On meeting your hero

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Meeting your hero can be a tricky business.

Over the years, friends have shared experiences about the moment they’ve finally met a personal hero – and it seldom works out happily.

One buddy (a sensationally talented guitarist and lifetime fan of Elvis Costello) talked red-faced about the time he queued for three hours in HMV to get his copy of Elvis’ new CD signed by the great man himself.

Finally getting to the front of the queue, heart pounding, my friend fingered the breast pocket of his denim jacket – where he’d tucked a tape of the songs he’d composed and recorded. A gift for Elvis… and just possibly songs his hero might want to listen to… and enjoy… and maybe call my friend to chat about. Maybe.

Two minutes later, my friend found himself blinking in the sunlight on Oxford Street – holding his signed copy of Elvis’ CD in one hand, and his own mix tape in the other. In the glare of excitement of meeting his lifetime muse, he’d forgotten to say a single word to Elvis, or hand over the tape.

Another buddy shared the time when a shopping trip as teenager in a sleepy Surrey suburb suddenly changed gear as he realised the person sifting through the pile of second-hand albums next to him was rock-legend Jimmy Page.

Before he’d been able to plan what to do next, Page had left the shop – and, in a star-struck daze, my friend started to follow him. For ten agonising minutes, Page tried to get on with his weekend shopping (newspaper from one store, loaf of bread from another), stalked step-by-step by my friend. As Page entered a third shop, an anxious-looking rock god turned to square up to his stalker:

Page: ‘What do you want?’

Friend: ‘Are you Jimmy Page?’

Page: ‘Yes.’

Friend: ‘Hello.’

Page: ‘Bye.’

And Page rushed back to the street, leaving my friend alone in the shop with a bewildered florist.

So, as the delightful Asma Khan taps me on the shoulder at her pop-up lunch at the legendary Cinnamon Club – and says she’d like to introduce me to Vivek Singh – I feel a mix of emotions:

First… excitement: Vivek Singh isn’t just the creative genius behind the Cinnamon Club (my favourite restaurant in the world) he’s also the person who led the charge for Indian cuisine in the UK – hauling it from its flock-wallpapered, gloopy, 80’s curry-house past into its glittering, palate-tingling present. And because I cook a new Indian recipe almost every week – and buy an Indian recipe book every month – this makes Vivek Singh a very, very important person for me. I’ve wanted to meet him for years.

Second… embarrassment: As I walk across to where Vivek Singh’s table, I realise the item I’m going to ask him to sign is a battered, six year-old, turmeric-stained copy of his book: ‘Curry, Classic and Contemporary’. In a world of sleek iPads and tablets, it suddenly looks very analogue.

Finally… anxiety: Will this be my Elvis Costello or Jimmy Page moment? Will I simply fluff it?

As Vivek stands up from his table, and shakes my hand, I sense it’s going to be OK.

He radiates warmth.

“It’s great to meet you,” I say. “I just wanted to tell you how much pleasure you’ve given me and my friends.”

As a one-liner, it might not be up there with the greats (“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”) but at least I got the words out.

I open the book for Vivek to sign, and the first pages have no blank space where he can put his pen. The double-page is a scrawled log of every recipe I’ve cooked from the book. Red biro… black… blue… whatever we had at the time to capture the moment.

It looks horribly messy, but Vivek is intrigued.

He works backwards and forwards through the book – exploring the recipes we’d chosen.

On the photo page for each dish, there are more scribbles – a record of who was at the meal, what we were celebrating, how we tweaked the recipe. And, course, how it tasted.

Reading the scribbles over Vivek’s shoulder, I start to relive all of these moments: special meals with my family; birthdays and Christmases; parties with neighbours.

But the theme which keeps coming back from the book is the ‘Curry Club’ – a posse of two my closest friends, who meet five or six times a year to talk, share, drink and cook. Always a curry.

And as Vivek turns the pages, and reads the inscriptions from Marc and Michael (aka the Curry Club) I realise just how much the three of us have shared together.

The good times:

the curries we cooked together as house-warming parties in new flats and houses; meals to mark new jobs; spontaneous get-togethers; and all-nighters celebrating new relationships and marriages. Each one of these eaten with a curry from Vivek’s book that was so delicious we could hardly believe we’d cooked it.

And the not-so-good times:

the scribble on the page for Vivek’s ‘Old Delhi-style Chicken Curry’ reads: ‘This dish was the back-drop to dinner following Michael’s Dad’s passing. Another wonderful, honest evening. Love Marc.’ And I realise with a tender shock that in the five years we’ve been cooking together, each of us has lost our father. And that, on each occasion, we’d marked the wake with one of Vivek’s recipes. Messages for my late father and Marc’s father are there too.

Standing in the Cinnamon Club, I realise it’s a slightly incongruous scene.

We’re two men who’ve only just met – standing in the heart of the Westminster spin-machine – and the words tumbling off the page are among three friends who feel comfortable sharing anything.

But Vivek instantly feels like a member of the gang.

  • And while he is too modest to say so, I think he knows what he’s done. Through his recipes, he’s been the glue in the ‘Curry Club’… the virtual fourth member who’s steered us through every ingredient, every recipe, every life stage. And each mouthful of each celebration.

And now, in person, he’s unpacked for me what we’ve shared as the Curry Club – and tied it back up with a bow.

And his recipes!

My God, the recipes:

  • Tandoori Grouse with aubergine crush and layered bread  ‘This was sublime. Not only did we break bread, we baked it. I cannot recommend it highly enough. First time the Curry Club has ever eaten before midnight’
  • ‘Keralan-style mixed seafood with coconut and vinegar sauce    ‘So good, these prawns are like a mother to me’
  • Wild prawns baked with coconut and mustard   ‘If there’s a finer starter out there, I’d like to meet it. Fantastic day of indulgence and treats!’
  • Mughal-style aromatic curry of Lamb Shanks    ‘A multi-layered Biblical odyssey of a curry’.
  • Roast Pork chops with sweet spices, mustard mash and date and chilli sauce  ‘The best ever? Started cooking at 8 and finished at 11:30, so not one to rush. But, but the combination of heavenly spice-rub and magical sauce. Curry perfection.’
  • Roast saddle of red deer with pickling spice   ‘Where do we go from here? A curry mountain has been climbed, and it may never be surpassed.’

And I could go on… over five years, we’ve cooked more than 30 recipes from Vivek’s books (including the two Cinnamon Club volumes). Do the maths, and it means that almost every other month he’s helped us discover another gem from India. Every one of them delicious, and each bringing people together the people I care about.

In person, the man is charm itself. He points out new recipes the Curry Club should try, tells me about changes he’s making to the Cinnamon Club. We take photos on our phones, talk to the lovely Asma – and share my copy of his book with Vivek’s restaurant team.

It’s a perfect moment. And more than anything, it’s given me the chance I wanted – to thank the chef who’s given me, my family and my friends so much pleasure.

We’ve been talking for ages – and we both need to get back to what today is all about: Asma’s mouth-watering pop-up.

Vivek shakes my hand, with the words: ‘It’s been wonderful to see my recipes living in your book… I’ve never seen anything like it

“Thank you for giving me so much pleasure.

So – with the greatest respect to Elvis Costello and Jimmy Page – it can be OK to meet your hero

You just need to pick the right one

Later this month, the Curry Club gets together to mark two of us moving to new homes. We’ll have Vivek’s book with us

And this time it’ll have the signature, and written dedication from the man who created it all.

 

 

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