Flash-grilled: Vivek Singh

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Flash-grilled with Vivek Singh of The Cinnamon Club restaurant in London

Related tags: Chef, Restaurant, Indian cuisine, Fine dining

Vivek Singh, who founded London restaurant The Cinnamon Club in 2001, is one of the most influential figures in Indian cuisine.

What was your first job?
I did a few weeks of learning how to dismantle the carburettor of an ambassador car in a repair garage during the summer of 1985. I was 14 and never got paid any money, but was instead paid in food. The main mechanic would treat me to a different lunch each day.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?  
I spent a lot of time in the summer catching up on the Cricket late at night while eating Snickers ice cream, and I can think of very few better ways of treating myself to some "me" time.

What’s the best restaurant meal you’ve ever had?
That's a tough one. I have had several great meals in my life A recent one was a 2.2kg wild bass grilled by the water at Lo Scoglio in Cagliari, Sardinia, when I was cooking there recently. I guess it was more about the time, place and ingredients, rather than just the cooking.

What industry figure do you most admire, and why? 
There are lots to admire in this industry and for different reasons: Chris and Jeff Galvin for growing and running businesses whilst still being nice; Jason Atherton for his hunger and appetite to grow his business without losing quality; and Richard Vines from Bloomberg, for the dimension he brings to our industry from a different perspective, keeping the industry threaded together through the flow of information, experience and opinion, but not allowing one to take over the other. Richard is one of the finest critics our industry has.

If you weren’t in kitchens, what would you do? 
I don’t know! Maybe a potter?

What is your biggest regret?
Touch wood, none.

Pet hate in the kitchen?
Short cuts. I completely expect new team members to try short cuts now and again, but I simply don’t get it when a long standing member of our team tries it on. Once we have agreed there are no shortcuts to anywhere nice, and we also agree that there are no perfect dishes or recipes, all we try to do is to do our best every service and every day for each dish, it winds me up no end to see the most seasoned of us take the slippery slope.

What’s the oddest thing a customer has said to you?
This goes back several years to the early 2000’s and I’m still surprised by how often it still happens. People say to me they can tell a good ethnic restaurant by how many ethnic people use it. I mean, by that definition Zuma and Hakkasan should have been the two best Indian restaurants in London in early 2000’s!  How lazy does one need to be? Albeit a lot less, I still get to hear this from time to time, I have just learned to get less angry.

What’s the dish you wish you’d thought of?
I think it might have to be Meat Fruit at Dinner by Heston. I had it years ago and wished I came up with it.

Describe your cooking style in three words
Evolving, modern, and Indian.

Most overrated food?
Cress.

Restaurant dictator for a day – what would you ban?
Tweezers. Come on mate, let’s make it taste good and get it out to the guest whilst it’s still hot.

What’s the worst review you’ve ever had?
God Bless him, it was the late Michael Winner of the Times, who came to The Cinnamon Club in autumn of 2001 and declared it the worst Indian restaurant in the country! I think he might have spurred us on to go on and improve for us to be still around after 18 years.

If you could cook for anyone in the world who would you pick, and why?
I used to get excited about that sort of thing when I was younger. I got a terrific thrill out of cooking for and serving Bill Clinton back in 2000, but I get less excited about celebrity now. I wish I had cooked more times for my Dad than I did when he was alive.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?
Put your head down and get on with it. Don’t get in with a business idea that you may one day sell and make millions from, instead only enter a kitchen if you really love to cook, eat and feed people. If you enjoy it then, more likely than not, others will too.

Which single item of kitchen equipment could you not live without?
I love my brass mortar and pestle. And my knives, of course.

What do you cook at home on your days off?
I love a good spicy masala omelette with brioche, or if I am cooking for others then maybe a very large pot of lamb biryani.

What’s your earliest food memory? 
The nutty aromas of nigella and carom seeds, mixed with smell of frying and the taste of sweet tomato chutney must be one of my earliest food memories.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
My dad used to say: "You don’t have to beat anyone for you to win. Just be the best form of yourself and the rest will work out fine."

Where do you go when you want to let your hair down?
My hair is always down.

Tipple of choice?
I’m into gin at the moment, but I will always try anything I haven’t tried before.

What would you choose to eat for your last meal?
It will be my favourite Old Delhi-style butter chicken cooked on the bone by my long time friend and chef mentor P D Khan, who is also the speciality chef with me at The Cinnamon Club.

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