Romy’s Kitchen is both homely and exotic – a wonderful mix of warmth, friendliness and cultural creativity. Nested within the framework of familiar, slightly wavy Elizabethan cottage beams, the typical white plaster has been painted a warm, earthy Indian terracotta and inside wafts the lyrical sound of Indian music. Romy is clearly a chef who has given being British her own flavour. Don’t get her started on cultural appropriation though…
I was greeted by the ever-charming John, who looked after me superbly while “Chef” was finishing up in the kitchen. Later on, when Romy realised they were overbooked for the evening and had to come up with a makeshift seating arrangement. John assured her that all would be fine and he would “work his Johnny charm”. I could well believe that those guests would be swept off their feet completely and would hardly notice the makeshift arrangement. As Romy said herself, having an excellent team, is essential to the running of a restaurant.
One thing that was very apparent was that “Kitchen” was very much the appropriate name for the restaurant. It was like joining Romy’s family for dinner. I could even see Romy working away in the kitchen from my seat by the window. She was preparing long skewers of kebabs presumably for the evening meal.
Once all was ready, she joined me for a lunch of Indian dishes, with her own take on the classic coleslaw. Quite opposite to what I was expecting it was very light and refreshing. Romy explained this was because of the excellent yoghurt she sources locally from Jess’s Ladies Organic Farm and the addition of cardamom. It was probably the first time she’d sat down all morning. Apparently, the editors of her new cookbook were keeping her particularly busy.
RG: I had to fight very hard for this, but I’ve got it. It’s going to be a plant-based cook book. I wanted to do this because I think a lot of people have very little idea of what it means to eat a plant-based diet in many parts of the world. Coming from an Indian background, that’s pretty much all we ate growing up. Meat was simply too expensive for most people. We might have had paneer once a week, but that was it. My parents had other priorities. They wanted to send us to private school and ensure we could speak English. My father couldn’t, but he worked hard to make sure we could.
I think my editors were concerned that it would be another Deliciously Ella style book that focused on the healthy aspects of a plant-based diet, but I’m not interested in healthy. I’m interested in taste.
SD: How did you come to set up Romy’s Kitchen?
RG: When I first moved to the area, I was taking part in lots of food festivals. I got to know a lot of local chefs that way and I was lucky because they were very helpful, when I came to set up my own restaurant. Josh at The Pony Trap in particular helped me out with lots of suppliers. The best way of knowing whether a supplier is any good is to ask the local chefs. The level of service they provide is so important. It’s not just about what they produce, although of course that’s a big part.
SD: What level of service do you look for in a supplier?
RG: They have to be able to respond and deliver quickly. It’s hard work being a chef and sometimes things get overlooked. Recently I forgot to order the venison and we had a full house in the evening. I was able to call my venison supplier, and they went out of their way to make sure we had enough. I have strong relationships with all my suppliers and have bought from them ever since I started. I’m not about to change either. When you have a good supplier, you want to stick with them. That way you know they’ll help you out when you need it.
SD: You have incorporated ingredients new to you when you moved to Britain into your Indian dishes. Can you give a few examples?
RG: Well, I’d never seen a supermarket before so lots of things were new to me. I’d never seen an avocado for example. Initially I hated them, but now I love them. Asparagus was another one. The season is short, but it’s wonderful when they’re out. There’s a local farm that I get them from.
SD: I see on your door that you are Slow Food supporter. What does that mean?
RG: Slow food is effectively the opposite of fast food. It’s not so much about the speed of cooking, but to do with the care put into producing the food, so sourcing local more artisanal produce and then cooking it well. My fish comes from Brixham and my meat from Somerset. They’re all excellent quality.
SD: You were selected to judge the World Restaurant Awards this year. How did you feel when they invited you?
RG: Of course, I was honoured, but I also wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just being asked because I was a brown face. I don’t often say yes to awards, but I think it’s important that women are properly represented within our industry and the World Restaurant Awards were making an effort to create an evenly balanced panel between men and women. It was important for me to find out who else was judging before I decided to take time away from my restaurant.
I also wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just being asked because I was a brown face.
SD: How do you think more women could be encouraged to be chefs?
RG: I think you need to start with the catering colleges. They need to be pushing for more female students. Otherwise, there just aren’t enough trained female chefs around to have a proper gender balance. It’s also about creating the environment for chefs to work in. They need to feel safe and encouraged with positive feedback. But that’s the same for either gender.
I think you need to start with the catering colleges. They need to be pushing for more female students.
SD: Do you think it’s difficult for women to manage the hours?
RG: It’s hard work, for sure, but it’s manageable. You need a supportive family though. My husband has done a lot of the work bringing up our two girls. Sometimes I get a bit jealous of how close he is with them, but I love cooking and I wouldn’t do anything else. I know they are very proud of me.
SD: Have you done anything like the World Restaurant Awards before?
RG: Yes, I was called up last minute to speak at the Mad, the Oscars for the food industry. I knew it was a big deal, but in my mind I was expecting only a few people. When I turned up, there was a full auditorium! I felt sick. I called my journalist friend from the ladies and told her “I can’t do it! I feel sick.” But I did do it and I met lots of interesting people as a result, which has led to all kinds of opportunities afterwards.
SD: What do you most enjoy about judging the World Restaurant Awards?