I remember moving to this country as an 18 year old Indian student from Kuwait and being dazzled and charmed by everything London had to offer – cool double decker buses, the tube, restaurants with cuisines from all over the world, dancing, merry-making, independence and freedom to dress however I wanted. My very first friend in the UK and neighbour in halls, Nina (RIP), who was a beautiful bubbly blonde girl and happened to be white, fast became my best friend and I had perfectly integrated into my London-life bubble. I thought the world was my oyster, and every opportunity was mine to seize.
I applied for jobs in the highly competitive investment banking industry and landed interviews galore, and had multiple job offers to choose from. Times were really good back then for the young, bright eyed and bushy tailed me!
And then one day I decided to throw in the towel in banking and took a sabbatical to train as a chef in Paris…times got EVEN BETTER. Paris was some of the best times – I ate a lot, drank a lot of great wine, had Nina and many other friends visit, got engaged to the love of my life and worked with some amazingly talented and inspiring chefs. Patrick and I got married and moved back to England and I started this business. It was hard grafting but I am proud of what we’ve built together.
Photo: Ines Ormazabal
Then one evening I was loading some birthday cakes into our delivery car from our old shop in Kensington and I had some council binmen shout at me “F*ck off back to Arabistan”. I don’t even know where Arabistan is but I was taken aback that loading a car could have led to such racist aggression. I wrote to the council, who said they would “investigate”, but due to lack of evidence it led to nowhere. I was also referred to as “the exotic one” by next door elderly lady shop owner (who happened to be white) who would literally cross the road just to avoid having to walk past me. I brushed it off thinking meh, old bat.
Last year, I walked around Harvey Nichols’ foodhall and saw their beautifully styled array of cookbooks and thought, “I’d love to have a book one day and be stocked here!”. I walked around and around it and saw a variety of books on baking…all by white authors. I then thought, okay…it IS baking and brown folks just aren’t perhaps that into it, so let’s look at all the other books shall we…and I saw more and more white authors. In fact, even the Thai, Indian and Japanese cook books were by white authors. I literally did not see one person of colour represented on that table. I’m not saying that white people can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to make curry (Gordon Ramsay’s Malaysian curry recipe is one of my go-tos), but I was shocked at the under-representation of people like ME.
Then there are those incidents where I’m asked very casually in a shop or on the street if I was X-Ray’s nanny or if he’s mine. Following my latest post on Instagram where I have touched upon an incident where someone in a professional capacity and position of authority criticised me in front of (white) peers and referred to “Chicken Brownie” and then ‘corrected’ herself by saying “I meant, chicken biryani” some people have asked for more context or come to her defence by saying I misunderstood. The problem is, context is subjective. There are a million and one analogies that could have been used in place of Brownie/Biryani, but the one that was chosen was one associated with my race.
The older I get, the more and more I am made aware that I am “different”. At times I’ve felt so side-lined that I compare myself to other popular Instagram baking accounts…and can’t help but feel if I was called Rachel Bennett and remained faceless I would perhaps have a much larger following (one of the larger bakeries on the high street is owned by a “foreigner” but they maintain a degree of anonymity – I can’t help but think this could be tactical).
Individually, any one of these incidents aren’t enough to suggest I now live in a racially-charged London – the binmen were just in a fit of road rage, the old lady was just jealous of my ‘tan’ skin, the other lady thought I was a nanny because I looked so young, Harvey Nix must stock some other books in another section with other diverse authors, Chicken Brownie/Biryani was just an analogy to make a point. But tallying them all up…it really tells me a different story.
The only way I can get over this is by baking, caking, and trouble-making. If talking about this loses me followers, customers, collaborations et all…then so be it. You can’t stop the brown babe from baking!
Lots of love,