Vivek Singh is one of Britain’s best-known Indian chefs. He launched The Cinnamon Club in 2001, followed by Cinnamon Kitchen in 2008 and Cinnamon Soho in 2012, and is renowned for his inventiveness in the kitchen. Oh, did we mention his five cookbooks?
Let’s start with Spice at Home, which has been out for a couple of months now. What has the response been like?
Brilliant. The book has been received really well. It’s the first time we were going mainstream with a book – it wasn’t about the restaurant and not about a specific subject matter, and not just me harping on about cooking with spice and Indian food in general! It’s about how it’s possible to include spice in any form for people to cook at home. It’s about helping, but also about more enjoyment and making it an experience. So far it’s my favourite book [I have written].
Do you enjoy sitting down to put together a cookbook?
I love the process of putting together a cookbook. It’s not necessarily as daunting for me as it may be for other chefs. I have ever-changing menus, which makes compiling a cookbook a bit easier for me. So every couple of years I know I have enough for a cookbook! A lot of the groundwork has already been done, it then becomes a question of choosing the right recipes for a story and writing the introductions. I also really enjoy food styling and photographing, it’s where I really come into my own. It’s a very efficient process now.
How different is London and the approach to cooking compared to your upbringing?
When I first came here, London had a very mature scene as it does now. Maybe now it’s a bit more dynamic, more energetic and more creative as a sector. It certainly feels a lot more innovative now and open minded than it did 14-15 years ago. In terms of the cooking, I came from India having worked in some of the finest hotels around [for the Oberoi Group], so had access to lots of imported produce. We could buy a variety of anything from anywhere in the world, such as Alaskan salmon through to New Zealand lamb. We had access to all of that, but we didn’t have access to local suppliers – that was just non-existent. We had to buy in everything.
The support structure here is just a dream come true. When I first came here the hours were long, but the fact I could place an order at just gone midnight and come back at 8am and see the goods had already arrived was a dream come true. It was such a joy to be a chef in London.
What actually inspired you to launch a business?
I was inspired by Marco Pierre White. I had not come across him at the time, but it was through a book of his. I had come second in a competition and got a couple of cookbooks as a prize, and one of those was Marco Pierre White. Flicking through that book changed my life – the passion, the energy, the dynamism. It opened my eyes to how seriously you should take the profession and it crystallized in my mind that I wanted to be a chef.
But I still had a lot to learn. I remember going to St John, Fergus Henderson’s restaurant, in 2000 just after I arrived here and it just washed over me. I couldn’t get what the fuss was about it. That just showed how little I knew. But even before I came over I knew London had lots of Indian restaurants and loved its curry. It was interesting for me that if you looked at great Indian chefs and restaurants, I could count them on my hands. Largely what was being served up was pretty unimaginative. I could see a real opportunity.
I was at The Cinnamon Kitchen recently, it was fantastic and there was a real buzz there. How does it compare to The Cinnamon Club?
There are similarities. They have the same ethos, the same core philosophy – it’s about innovation and good quality, seasonal produce. Both try new things and both attract a mixed audience. The difference? With how the Club is set up. It was about pushing the boat out in a grand dining room, with a rather serious ambience – and that’s partly due to the building being the former Westminster Library. Over almost seven years of serving 75-80,000 people a year, you wouldn’t believe the number of times we were asked if you had to be a member to come, or if children were welcome. I wanted it to be more accessible, more welcoming, with a bit more theatre, something that would reflect the sensibilities of New India – not just in food, but in the atmosphere. So I came up with the concept of The Cinnamon Kitchen, which is much more relaxed.
The House of Holi will be returning to The Cinnamon Kitchen from 5-14 March. What’s the idea behind it?
We always try to connect to something that’s going on. We are open on Christmas Day, mark seafood month or vegetarian week, and Holi is one of my favourite festivals of all time. There are hundreds of festivals around and if I had to name my two favourites they would be Diwali in autumn and Holi in spring. Holi is one festival that’s not religious at all. It celebrates friendships, the passing of winter and the approach of spring. It does have that element of fun, something my audience have enjoyed tremendously! Diwali has become pretty mainstream here, but Holi is still relatively low key. The act of being swamped in colours and then going home on the Tube is so funny! It was really surprising how successful it was last year, so we have brought it back. Just don’t wear your best clothes!
What do you make of the food & drink scene in London today?
I love London. I eat out a lot, probably around 40 times a year and not necessarily work related. In my opinion London for me is the true global capital of food. There’s more energy here, even more so than New York. People talk about Tokyo or Paris, but none of these places can compete with the breadth you find in London.
Interview by Mark Kebble
The House of Holi takes place at Cinnamon Kitchen, 9 Devonshire Square EC2M 4YL; 020 7626 5000; cinnamon-kitchen.com