Vivek Singh, The Cinnamon Club, Westminster

The Staff Canteen

Vivek Singh is executive chef and CEO of The Cinnamon Club, the renowned fine-dining Indian restaurant set in the Grade II-listed building of The Old Westminster Library.

Raised in the culinary tradition of India, Vivek has fused the traditional cooking of his roots with top quality local and seasonal  ingredients and modern techniques to create dishes that are at the forefront of modern Indian cuisine. With a handful of cookbooks and numerous TV appearances under his belt, Vivek is now at the forefront of high-profile chefs in the UK; with the opening of Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho, his culinary empire is expanding too. The Staff Canteen caught up with him to find out about his approach to modern Indian cooking with British ingredients.

When did you first realise you wanted to cook as a profession?

I grew up in a very small coal mining community in Bengal in the eastern part of India. I was always fond of food and I grew up in a family that cooked three or four meals a day with three, four or five dishes in each meal, so I grew up in an environment where you were surrounded by food and food was a way of expressing love, respect, a sense of sharing and celebration. I got into cooking as a career mainly as a lucky accident because somebody described the hotel college course as a lot of fun with no exams or notes to take and it sounded like a three-year-long picnic; so I thought I’d give it a go!

What first brought you to the UK?

I was working for the Oberoi group of hotels in India which gave me an amazing culinary training, but even though I’d only been cooking for six or seven years I was a bit bored of the traditional style of Indian cooking; everybody was using the same bog-standard 200 recipes that had been invented over 500 years ago. I really believed that Indian cooking needed to evolve and this was at the time that The Cinnamon Club was being conceived in London. The idea was that it would be an Indian restaurant that would completely redefine people’s perceptions of Indian food and set a new benchmark for Indian dining in this country.

Is The Cinnamon Club where your philosophy of modern Indian cooking really took off?

Yes, this became my real opportunity to push boundaries through innovation, through creativity and through seasonal cooking. It was when I defined my ethos of cooking as modern Indian – a kind of cuisine that would draw its inspiration from traditional Indian techniques and spicing but combine that with the very best local, seasonal produce one can buy from wherever in the world one may be cooking. So for example we’d use the finest Scottish halibut, the finest hand-dived scallops off the coast of Dorset or Cornwall, the very best Kentish lamb, the best venison. 

By using the best ingredients it became apparent to me that the age-old methods of Indian cuisine, like cutting everything into small pieces and cooking them to death in bowls of brown sauce, wasn’t the best way for allowing the appreciation of these ingredients and therefore it was important to use spicing to enhance rather than take over.

I began to deconstruct Indian dishes to reflect more the context and environment in which they were being enjoyed. So we took traditional recipes and broke them down into their most primal, essential parts and looked at what needed to be retained and what was superfluous and then built the dish back up to create layers of flavours and textures and create a totally new kind of Indian food.

Could you give us an example of a dish you deconstructed in that way?

I do a Bengali spiced fish but I’ll use Scottish halibut for it. If I’m using such a good piece of fish, I want people to be more aware of the flavours and textures of the ingredient; so I wouldn’t cut it into very small pieces and turn it into a curry. I’d turn it into a very nice steak, leave the skin on, pan sear it with a little bit of spice then let the meat rest so it’s very juicy and tender. I’ll cook the sauce separately; I may use some fish stock to make a Bengali-inspired mustard sauce with some red onions sautéed at the last minute with some vinegar so that it’s very crunchy with a bit of black onion seeds for drama. I’ll add that to the plate next to the fish steak with some nice spinach wilted off with garlic and cumin; and that, essentially, is a deconstructed dopiaza, which is a very traditional Bengali fish dish. 

Did you get a lot of criticism from traditionalists for this kind of approach?

At first we did get our fair share of nay-sayers, both Indians and British, who thought this was all sacrilege and why try to fix something that isn’t broken, but to be honest that isn’t the point;  the point of going forward is continuing to push boundaries, challenge the conventions and ask “why not?”

Now you have Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho; what are you trying to achieve with those?

With The Cinnamon Club we were trying to create an exclusive fine dining Indian restaurant and it has now achieved that status of a cult, iconic London restaurant, which is great but we wanted somewhere younger and more accessible and rather than try to change the image here we thought we should open another restaurant. We opened Cinnamon Kitchen in the old spice warehouses of the East India Company, another Grade II-listed building but very New York, very buzzy with a great outdoor space. I also wanted to do more quirky dishes with more Indian-British crossover cooking, so for example I took a Rogan josh and a shepherd’s pie and made a Rogan josh shepherd’s pie which we serve at Cinnamon Soho; and again everyone loves a fish pie so I did one with Keralan spices, so it has the familiarity of a fish pie with the pizazz of India. I’ve also put lamb’s brains on the menu at Cinnamon Soho which is one of its best-known signature dishes and is a great way of getting people interacting and trying something different.

That’s one of the things I like about this business; it’s the gratification of getting an instant response to what you’re doing. There aren’t many other jobs like that; you can do other bigger and better-paid things but very few where you get that instant response from the customer to what you’re doing, and that’s what I love. View Vivek's recipe for King Prawns in saffron almond sauce here View Vivek's recipe for Rajasthani roast rack of lamb with corn sauce here

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th October 2018

Vivek Singh, The Cinnamon Club, Westminster