How I Brought Modern Indian Food to Bristol

Romy Gill arrived in the UK in 1994 with “a suitcase full of fragrant memories” and the idea to open a restaurant serving dishes inspired by her childhood in West Bengal.

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14 March 2017, 11:48am

I was born and brought up in West Bengal in India. My dad worked in a steel plant where people from all over India came to work. My parents moved from Punjab to West Bengal for work—same as everyone else. I didn't grow up just eating Punjabi food, and I'm so grateful to my parents for introducing me to food from all over India.

I came to the UK 22 years ago, with a suitcase full of fragrant memories. I'd left my life behind in West Bengal and I thought a lot about my friends and how we used to eat together. Indian food in Britain two decades ago was very different to today. I always wanted to open my own restaurant and when my husband and I moved to Thornbury [in Bristol], I knew this was my chance.

Chef Romy Gill at her Bristol restaurant, Romy's Kitchen. All photos by Emli Bendixen.

Keralan prawns with coconut and curry leaves.

I'm a self-taught chef. I love feeding people, I love thinking about feeding people food they love. My husband knows how stubborn and determined I am, so when I first told him I wanted to make food my career, he knew I was serious.

I opened my restaurant in Thornbury four years ago but the planning work started some four years prior. Opening the restaurant by myself and on my own terms was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

Fermented beetroot with Nigella seeds and chili.

In West Bengal, I loved watching how my mum would cook with certain ingredients and I'd then go to my friend's house and see their mum cooking with those same ingredients, but in very different ways. This inspired me in the way I cook in the restaurant. I use traditional Indian spices to create new dishes inspired by where I live now.

It's not ten-pints-of-lager-and-a-curry food. There's room for that too but for me, Indian food is about taking inspiration from various parts of Indian cuisines. For instance, in Bengal, we eat a lot of fish and seafood. Punjabi cuisine includes butter chicken, Gujaratis eat a lot of vegetarian food, and South Indians eat lots of rice and cook with tamarind.

Octopus with tamarind chutney.

Hake cooked panch phoron, a Bengali spice blend.

Indian food is very dark and quite brown because of the curry sauces. I think a lot about what will look good on the plate so I add in colour where I can. My love affair with pomegranate seeds comes from my childhood—we had a pomegranate tree in our garden.

I'm indebted to and inspired by my Indian heritage, but at the same time I'm also British. I have two daughters aged 11 and 14. They were born here and I'm a big supporter of British produce, so I've combined my connection to and love of the two.

Food brings people together, whether in India or in the UK. I love chatting to people over food. One of my favourite memories is of my friends and I clubbing together to buy and share street food in West Bengal. My life at the moment is hectic but when I sit down over food with my daughters and my husband, it makes me happy. 

My Sunday indulgence is to eat cheese on toast or fish and chips. After a week of cooking with spices, I crave something blander and more cosy.

As told to and all photos by Emli Bendixen.

Romy Gill grew up in India and learned how to cook from her mother. When she moved to Britain, she ran Indian cookery courses and supper clubs before opening her own restaurant, Romy's Kitchen in Bristol. In 2016, she received an MBE for services to the hospitality industry.