scorecardI'm a TV chef with my own London restaurant. Here's how beating thousands to win a competition led to a dramatic career change at 30.
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I'm a TV chef with my own London restaurant. Here's how beating thousands to win a competition led to a dramatic career change at 30.

Claire Turrell   

I'm a TV chef with my own London restaurant. Here's how beating thousands to win a competition led to a dramatic career change at 30.
Careers4 min read
Ravinder Bhogal at her restaurant.    Rahil Ahme
  • Ravinder Bhogal, 42, co-owns Jikoni, a restaurant in London's upmarket Marylebone neighborhood.
  • In 2007, she beat 9,000 others to win a competition on Gordon Ramsay's TV show, "The F Word."

This as-told-to article is based on a conversation with Ravinder Bhogal, a 42-year-old chef and author from London. It has been edited for length and clarity.

My journey to becoming a chef with my own restaurant, two cookbooks, and columns in national newspapers began in Kenya.

As a little girl I used to cook my grandfather chapati, an Indian flatbread, over a small stove he bought me.

My family relocated to England when I was 7. I started work in my 20s as a beauty writer for More magazine in London around 2004. I would often cook for family and friends, sharing recipes from my East African, Indian, and Persian heritage.

One of my colleagues encouraged me to enter a competition to become the next TV celebrity chef on Gordon Ramsay's program "The F Word" in 2007.

Nine thousand women applied, and I won. It started with a video application of me cooking monkfish and prawn curry in my kitchen and finished with me cooking chicken stuffed with mushrooms, lemon zest, garlic, and coriander in 20 minutes in a studio for three Michelin-star chefs. After it finished filming, I went back to work.

I didn't realize how winning would affect my career until the show aired later in the year.

I started getting calls from agents and signed a book deal with Harper Collins in 2008. My first book "Cook in Boots" was published the following year and won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award UK's best first cookbook.

My book deal meant I was financially secure enough to leave my role at the magazine. I had worked hard to become a beauty writer. I had interned at magazines, did a post-grad in journalism, and worked my way up, but food was where my heart lay, and now I had a chance to do it.

In 2010, I became a host of the Channel 4 program "Food: What's In Your Basket" with the food critic Jay Rayner and filmed my own TV show in India called "Ravinder's Kitchen" in 2013.

I thought I would just switch beauty for food writing and presenting. But then Rayner, after tasting the food I cooked on set, pushed me to consider cooking in a restaurant.

The London pop-up scene was really taking off at that time. In 2012, the chef Anna Hansen from The Modern Pantry asked if I wanted to do a pop-up at her restaurant.

In one evening, with a couple of people helping me, I cooked for 90 — until then I had only cooked for family and friends. It was such an adrenaline rush having people tell me they loved my proudly inauthentic dishes.

I'm East African and Indian with Persian ancestry, and I'm a Londoner. I cook the kind of things I would cook for my family and friends, like prawn toast Scotch egg, which I serve with banana ketchup and pickled cucumber.

Over the next six years, I spent time learning the trade. When I wasn't writing or running pop-ups or catering private events, I was helping in restaurant kitchens. I did everything from chopping vegetables and making sauces to sometimes running the pass.

I worked in some really great kitchens with some great mentors, but I also worked in some really hard kitchens that could break you.

There's no doubt, the tougher kitchens nearly put me off the trade. It was my single-mindedness and an increase in private-catering bookings that kept me going. When the Michelin-star chef Brett Graham asked me to cater his birthday party, it was a turning point in my confidence.

I started to think about owning my own restaurant. It took the food critic Fay Maschler to give me the final push. At one of my pop-ups she took me to one side and said: "Stop being such a coward and find a space of your own."

In 2016, I opened Jikoni ("kitchen" in Swahili) in Marylebone, one of the most exclusive parts of London.

Jikoni is an extension of my home. I wanted to create a menu that represented my experience as an immigrant in London.

When I first opened the restaurant, I was working as chef patron seven days a week. I wouldn't eat all day, and then I would grab whatever I could. Now that I'm five years into my restaurant, my life has a bit more structure.

The pandemic was the hardest challenge so far. We were closed to the public for months. During this time, my husband and co-owner, Nadeem, and I decided to use our kitchen to cook for the UK's National Health Service.

The pandemic encouraged us to be more agile. We launched a vegetarian home-delivery brand called Comfort & Joy, and we also focused on making our restaurant carbon-neutral. Our energy now comes from solar, wind, and green gas; and we have partnered with a local biodynamic farm for our fresh produce.

Every day of my week is different. On one day I might be doing admin; the next I might be developing recipes for the restaurant or testing recipes for the columns I write.

Although writing played a major part in my journey as a chef and I love developing and sharing recipes, nothing compares to walking upstairs into the dining area of Jikoni.

The pleasure interacting with my guests and seeing my food in action is immeasurable.