Chef Vivek Singh is one of the most successful and respected modern Indian chefs in the United Kingdom, with four renowned London restaurants to his name—the authentic dining experience of The Cinnamon Club, the City’s Cinnamon Kitchen, Covent Garden’s Cinnamon Bazaar, and most recently Cinnamon Kitchen Battersea.
Chef Singh’s refined approach to Indian cuisine changed the perception of Indian food in the UK. His success and reputation have continued to grow with the publication of six cookbooks, media appearances, and a regular guest slot on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen. Vivek is celebrating the 22nd anniversary of the Cinnamon Club, and Raj Gill had the honor and privilege of joining him for lunch.
Tell us about your journey.
I grew up in a coal mining community in Bengal. Like most boys in my generation, I had very little exposure and involvement in the kitchen. It wasn’t until after I completed hotel school and began an intense chef course that I was exposed to various cuisines and ways of cooking. This experience opened my eyes to a world of possibilities and journeys that cooking could bring. In 1997, I moved from the Oberoi’s flight kitchens in Mumbai to the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, where I was fast-tracked to become the Indian chef of the Oberoi’s flagship Rajvilas in Jaipur. I moved to London in 2001 when the Cinnamon Club was born!
How did you get into the industry?
Becoming a chef began with my love of good food but was a happy accident; it was more by chance than by design or fate. I spurned family expectations to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an engineer by going to catering college and pursuing a passion that originated from reading Escoffier, Marco Pierre White, and Charlie Trotter at an early age.
How has the pandemic changed the restaurant industry in London?
Over the last 20 years, I have faced several challenges, but none as great as Covid-19. I’m grateful to be here, and I have kept most every member of the team. One thing the pandemic proved is how adjustable the hospitality industry is. Many restaurants, including ours, set up a range of at-home meal kits during the lockdown. We were so lucky with their popularity with our loyal fans, and we still offer them today. However, setting it up felt like brain surgery! The whole industry has had a slow recovery from the pandemic, as we are still feeling the effects two years later; rising costs and rents are an industry-wide problem, and we all want to support our staff the best we can.
How do you conceptualize your restaurants?
Each restaurant reflects an aspect of me. Being slightly contrary, cheeky, and irreverent to tradition and customs, we are forever looking to challenge perceptions and push boundaries. All Cinnamon restaurants somehow carry this ethos of challenging the status quo.
The Cinnamon Club, at the time of opening, was itself an effort to liberate Indian food from the straitjacket of tradition. As it became popular, we wanted to concentrate on using good quality seasonal ingredients in our cooking, letting each component speak for itself rather than drowning them in heavy spices or sauces. As we became more comfortable in the industry, Cinnamon Kitchen was born to make the high-end Indian food adventure more accessible to a broader, younger audience that wanted interaction, recognition, and theatre in their dining experience. Cinnamon Bazaar now reflects how we live and work, a 24-hour, all-day, all-night buzz with an energy that is so typical of an Indian bazaar. In a way, they all have a reflection of my personality.
Who or what was the inspiration behind the aesthetics and menus in your restaurants?
We have worked with numerous designers for each venue, but with each locale, the designers listened to our briefs and added twists to deliver spaces integral to Cinnamon’s signature style. For menus, the inspiration comes from everywhere, my childhood, the constant want and need to evolve, and the divine variety of ingredients we work with here in the UK, thanks to our fantastic suppliers.
What is your signature dish?
I love working with games and feel so lucky to be able to. In India, for the last 70-80 years, hunting and game have been completely banned due to conservation reasons. The fact The Cinnamon Club was the first Indian restaurant to introduce grouse on the menu makes me immensely proud. We have managed to conserve the genre of Indian game cooking, which has a rich history. It would have been sad if it had been lost. One of my favorite dishes is a tandoori breast of grouse smoked with cloves, my mum’s pumpkin chutney, and masala peanuts.
It’s your last meal; what’s on the plate?
That is too difficult of a question; I eat everything!
Where do you go to eat?
It has to be the city’s southeast side, including the extraordinary “Republic of Peckham,” Camberwell, and New Cross, due to the many things currently happening and opening; there’s never a dull moment! Some of my best find in the area is a Chinese restaurant called Silk Road and The Begging Bowl in Peckham, an excellent place for rich and flavorsome Thai street food!
What do you cook at home?
My favorite dish to cook is Old Delhi-style chicken, and it’s one of my favorite things to eat!
How imperative is excellence in client service?
It is vital. We wouldn’t be where we are now without our loyal clients, some of whom have been with us for more than 20 years, and that is all due to our client service. These people are like family, and they inspired us during the pandemic to produce our meal kits. Why would we want to disappoint and lose them?
How do you accomplish such a high-ranking level of service?
Many team members are homegrown; we believe in nurturing excellence at the Cinnamon Club and reward it as we see fit. As I said previously, we are lucky to have such a loyal client base; this is also a reward for our team and helps us strive toward excellence.
Who is the most famous person you have cooked for? Did you feel intimidated? Well, one of my favorite memories is when we had to turn Mick Jagger away from the Cinnamon Club because there were no tables left! However, it was a pleasure to cook for Bill Clinton in 2000, my first brush with a celebrity; his group was lovely and so complimentary about the meal.
What is most rewarding about working in your industry?
Encouraging and nurturing new talent is extremely important to me. It is even more critical today than ever with the current recruitment issues. I feel privileged to be able to say that some of the finest talent in the Indian scene all over the world has come out of our kitchens, not to mention our own long-standing team, many of whom have been with us for years. Last time I counted, between the head chefs, each one being homegrown, and some senior chefs, there are 12 of us, and we have over 220 years of experience cooking and working together.
What are your primary values as a chef?
Taste, presentation, and goodness are my three key values. Taste because food’s meant to be eaten and enjoyed. Presentation because we eat with our eyes first.
Goodness, if it’s good for you, if it’s good for the environment that is producing it, and if it’s good for the communities, then everyone’s a winner.
What is the one question you wish a journalist would ask you?
I wish they would ask who we couldn’t accommodate rather than ask which celebrities have eaten at the restaurant.
And the answer?
Do you really want to know? We got more attention from those we couldn’t accommodate, for example, Mick Jagger and Will.I.Am.