Ravneet Gill: "I think my job in life is to be of service to people"
The chef, TV show host, cookbook author and business owner talks about her varied career, trying to positively impact working conditions in the industry and her coveted orange folder
To call Ravneet Gill a multi-hyphenate would probably be correct, but it would do a disservice to a woman with a thriving career who has her fingers in multiple pies (pun intended). Because while, yes, she has a lot going on, Gill doesn’t do it for bragging rights or notoriety. Instead, after chatting to her about all her projects, I get the distinct impression that she genuinely does it with the aim of making things better and easier for those who come along after her.
Having graduated with a psychology degree, Gill was meant to go on to do a PHD on the same topic, but decided to pass it up in favour of pursuing a career in food. “The whole time I was studying, I was just cooking and baking for everyone,” Gill tells me. “And in the back of my head, I was always saying I'd love to be a chef. But my parents would kill me if I did it. So I finished the degree. And then when I left uni I was like 'No, I want to go and be a chef.'”
She quite literally googled ‘how to be a chef’ and then went on to Le Cordon Bleu, working in kitchens to help fund it. Up until Covid hit, the rest was, as they say, history. Except, it wasn’t. Because that’s not all Gill did over the subsequent nine years. Not only has she written cookbooks, but she has been working to quietly revolutionising staffing conditions in the industry – a move inspired by a change of pace at St John that followed years of difficult kitchens and negative working environments.
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“I was trying to leave the industry at the time,” she says. “I hated it. I would lie to my parents and say it was great, but I was having an awful time. I had no money and I was just trying to keep my head above water. I loved the food side, but I hated the politics of it. I was always the only woman and it was just draining – I think I massively underestimated how difficult it would be going to uni and seeing that there can be an HR process to things. You go into kitchens, and having all of that diminished just blew my mind.”
The negative experiences she reports range from reporting a co-worker for unsanitary behaviour (giving a customer a dirty plate) only for the boss to send her complaint on to the person in question, to a fellow chef asking her out and then making her life hell after she politely turned him down. “He terrorised me for months,” she tells me. “He would pull things out of my hands. He would put salt in my food and say it was my fault. It was awful.”
And then she took a job at St John. “I'd never been so happy in a food job before. And a few months in, I was like, 'Wow, good places exist. I love it here. You actually get treated properly.'”
The job didn’t just help teach her the ins and outs of seasonal dining (“I was like, 'I've been doing it wrong for so long. Seasonality is really beautiful. And oh my god a strawberry tastes much better in July than it does in December.'”) and the power of simplicity when it comes to food (“Before St John I would only make desserts that were flawless looking, really beautiful and gelatinous. When I got St John I was like, 'This is literally just a slice of tart with some cream on the side.' And then over time, my whole head just changed.”) but also that perhaps there was some benefit to young people in the industry having a place to go and find jobs that would nourish them and treat them properly, rather than the struggle she experienced in some of her early roles.
I thought if I had just gone from uni to St John, then I would be in a completely different place. Maybe I wouldn't have been so unhappy
“I thought, 'If I had just gone from uni to St John, then I would be in a completely different place right now. And maybe I wouldn't have been so unhappy for all that time. And I just wanted more people to know that these places exist. That is why Countertalk started.” Countertalk is a platform that connects hospitality workers with potential employers – those that provide healthy and safe work environments where talented professionals are given the tools to further their careers. They also host events to educate both employers and employees.
Gill also wanted to provide a platform to solve another issue she’s faced: finding locations for supper clubs. This led to the development and launch of Countertalk Spaces. “As a chef and working in the industry, you always have that burning desire in the back of your head – 'I have all these amazing ideas. I'd love to do a pop up or I'd love to do a supper club,'" Gill tells me. "Most of the time, those things never happen because it's the organisation that holds you back. It prohibits a lot of creativity on the food world.”
Spaces is designed to streamline that process. You can search for venues based on location, and see them on a map with all the details, going as niche as whether or not the venue has a deep-fat fryer or a wood-burning oven. “It brings the space a new audience and revenue – think about restaurants that are closed between Sunday and Tuesday now – and it helps people find locations for their events.” she explains.
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Alongside a career in kitchens, a side hustle revolutionising the employee-employer relationship in the wider hospitality industry and boosting pop-up accessibility, Gill was also writing a cookbook. While Covid may have upended her career slightly, like it did for many of us – “I lost all my work immediately, I had to shut Counter Talk down,” she tells me – it has, alongside her cookbook, ultimately rerouted her pathway in entirely different and positive ways. “Literally because of Covid and my book and Instagram, my career changed. So I’m very grateful for that – not for the pandemic itself, but if it wasn’t for that timing, I don’t think my career would have changed in the same way.”
The book itself was the amalgamation of what Gill refers to as her coveted "orange folder", a collection of recipes that she would take with her and refine from job to job. “It had every recipe that you needed in it, It got quite famous and chefs would always be like ‘I want your folder.'” It turns out, so did everyone else, too. A regular customer at Llewelyn’s, where Gill worked for a time, connected her with the team at Pavilion, and set the wheels in motion. The book itself came out in April 2020. Not long afterwards, Gill was approached via Instagram to audition for Junior Bake Off to fill Prue Leith’s slot, which she couldn’t make due to the pandemic. “Someone DM’d me on Instagram asking me to come for an audition, and I ignored it,” she says. Eventually, after some pestering, she rang back. Unsurprisingly, she landed the role.
Gill could get away with holding parts of herself at arm’s length for good reason. Instead, she’s funny and self effacing and disarmingly honest. At one point we go on a tangent about gender dynamics in the workplace, and somehow end up talking about the complexities of making friends through work, and laughing about the difficult lessons we’ve learned. It’s easy for me to wax lyrical about what makes Gill so successful, but I think she puts it best herself when she says “I think my job in life is to be of service to people. I’m here because I want to help people, and I want to give people the information and the insight and the transparency that I never had. Because if I can help people avoid some of the mistakes I made – which are a lot – then I’m doing a good job.”