Executive Chef Vivek Singh shares the ‘why’ of the Cinnamon Club
If you’re passionate about Indian food, this is like hunkering down with Michelangelo to discuss renaissance art, or exploring space time one-to-one with Einstein.
Executive Chef of the Cinnamon Club, Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho – and author of six landmark cookbooks – Singh is the man who brought Indian cooking to the high table of modern cuisine… to rival any food on the planet.
Two decades into his career, Singh is as hungry as ever to share his passion for Indian food and culture, and 2017 sees the launch of a new London restaurant and new book.
But from the day I first ate in the Cinnamon Club, I knew I’d never tasted anything more delicious in my life. And the question that’s nagged me ever since is: WHY?
Why is Vivek Singh’s cooking the best I’ve ever eaten? Why did a chef steeped in Indian cooking want to reinvent his country’s cuisine? Why did it succeed? And why does his food work in every part of the world it travels to?
And why does Vivek Singh cook?
It’s about 5pm, and we’re sitting in the Cinnamon Club bar; people buzz around us as the restaurant gears up to thrill another roomful of diners. Vivek Singh serves us champagne.
The journey starts…
Good Korma: Next year, you open your new London restaurant: Cinnamon Bazaar. What will people discover there?
Vivek Singh: Cinnamon Bazaar will be a meeting place… for cultures, cuisines and people.
Bazaars were dotted all over the Spice Route and the Frankincense Route, and for over 5,000 years they’ve been a place where people exchanged things… not just goods, but also ideas and influences. The bazaar is a space where you interact socially, where your tastes are changed – and long before democracy was invented, they were a democratic institution where people went to discover new things. I’m trying to bring all those emotions together in one place.
In India, before the age of TV, one of the most common pastimes was what we called ‘marketing’. When I was growing up, we’d spend hours browsing, eating and shopping in markets. It was one of the biggest Indian forms of entertainment and enjoyment, and I’m bringing it to Cinnamon Bazaar.
Good Korma: Re-winding to the start of your career, you discovered Escoffier at an early age. How old were you – and what impact did it have?
Vivek Singh: I must have been 21, and was still in hotel school – before I’d decided to become a chef. What impressed me about Escoffier was that it was a such a well-documented log of recipes that you could go back to again and again. Up to then, I hadn’t found many Indian cookbooks that were as good at sharing knowledge. I was impressed by how seriously the French took their cooking.
Good Korma: Were there other books that shaped you?
Vivek Singh: The books that really changed the way I thought about food were Michel Guerard’s Cuisine Minceur and Marco Pierre White’s White Heat. These chefs opened my eyes about how committed you can be to the craft. They taught me that if you really take cooking seriously… almost as a religion… there is so much you can do.
Good Korma: Is this where your marriage of Indian and European cuisine started?
Vivek Singh: No, I was just taking things in. At the time, in the 90s, people asked me what kind of food I wanted to cook for the rest of my life, and I was still saying ‘Indian’. I liked the depth and complexity of Indian food, and I wanted to be seen as an expert in it.
Good Korma: As you built your career as a chef, you worked in a number of Indian cities: New Delhi; Mumbai; Kolkata; Jaipur. Did that journey change your food?
Vivek Singh: Every new city added another layer, another half dozen recipes. That’s what human beings do… we’re foragers, we collect things. Every place I’ve lived has a clear effect on my menus. And when I’m cooking those dishes for other people, I’m not trying to take it to a new level of luxury – I’m trying to recreate the excitement I felt when I ate it for the first time.
Good Korma: Then your career came to a crossroads?
Vivek Singh: After a number of senior chef roles in India, I finally got to a point where I wasn’t learning anything new – and wasn’t doing anything different to anyone else.
As much as I loved the food, I thought it was stuck in a time warp. I didn’t imagine then that I’d come to do everything that happened later, but I knew that there so much more you could with Indian food… if you weren’t wedded to the concept of authenticity and tradition.
Good Korma: What did authenticity mean to you then… and to other chefs?
Vivek Singh: There was no shame in using better ingredients – and yet we didn’t, because that wasn’t authentic. There was no shame in presenting things better – and yet we didn’t, because that wasn’t authentic.
I got to the point where if authenticity is a reason for not doing things better – then I’m prepared to sacrifice it for progress, and for something more exciting. And that’s when authenticity and I parted ways.
Good Korma: You were born in a country steeped in tradition – but your cooking sets out to challenge and invigorate its cuisine. Looking outside food, where does Indian tradition support you – and where do you challenge it?
Vivek Singh: There’s hundreds of ways in which Indian tradition supports me… the Indian approach to family… the colour, the life, the energy, the festivals.
There are things I do every year, whether it’s having a Diwali party at home or organising Holi. We all pass on what we love – we don’t want that to get lost – whether it’s food or ritual, and I want my kids to experience that.
I’m lucky in my position of being the perfect outsider. I’m a foreigner back in India, I’m a foreigner in London… I can be a foreigner anywhere! I’m blessed to have the perspective of an outsider looking in. I try to connect the best of both worlds: east to west; old to new. I support tradition – but not as a purist, and never for tradition’s sake.
Good Korma: Your father was an engineer, and there’s an expectation in many Indian families that a son follows his father’s career. You didn’t. How did your family feel?
Vivek Singh: It wasn’t an easy thing for my parents to come to terms with. There was the disappointment of my not following the family line, and whether I had enough information to know this was leading somewhere good. When I decided to come to the UK, it was more emotional upheaval for my parents. I think my dad was more than delighted with the way things turned out.
Good Korma: It’s March 2001, and you’re about to open the doors to the Cinnamon Club. What did you want your first guests to experience as they ate your food?
Vivek Singh: I wanted them to experience something they’d never experienced before. I wanted every dish on the menu to be new to them. When the food arrived, I hoped they’d never seen a dish like it. As they ate, I wanted them to recognise the ingredients but never to have seen or tasted them in that combination.
Good Korma: You were setting out to reinvent Indian food. How big a risk were you taking?
Vivek Singh: Everyone thought we were mad.
No one understood what we wanted to do at the Cinnamon Club, and no one thought it would work. The odds were stacked against us.
Good Korma: But it worked. Why?
Vivek Singh: From a restaurant perspective, you’re right, we were doing things that hadn’t been done before. We challenged the status quo, we asked a lot of questions.
But all of that wasn’t necessarily why we became successful. We used the best ingredients, we made the food look better… all of that helped create a following.
The real reason the Cinnamon Club succeeded was simply that we weren’t listening to anyone.
We had the ability to listen, but we didn’t have the bandwidth. We were 100 per cent inward-looking, focussed on what we were doing. That year is a blur in my mind.
And because we were so isolated from the world, we could create a single-minded focus on what we believed in. If we’d been going round industry events, trying to find out what other people were thinking – I don’t think we’d have done the Cinnamon Club.
Good Korma: So… you wanted not just to cook the best Indian food in London, but to cook the best food. What next?
Vivek Singh: Yes – that was the line we gave ourselves. After the Cinnamon Club had opened, I was looking for the next thing and decided to write the Cinnamon Club cookery books. Essentially, they’re an extended blog of how we were thinking at the time. Again, it was about the single-mindedness of the whole project.
I’m not sure the reaction to the books would be so excited now… people aren’t as interested by precision and technique.
Good Korma: I have your books – with the date I cooked each curry, and names of the friends I cooked it with. Can you tell me about your new book?
Vivek Singh: I think you’ll like it. It’s published in 2017, and it’s about Indian festivals and the feasts associated with them. There are thousands of festivals across India, so you can’t cover them all… but the book looks at twelve, including Holi, Diwali, Parsi New Year… with a thirteenth chapter on an Indian wedding. Bengali weddings were the highlight of my youth.
Good Korma: You grew up in a Bengali coal-mining community… and today you cook for elite communities across the world. How do you move between those two worlds?
Vivek Singh: Effortlessly! It’s simpler than most people think. It only becomes a challenge if you love one world more than the other. If you love both, it doesn’t really matter. I never thought that the world I was heading into was better than the one I was leaving behind.
I look back to my past as fondly as I do to my future. Bengali celebrations are as generous as anything you’ll ever come across.
Good Korma: You’ve achieved a lot. What’s your long-term ambition?
Vivek Singh: I don’t want to set myself the goal of having the most restaurants in the world, or the most Michelin stars – I want to work out what I’m known for, how I’m seen.
When you think of seafood you think ‘Rick’. If Rick Stein says something is fantastic then it’ll take off worldwide because it is fantastic.
That’s where I want to be for Indian food.
Good Korma: If we distil everything from today into one sentence: why do you cook?
Vivek Singh: Human beings are the only species in nature who cook – it’s is a uniquely human thing to do. Cooking is the best gift you can give anyone, and the best gift you can receive. I’m very lucky that I get paid to do this.
Good Korma: What has cooking curry taught you?
Vivek Singh: I’ve cooked Indian food for one third of my career inside India, and two thirds outside. I’ve travelled most of the world to cook. What I’ve learnt about curry… about the reasons for its success, longevity and universal appeal… is its sheer adaptability. Curry taught me to work with lots of different ingredients, and the result is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. Curry is like a liquid – it takes the shape of the vessel it’s in. No matter where in the world you are, curry lives on.
Cross-cultural cooking… fusion… call it what you want. It isn’t a new thing… people have been innovating for millennia.