“Kitchens are like a playground,” says Ravneet Gill over coffee. The 29-year-old British pastry chef wears multiple hats: Instagram sensation, cookie queen, recruiter, author, and most recently, Junior Bake Off judge. But ultimately, she wants to champion a safer, healthier cooking culture.
Scrolling through her Instagram feed is a joy in its own right, too. Peppered amongst her perfect chocolate chip cookies, baked cheesecakes, and ganache tutorials, are snippets from her life: home gym sessions with her Biji (grandma) and the hilariously annotated adventures of the quirky cats that flock to her garden. Inviting her followers into her matriarchal household has a higher purpose for Gill: "I want to show that we [people of ethnic minority heritage] can do this too."
Gill's passion for pastry was hard-won. Her parents disapproved from a start, citing the industry's reputation for underpaying and generally being toxic. “She's got a psychology degree but she bakes cakes,” is a frequent line of Gill’s mum.
“No one in my family bakes," she explains. "My mum only cooks. I went to university and studied psychology, but I was fixated on cooking for people; doing charity bake sales and having people over for dinner. I admired Rachel Khoo, Mary Berry, Michel Roux, and James Martin. I used to Google 'how to be a chef' and thought, 'I could do this!' My parents would be like 'no'."
But she persevered, following up her degree with a course at London's Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. "I did the basic course and then the intermediate, so that was about £6.5k in total. Then my first job was as a cook in a private member’s club, and then I worked in shit kitchens for years.”
They weren't all shit, but there were serious problems, which spurred her on to launch Countertalk, a network that connects and supports hospitality workers, promoting jobs in healthy work environments, whilst championing new talents. Here, Gill talks about the pitfalls of kitchen culture, her new job as a Junior Bake Off judge, and her top tips for aspiring foodies.
On kitchen culture
“When I first got into kitchens, it was a shock to my system. There was so much anger, high adrenaline, fights, arguments... You name it, I saw it. I always describe it as a melting pot because when you're in a kitchen, you mingle with people from all walks of life. It can be a really eye opening experience. It's one of the best parts of it.
The experience was very different from cookery school, where you've got time to make everything beautiful. In a working kitchen it's like, five minutes to do a task that should take you an hour, or you have to make it times a hundred.
I learnt so much in all of the kitchens I worked in but there were definitely days where I hated it, but didn’t know any better; I used to cry all the time. When you find your groove with working in kitchens it's amazing, every day you learn something new and I couldn't imagine having done anything else. Yes, the hours can be long, but that enables you to form a bond with those around you like no other. Working in kitchens teaches you discipline, organisation, how to think on your feet, work with lots of different types of people, and most importantly, how to respect beautiful ingredients.
When I got to St. John I fell in love. Everyone was friendly and you were given requested days off – something unheard of in most kitchens.
On revolutionising food through an empowered community
“After St John, I landed my dream job at an amazing bakery in London, but it was terrible: no breaks; working from 5 a.m.; so many power moves; and the owners just didn’t treat the staff properly. They've shut down since, but I got fired for speaking out about staff welfare.
I felt the London food community was really disjointed. I wanted people to know there were other great kitchens out there – like St John, Llewellyn's, Brickhouse Bakery (sadly now closed). I wanted to cut the bullshit: I didn't want people to go through the shit kitchens to get to the good ones.
I started Countertalk to bring everyone together; to run cool events where everyone who loves food and works in the industry can just come, have fun, and network. We want to shout about the people who don’t get championed; the people who are actually doing the work and have different stories that encourage others.
Companies started asking me, 'can you advertise this job for me please?' So Countertalk turned into a recruitment platform where we would verify companies to post jobs. Now it is the place to get a good, vetted job in the industry, as well as a home for the community to talk about staff welfare and host events about leadership.”
On diversity in the industry
“In many ways, the industry is a meritocracy. I firmly believe that as a woman of colour, I’ve got to where I am through mad hard work. You don't have to have any qualifications to get far, it is really about hard work. Where it does differ though is right at the top. That's a whole topic in itself.
“When you look at diversity in the industry, you have to look at the intersectionality of class and race. We should dissect why there isn't more diversity at the top level of the hospitality sector. One of the things we can look at is the education system in the UK and which career avenues different ethnic minorities are encouraged to pursue, and why, and so on.
"Working in hospitality as a career isn't widely encouraged enough. I believe that in order for the hospitality industry to attract people from diverse backgrounds into all facets of it, the industry itself needs work. The perception is that this line of work is underpaid, staff are underappreciated, and it's not taken as a serious career path.
"This filters down into the behaviour of the customer too; how much they are willing to pay for what and so on, there're a lot of factors at play. Of course, I adore the work I do and would encourage anyone to go for it if it was something they were passionate about."
On Instagram as a tool for connecting
“I’ve been on the platform for eight years now, and it was always just like this fun thing I did on the side, but since lockdown, I amped it up. [The Pastry Chef’s Guide] came out in April and did really well on Instagram.
That's how I got the Bake Off job – I got a DM on Instagram! I really see it as a vessel for my work.
“I get so many messages from like Indian mums like ‘my daughter wants to be a chef too!’ My purpose on Instagram, and putting my grandma on there so much, is to make it easier for everyone else. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have another creative Indian woman to look up to, so I'm very conscious of the fact that it is for a higher purpose.”
Gill’s advice for the next generation of creatives
“Work your butt off, and do something in life that is going to pull you out of bed in the morning. That's what's kept me going, even through the 80-hour weeks, because I was just obsessed with food. If you have an end goal, you can 100% get there.”