married to an Italian. So we did all these incredible combinations of food and flavours.
What have you learnt from the pandemic?
I learnt how generous the hospitality industry is. Along with many others we cooked for the NHS and for vulnerable people in our community. That was a beautiful thing to be a part of. As a business we’ve had to learn to be agile both mentally and physically. I looked at the hospitality I give the team and we now close on Mondays and Tuesdays – I want everyone to have two days off together and have a work-life balance. And it also gave us the time and space to move towards being carbon neutral as a business.
What do you think is the future for restaurants?
I hope it’s more people taking responsibility for being positive parts of their communities. Restaurants are like an eco-system of a community. If you have good restaurants with good morals and good ethics and good values that spreads into your community. We’ve recently partnered with Waltham Place, a biodynamic farm 45 minutes from our restaurant so that’s really exciting.
What are your other go-to restaurants in London?
I love The Wolseley. It’s impeccable and I have learnt so much for them. Before I opened my restaurant I went there just to forensically watch and learn about hospitality and how it works. I have a great admiration for Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, I think they are the kings of restaurants. I also love Morito on Hackney Road, and Sabor is next on my list.