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His first London opening The Cinnamon Club redefined modern Indian cuisine. Almost two decades on, Vivek Singh’s influence can be seen far beyond his five restaurants. Alex Mead meets the maestro
Cooking wasn’t Vivek Singh’s first love. He loved food, like many of us, but a passion for actually cooking it was something that came later. His first career choice was very different; more a case of being the last remaining option, rather than a ‘choice’. ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do,’ he says. ‘Probably join the army. In India, if you can’t get into engineering or medicine, you end up looking at defence or becoming an officer in the army, or civil services.
‘I actually applied for the army but didn’t get in. I didn’t make the cut. I cleared the exams and interviews but got kicked out of medicals – for having knock-knees.’
Born in West Bengal, it wasn’t as if Singh was unfamiliar with cooking. Indeed, he witnessed proper home cooking on a daily basis. ‘The idea of cooking, God knows where that came from, it wasn’t normal [career choice],’ he says. ‘I didn’t grow up in an age where food was always on television or on social media, nothing like that. The only cooking that happened was by my mother. She did everything pretty much single-handedly – she cooked 364 days a year and my dad cooked on one. I grew up surrounded by food, for feasts and celebration, but not doing any cooking myself.
‘I always loved the joy of eating though,’ he adds, ‘and the joy of celebrating. My own inherent greed always meant that food was high on the order of things for me.’
After failing the army medical, Singh enrolled on a course in hotel education. ‘Even then it was not about being mad about cheffing per se,’ he admits. ‘I was pretty ambivalent – I could also have been front of house or whatever.’
At 22, he took up a two-year chef training course with The Oberoi hotel, and it was only as it drew to an end that he found inspiration, in the form of one of the most ground-breaking cookbooks of all time. ‘I came across Marco Pierre White’s White Heat and it transformed the way I’d been looking at cheffing all my life.
‘After reading that, I realised instantly, that I didn’t want to continue in the hotel progression and end up as an executive chef of five-star hotels, where you were basically a glorified clerk placing orders. I loved cooking and I wanted to carry on cooking.’ Vivek still had to continue to learn his trade, and he did so within the hotel group, all with the initial ambition of running the speciality Indian restaurant.
Eventually, he got a posting at a five-star hotel in Kolkata. ‘One of the country’s biggest hotels was opening, and I thought I’d walk into the kitchen and they’d offer me the speciality restaurant. I told them that, and so did 19 other chefs.
‘I did everything other than
Indian for a whole year. They
turned me into this chef for all
– French, 24-hour coffee shop, Thai, everything.
‘After a year, they gave me 55 days holiday, whereas everyone else had 25 days, and I was told, “that’s how many days we owe you – when you come back you go into the Indian kitchen”. That had been my penance.’
He moved to Jaipur, where he headed up the Indian kitchen at The Oberoi Rajvilas. ‘It was India’s most ambitious hotel opening of the time – Naomi Campbell and Jodie Kidd came to open it,’ he says. ‘There was an Australian running the Western kitchen and I was cooking Indian.’
‘Commercial or critical success aside, what I am most proud of is my team. We opened Cinnamon Club with five people from India and myself, and hired three local people – six of them are still in the business’
It was a customer who ended up changing the fortunes of Singh. Trying to dictate the cuisine for his own wedding, in the most demanding manner, Singh was wheeled out by the management to speak to him. ‘He wanted this, he wanted that, and I said, “look, mate, you can be as prescriptive as that, or you can leave it to me, and I’ll surprise you”. He said, “that’s a good idea, I’ll leave it to you”.’ The meal was so good, it impressed the banker and all his guests, which included British-based businessman Iqbal Wahhab, who was looking to open a London restaurant. That night, he found his chef and, in 2001, he and Singh opened The Cinnamon Club in the Grade II-listed former Westminster Library.
His concept was going to change perceptions of Indian cuisine, but also challenge them. ‘I realised I wanted to use really good produce, but to get people to shell out £20 for a fish main 18 years ago was pushing the boundaries,’ recalls Singh.
‘If you want people to spend £20 on a piece of halibut, then you couldn’t take something like that and cut into it small pieces, cook it to death and over-spice it, that would be a travesty. You have to presume that if people order something, then it’s because they like the taste of it.
‘Trying to get people to spend £35 per person for Indian was a big ask, and you couldn’t have gone around looking for approval or advice, because it was quite a mad thing. If I did that, I’d just get, “this is great, but we British don’t expect so much fuss from curry”. Or, “look, chef, Indian people won’t eat like this, they won’t spend this much, and us British like rogan josh, who is this for?” I don’t know, but I just did it.’
And so he balanced the best produce with careful spicing, using the techniques he’d used in India to enhance and not mask natural flavours. ‘Carefully sourced produce, cooked with love and respect, is still the ethos in all our restaurants today,’ he says. ‘We do believe in mining the best of both worlds – we get inspiration from Indian techniques and spicing, but we combine it with the best local, seasonal produce money can buy.’
The Cinnamon Club was acclaimed, winning awards. It was joined by The Cinnamon Kitchen seven years later, then Cinnamon Soho, Cinnamon Bazaar and, in 2017, by Cinnamon Kitchen Oxford. ‘I couldn’t tell you [of my proudest moment],’ he says. ‘Commercial or critical success aside, I think what I am most proud of is my team. We opened Cinnamon Club with five people from India and myself, and hired three local people – six of them are still in the business.
‘Every single one of my head chefs represents home-grown talent, we do not hire people from the outside, people come here and work up from within – I can’t think of any other chef or business that can say that. It’s just an incredible feeling to see that many people grow. We’ve had amazing success.
‘I must have one or two good people from the Cinnamon Collection in every Indian restaurant of note in London – we’ve trained so many people that have gone on to do fantastic things, and that’s a wonderful feeling.’
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