Vivek Singh – the innovative founder and executive chef of The Cinnamon Club – has been part of the transformation of Indian food in the UK. He came to my kitchen where I cooked his legendary firecracker wings, and we discussed soulfulness, stories told through food, and his hatred of the world’s hottest curry (which he created).
Vivek I really like this column.
Emma Really? I’m thrilled. I love doing it. It seems to me that chefs tend to have great hearts and souls.
V Chefs are naturally more giving than most people you come across in life. There are far easier ways of making money, but most people in hospitality predominantly want to make other people happy.
E You were clearly born to be a cook.
V I trained in hospitality, though I never thought I would end up being a chef. It wasn’t something I was familiar with and there weren’t enough role models. But I had confidence, and after a few years I entered a competition and won a Marco Pierre White cookbook. Reading through it, I realised immediately I wanted to run restaurants.
E When you eventually moved to London in your late twenties, what sort of Indian cuisine did you find?
V There were thousands of Indian restaurants, but if you looked at the menus, they all had the same dishes – vindaloo, madras and korma, all with chicken, lamb or fish. There wasn’t enough ambition, imagination or experimentation, seasonality wasn’t explored, there wasn’t enough care for quality ingredients – but there was so much that could be done. I’d been cooking in India at a high level for seven years by then, so I knew what I was doing and I thought, ‘I could do this.’
E Did it go down well?
V I thought that if people love Indian food so much, surely they’d be delighted to see something new and different. (He laughs.) But I found myself with a restaurant full of British people who wanted to eat what they were used to, and I hadn’t realised that would be the biggest challenge. I was impatient with the resistance to change, but there’s comfort in familiarity – I appreciate that more now.
E Did customers complain they couldn’t see their favourite dishes on the menu?
V Yes. A lot. But sometimes you have to shake people out of their comfort zone and challenge them to try something new. I remember one of my early guests saying, ‘This was good, but the British don’t expect much from curries. Why the fuss?’ And people were always asking ‘Why don’t you do poppadums?’
E Do you not like poppadums?
V It’s not about whether they’re good, it’s about what it does to the rest of your evening. Most nights at Indian restaurants here begin with a load of poppadums, and before the first dish arrives, the table is a mess. We wanted to get away from that and keep the focus on the main dishes, but customers asked for them every night, and said things like, ‘If I can’t have a saag aloo, I’m out of here.’ I wanted to do things differently. But it’s a different age we’re talking about. I haven’t experienced that in the last five years.
E There’s a big debate about Indian food being ‘authentic’. You’re clearly passionate about food evolution – but is a respect for tradition important to you as well?
V This fanatic desire to stay true to our roots is puzzling, because what is tradition? Anything that is a tradition now must have been an innovation at some point. I tend to focus more on, ‘Is this good? Does this dish tell a story?’ We’re constantly in a state of flux, especially now we live in a melting pot with so many influences. So questions like ‘What’s the journey of this dish?’ become an important part of the conversation, not just whether it’s authentic. Indian people often think they own curry, but curry is so much bigger than that. People have access to different ingredients now, like Thai and Chinese – does that make it inauthentic? More importantly, does it matter?
E ‘Does this food tell a story?’ is definitely a more interesting question than ‘Is this recipe “right”?’
V Yes, for example there was once a rich tradition in India of cooking with game, but we over-hunted to a point where there was a threat of extinction, so no-one’s been allowed game there for the last 50-odd years – if I cooked it in India now I’d be sent to prison. But because I live in Britain, I have this fantastic opportunity to reimagine what Indians would have done with game. It’s my opportunity to connect the past to the future, so the food becomes about connecting stories.
E Which of your dishes make those connections?
V The most popular is my rogan josh shepherd’s pie. It was a no-brainer – we love rogan josh, we love shepherd’s pie.
E What’s your best dish of all?
V Old Delhi-style butter chicken.
E Hang on, despite wanting to evolve Indian cuisine and challenge the perception of it, your favourite recipe is one that’s on most Indian menus in the UK!
V Yes, but it has to have the bite, the sweetness and the crunch. When that’s right, there’s no better dish.
E What part does your tandoor oven play in all this?
V It’s said that if you don’t have one of your senses, all the others senses become much stronger. It’s the same with the tandoor oven, because it doesn’t have all the paraphernalia like a temperature gauge or fan, you have to work in a more primal way. I like the simplicity of it; all you’ve got is the flame, the ingredients and the spices. Every time you use it, it’s going to be slightly different.
E You once created a contender for the Guinness World Records for ‘hottest curry’. What’s it like?
V It eats really well. It’s my most famous dish that has never been on my menu – not even for a day.
E Eh? Why?
V Look, I spent a lifetime telling people that there is so much more to Indian food than just heat. Chilli’s not meant to blow your head off, it’s there to bring warmth, colour, vibrancy. And the one super-hot curry I create, the whole world seems to know about it.
E That’s ironic.
V I know. If you want it, you have to pre-order it and come and sign a disclaimer. We had TV channels from across the planet descending on The Cinnamon Club to film it – thousands of people still request it and sign that form and I keep asking, ‘Why god, why?’.
Find the recipe for firecracker chicken wings in the January 2020 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
Read more articles by Emma Freud
Recipe adapted from Vivek Singh’s Indian Festival Feasts.
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends