We’re profiling female chefs, cafe and restaurant owners over the next few months, thanks to the support of Uber Eats. These women are running incredible and innovative food businesses all over Australia, but many have been doing it tough due to the pandemic and in some areas the bushfires.
Here, we meet Ragini Dey, owner of Ragi’s Spicery and well-known for her appearances on national television. Ragini is one of Australia’s most-loved Indian chefs. She shares her story with us; from growing up in India and starting a new life in Adelaide, to setting up her first business and pivoting when the pandemic hit.
From appearances on national television shows like Poh’s Kitchen through to festivals around the country, Ragini Dey has become not just a familiar face but one of Australia’s most loved Indian chefs.
Even through one of the most gut-wrenching years the industry has ever faced, she hasn’t lost her tenacity.
In fact, the award-winning chef and author has just released another cookbook.
“[Everyday Indian] is a ‘take it to the kitchen, get it dirty’ book,” she said.
In many ways, this adventurous approach to cooking was what allowed Ragini to create such an exciting career in food and entertainment.
And it all began in one the world’s most bustling cities, Delhi in India, more than 45 years ago.
At the time, Ragini had completed a degree in Political Science but with no interest in public service, she was stuck at a crossroads.
Having grown up in a “foodie family” that experimented with cuisines from around the world, her appetite for being a chef was ignited early but women at the time weren’t considered serious contenders in the industry.
After getting into a highly competitive institute for hotel management where she was one of the only 13 women in a cohort of about 100 men, she was unable to capture the attention of the big hotel chains recruiting students after graduating.
“Women were considered for the more traditional [reception] roles and housekeeping,” she said.
Then, an opportunity arrived to teach cooking at a prestigious hospitality college in Mumbai.
“It was quite an adventure,” she said.
“I’d never really thought of going away from home but it was quite appealing and I thought let’s do this.”
Over the next four years, Ragini worked her way up from a teacher with no experience to the head of an entire department.
She also married her husband Sujoy who was a chef at the time.
“The next thing I know is that he’s applying for jobs overseas,” she said.
Ragini became very excited at where life was about to take them.
“There wasn’t too much worrying about what am I going to do,” she said.
“It was like an adventure. There was only the two of us and all we had were two suitcases.”
About six months later, the young couple were moving to Adelaide where Sujoy had secured a role as a chef at the brand new Hilton hotel.
“It all happened quite fast,” she said.
It was 1982 and Adelaide at the time offered a lifestyle similar to home in India.
Ragini and her husband still enjoyed their usual urban pleasures like shopping, cooking and going to the movies but there was one thing missing.
“We thought where are the people,” she said.
“Everyone had lovely front yards but you never saw anyone there.
“We didn’t realise life was in the backyard!”
Spicing up Adelaide
After moving to Adelaide, Ragini thought she’d continue her career in teaching and started interviewing for jobs.
“[In one interview] this person said, ‘So how many years have you been the chef of your restaurant?’ and I thought what?” she said.
“In India, there was no way you were going to have your own restaurant at 26. Now, it’s a bit different.
“Anyway, he said, ‘When you have a restaurant you’ve owned for ten years, come back’.”
Ragini felt like she’d hit another wall and she had to figure out fast what she was going to do.
“It was getting a bit desperate,” she said.
That’s when she came across an article in the newspaper about Margaret Kirkwood, one of South Australia’s first cooking personalities.
After reading that Margaret was working with a gas company on cooking classes and demonstrations, Ragini decided to reach out to her.
“I didn’t realise how famous this lady was but I rang up the gas company and I asked to speak to her,” she said.
“Luckily, she was a very lovely person.”
Ragini began working with Margaret and months later was offered the opportunity to run a brand new course in Indian cooking.
When the first course sold out instantly, several more were locked in.
Ragini also started cooking in aged care and retirement living facilities and later even secured a role cooking for the late Lieutenant-General Sir Donald Beaumont Dunstan who was the state’s governor at the time.
“That was a completely different thing I was thrown into again,” she said.
“You had to cook for the governor and his wife, they had state banquets once a week and other cocktail parties, and then you also cooked for the staff.
“It was quite funny because the governor loved his curries [so] slowly his Sunday roast became a Sunday curry.”
South Australia clearly had an appetite for authentic Indian cuisine but just how big it was Ragini wouldn’t realise until she opened her little takeaway shop Spice Kitchen.
On opening night in 1989, she was surprised to discover people were lining up outside for a taste of her self-mixed spices, chutneys and dishes.
At the time, they didn’t even have menus printed for patrons to peruse and there were just two tables for dining in.
Over the next two decades, Ragini grew it into one of the state’s most sought after Indian restaurants.
Time to write a new chapter
After 26 years of running Spice Kitchen, Ragini was ready for change so she sold the restaurant, took a year off and spent some time managing her son Chiragh’s bar before deciding to get back to basics.
She set up Ragi’s Spicery as a very small restaurant so she could work alone in a tiny kitchen and experiment with food again.
“It was a bit of a Marigold Hotel feel,” she said.
It’s here where Ragini started bringing to life new self-mixed spices and innovative dishes like Naanchos: crispy fried naan bread with spiced toppings.
“Before 2020, most of our money came from two sources,” she said.
“One was from large scale events and the second was the spices went interstate.
“We were selling them online but we also went to all the exhibitions around Australia to sample the products with people face-to-face.
“When COVID hit, that was completely gone. Suddenly, we were left with just the restaurant.”
On top of that, being pulled back to takeaway only slashed the restaurant’s income down to 10 percent of its normal earnings.
For Ragini, the pandemic has been a powerful lesson in lean business thinking and emergency planning.
To keep driving the business forward, she has introduced new delivery products like bulk frozen curries, butter chicken sauce and lentil mixes to which you just add water.
“Having COVID in a way gave us a bit more time,” she said.
“It’s okay for six months or one year but if it’s going to be a long-term thing then we all have to look at a new way of doing things.
“We have a very stripped-down menu now.”
Life has changed in many ways for the bubbly Indian chef but she has always had a lot to be grateful for.
“I don’t really regret anything,” she said.
“You gain maturity in how to tackle life. I’ve had a pretty interesting and good life more or less.”