Romy Hardeep Gill MBE, is the first Indian woman to own and run a restaurant in the UK. She is the owner and head chef of Romy's Kitchen and was appointed an MBE in the Queen's 90th Birthday Honours List in 2016. Romy regularly contributes to food publications including the Observer and the Guardian and her recipes have been featured in countless national newspapers and magazines. She is a regular on James Martin’s Saturday Morning show and has appeared on Celebrity MasterChef and The Hairy Bikers’ Comfort Food series, as well as featuring on the Food Network. Romy is the new monthly recipe columnist for Independent online and travels all over the world teaching cookery classes and speaking at events. She is a judge and presenter on the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming programme and has raised over £50,000 in her restaurant for charity.
When did you first become interested in cooking and how did you gain the confidence to begin teaching yourself?
When I grew up in India I was mainly interested in eating food and I was very curious about how spices could be used to create wonderful dishes. I was very lucky that my dad worked in a Steel plant because this meant that people came from all different states to work there and this is how I first was introduced to the many different flavours used in food! I started experimenting by feeding the workers and that gave me the confidence to teach and start selling my food at food festivals and markets and eventually, this led to me opening my own restaurant in Thornbury.
You grew up in a Punjabi family in West Bengal and then moved to the UK at the age of 23, how have all of these cultures influenced your taste as a chef?
Who I am today is because of the culture I grew up in, my supportive family and the food I was surrounded by. At college, my friends and I had very little money so we would put our weekly pocket money together and buy delicious street food and this became the inspiration behind a lot of the street food flavours in my own cooking.
One of The Female Lead’s key themes is ‘find strength in setbacks’. You told us that you opened your restaurant “against all odds” and that it has been a “struggle”, tell us about this and any particular obstacles or challenges that have affected your professional journey?
Opening Romy’s Kitchen was the biggest challenge I faced because the planning permissions took 3 and a half years to come through and then the building itself took another 9 months to complete! While anyone in their right mind would have given up, I didn't want to as I knew I had to open the restaurant in Thornbury so that I could be near my family. Four banks also refused me loans which meant I had to sell my jewellery and use my savings. However, the BBC then did a feature on me in the National News and the very next day Natwest gave me a loan!
How have you overcome these challenges?
Once the doors to Romy’s Kitchen were opened, like most restaurants, we were faced with the challenges of staffing and ensuring we had customers coming into the restaurant. After settling in we had another challenge, which was that no food critics came to write about the restaurant. I then got in touch with Carousel London to do a residency, they said yes and that changed a lot in my life. Grace Dent ate my food at Carousel and came to my restaurant and gave me an amazing review. My life changed a lot due to them and I really owe them a lot.
What do you love most about your job and what has been the highlight for you so far?
I love cooking and feeding people, this is where I belong and I wouldn’t know what else to do! I hope I can continue to encourage women and men to follow their passions and to make a career out of something they love. When I opened my restaurant, I was the first Indian woman to own and run a restaurant in the UK, it was all in my name and my husband was not even a partner. I also became the first Indian chef to have an MBE for the hospitality industry. There have been so many highlights throughout my career, but one that stands out the most for me is when I was invited to The Mad Symposium as a speaker!
You received an MBE for hospitality - what has this meant for you and your career?
I came from a very small town in West Bengal in India. I never dreamed of having my own restaurant but I always wanted to work in one. Never in a million years did I think I would be honoured an MBE… I am very proud of my achievements but know they would never have been possible without my family and the people who helped me in my journey.
You’ve said that your family have been a huge source of support and inspiration for you, are there any other particular female role models or mentors who have supported or inspired you?
My mum and dad have played such a huge part in terms of where I am today but there have also been many inspiring women who I have looked up to throughout my journey. Clare Mcgin, Head of BBC Radio Production and Editor for Food Programme, has always believed in me when other people didn’t. Sheila Dillon has also been my rock. I encourage all girls to find a role model or mentor to look up to, for guidance, inspiration and support and my advice would be to never forget the people who helped you on your journey.
What advice would you give to any young girls who wanted to get involved in the hospitality industry?
Honestly, find a mentor who will genuinely guide you. It’s a tough industry, and you have to work hard but at the same time, it’s a very rewarding place too.
Finally, what dish would you most recommend to a newcomer visiting Romy’s kitchen for the first time?
Butter Chicken and Samosas Chaat!