Speaking from her restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen in the market town of Thornbury, Romy reflects on the position of women in food today. Whilst women are growing in number on the food scene, they are being under represented by the awards system. Currently, just six women out of 146 chefs in the UK hold a Michelin star and worldwide only three female chefs have been awarded the full three stars.
“Excellence is about making change,” says Romy “but our hospitality awards simply don’t reflect this.”
Discussing the under-representation of women in the hospitality industry, Romy identifies lack of investment as a problem. “Small businesses suffer,” she says “as the big names are able to fund PR companies to push their cause.”
Romy refers to the ‘God Father culture as the forces behind the scenes promoting the lucky few. “You need to have a voice,” she says “otherwise you don’t exist.” Female chefs are missing out on this as they lack a voice through being under-celebrated and under promoted. It would be a valid question to ask why is it, when the statistics are showing more women than ever are working and running UK kitchens, so few are being celebrated?
This is not the first time Romy has pushed for change. The inspiration behind her restaurant was a wish to bring real Indian food, just as she’d enjoyed in India with friends and family, to her home town of Thornbury in the southwest of England. “I wanted to break the myth of ‘curry’. People don’t eat curry in India,” explains Romy, “it’s an English word.”
Romy’s breakthrough came in 2016 when as guest chef, she took her food to London for a residency at Carousal. Following on, food critic Grace Dent favourably reviewed Romy’s Kitchen and in many ways, placed Romy on the map by introducing her to a wider audience. People currently travel from all over the UK to enjoy Romy’s food, which takes the best of Indian cuisine and combines it with seasonal British produce.
In 2016, Romy received an MBE from the Queen. To date, Romy’s restaurant has raised over £50,000 for charity.
Romy began in her home kitchen making chutneys and sauces to sell locally. Keen to share her knowledge, Romy approached cookery schools, offering to teach classes on Indian Cuisine. Manna From Devon were her first champions and introduced the classes to their curriculum. “I am so grateful for the start they gave me,” says Romy.
In 2009, Romy took on a lease as home to her new restaurant. “It took three and a half years to gain planning permission,” says Romy “but I persevered. The banks weren’t lending money so I got the BBC on board to feature my plight. They came with me, cameras and all as I made an application to the only bank which hadn’t yet turned me down. The area manager saw the feature on the evening news that night, contacted the branch and said – you must lend money to this woman! I got my loan.”
To raise further funds, Romy sold her golden jewellery given to her by her parents. “My parents said the jewellery was intended for the time of use, so with their blessing, I ploughed the funds from the sale into opening my first restaurant. It was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.”
In addition to running a busy restaurant, Romy has also been a judge on the Chef’s Table in 2016 Celebrity Masterchef finals and was the resident cookery writer for the Guardian during April 2016. Romy is currently the recipe columnist for Independent Online and has been on Saturday television with chef James Martin. Romy’s cookery book is coming out next year.
However, despite her ongoing successes, a hurdle remains. Racism. Romy discusses a recent visit to the MAD festival in Copenhagen, where she refers to an openness of debate, “People talk about these things in Denmark – sexism, racism – here we don’t seem to want to discuss it. Recently I was told by a member of the audience at a talk I took part in at the Abergavenny food festival that ‘racism is everywhere, we don’t need to talk about it here.’
Romy is undeterred. She has a passion for food, for progress and is a force to be reckoned with, advancing the voice of women of all backgrounds in food across the UK today.
We’re lucky to have her.