FT Foodies: Vivek Singh

Chef-restaurateur Vivek Singh opened The Cinnamon Club in 2001, in St James’s Park, London. A sister branch in Soho will open on Kingly Street later this month.

What were your school dinners like?

I went to a Catholic school, St Patrick’s, in a small industrial town close to Calcutta. I distinctly remember the smell that would come out of the kitchens, which I still associate with Anglo-Indian food: boiled mutton passed off as stew. They did have rice pudding, which I could relate to, though we had it without cardamom.

What was the first meal that really impressed you?

In the late 1970s, my brother and I went for the first time to a catered wedding, in Asansol, west Bengal. It was really ahead of its time: 300 people were sitting in huge big long rows, bearers were serving outstanding shrimp and coconut curry; aubergines, potatoes, two different kinds of bread, a whole range of pickles, a big feast. It’s one of the most outstanding memories of food I have.

What was your big break in food?

I wanted to join the Indian air force, and my parents wanted me to be an engineer, but I ended up doing hotel school in Delhi. My first big break was to be selected by the Oberoi group of hotels; 2,500 people would apply for eight or nine positions.

Who were your food heroes?

Food was omnipresent in our lives, in your own home or your neighbours’, but we didn’t have many heroes. When I was still in my formative years I came across a rock star called Marco Pierre White when I found his book White Heat in Calcutta. It wasn’t the recipes – it was the attitude, the total self belief that changed everything for me.

Why did you move to London?

In the years I had been a chef, I struggled with the thought I’d have to cook the same dishes over and over again. I was getting a little stifled. The Cinnamon Club was about challenging people’s perception of Indian food.

Are you experiencing a shortage of good Indian chefs?

Yes, and it will get worse if we don’t invest in people. We have to be able to train anybody: for a long time I’ve maintained you don’t have to be born of an Indian mother’s womb to cook good Indian food.

What do you consider bad manners at a table?

When people try to get attention by being difficult. Also the business of tweeting at the table. They can’t stop!

What would you choose for your last meal?

Butter chicken – I don’t think there’s a better dish. It has everything: it’s sweet, it’s sour, unctuous, with a bit of bite, simmered in a rich sauce, fragrant. It’s absolutely delish.


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