Vivek Singh talks to Tandoori

Posted on Analysis Dec 2008 - by Tandoori Magazine
Vivek Singh talks to Tandoori

Driven by the same principles and ethos, the innovative Cinnamon Club has launched a second site, Cinnamon Kitchen in London’s City area. Its executive chef Vivek Singh talks to Tandoori.

Its two weeks after the official launch of the Cinnamon Kitchen, the new off-shoot of the renowned Cinnamon Club and executive chef Vivek Singh sits comfortably in the spacious dining room of the latter restaurant.

He’s calm and collected though as we discuss my meal at Cinnamon Kitchen the week before, our attention is drawn to what the UK’s pre-eminent food critic Fay Maschler might say in her forthcoming review, dining at the restaurant the same night. It turns out her dining companion, who also happens to be her husband, had exactly what I had eaten that evening: spiced sweet corn soup with masala corn kebab to start with and roast lamb saddle with mint-onion sauce and pilau rice for a main.

What he ate for dessert isn’t discussed, but if it was the same as me – cardamom shrikand with grilled pineapple and tamarind glazed figs – then he must have had a good meal. I praise Singh for his well-flavoured pudding, which leads him to espouse freely about what modern Indian desserts should be about.

“The can understand why the European palate doesn’t favour Indian sweets,” says Singh, “because they are sugary and milky with a very similar texture so after a while, flavour-fatigue sets in. With a gulab jaman for instance, what you can do is to turn into a carpaccio by slicing it and adding nuts to it so there is a nutty texture. That way it becomes more attractive and relevant to the non-Indian palate. But then you can also bring an Indian twist to European desserts. Tarte tatin, which is traditionally made with apples, can be made with bananas, accompanied by cinnamon ice cream, which is how we serve it at Cinnamon Kitchen, giving it an Indian tinge.”

Singh’s passion and methodology is self-evident though he’s at pains to inform me that the same ethos of quality sourcing, fine produce, adventurous combinations, bold and fresh flavours, combined with top-notch service – everything that has made the Cinnamon Club a standout Indian restaurant for the past seven years – has been duplicated at Cinnamon Kitchen.

The difference begins when the new site, in Devonshire Square, is cited as being informal and more accessible than its well-loved predecessor.

“We have an annual turnover in excess of £4.5 million and serve between 80,000 and 90,000 customers a year at the Cinnamon Club,” states Singh. “But what has also happened in the period we have been open is that we have come to be perceived in some circles as elitist, which is understandable to a degree. We are located in a Grade II listed building, we offer cutting edge cooking and customers can easily end up spending around £70 to £80 on their meal, so there’s an aura about the place about being grown up and being a ‘special occasion’ restaurant.

It was a very conscientious decision to move away from that perception with Cinnamon Kitchen and appeal to a wider and younger clientele, where the spend would be between £40 and £50. Had we gone any lower to a per head spend of around £20 then that would have been quite jarring and the last thing I want is to start compromising on our standards. The cooking will also be lighter.”

At the same time, Singh points out that Cinnamon Kitchen offers more “scope and choice”.

Designed with an eye to industrial and Indian minimalism, the restaurant offers a capacity of 110 covers, with an additional and rather impressive looking alfresco terrace, Anise, a bar serving spice infused cocktails alongside tasting and sharing platters, along with what is described as London’s “first Indian grill and tandoor” – the 16 cover concept being almost similar to the Japanese-style teppanyaki way of dining. If the Cinnamon Club is grand and stately, Cinnamon Kitchen is more “rough and ready” with elegance.

“With the grill,” notes Singh, “the notion is to have dining which is very interactive and bespoke, where though there are dishes on the menu, customers can select ingredients to be grilled and the way they would like it – spicy, non-spicy – and have it cooked right in front of them on the grill. It creates a dining style which is very refreshing and exciting.”

Some of the grills already available at Cinnamon Kitchen on the menu include chargrilled fruits, fat chillies with Hyderabadi lamb mince and wild African prawns.

I put to Singh that considering the harsh economic downturn, was it wise to open a new restaurant of such high calibre in today’s conditions?

“We have had the project in our minds for over a year,” he says, “and the actual site for a year. We signed the lease in July and then everything moved with speed right up to the opening in November. Once can’t control or predict which way the economy will swing and as it is, the downward spiral has only really begun in the past few months.

People still have to eat and drink so as long as I keep my end up of offering good cooking in an environment that is attractive then they will keep coming. The Cinnamon Club is currently experiencing an upturn in business of between 10% and 12% compared to last year so I can only hope that Cinnamon Kitchen will get off to a flying start.”

As a youngster, Singh, who grew up in the Bengal, refused to follow in his father’s footsteps as an engineer in the coalmining industry and instead went to Delhi to the Oberoi group and start his studies for a career in the culinary world.

“I had mixed influences as a child when it came to food,” admits Singh, “with a strong hint of Bengali cooking. But when it came to Delhi, it left a lasting impression on me. The exposure to what I call true north Indian cooking was fantastic. I was eating in road side dhabas and street side cafes, which was just fabulous and to this day, the butter chicken which I ate in Delhi has remained my favourite dish of all time.

When I then moved to Bombay for a couple of years to work there, there was a different type of learning where I was exposed to more international cuisines, as well as seafood and street snacks, the latter of which I still try and encompass in the menu at the Cinnamon Club.”

After yet another move – this time to Calcutta’s Oberoi Grand, fondly referred to as the ‘Grande Dame of Chowringhee’ – came Singh’s stint at the legendary Oberoi Rajvilas, in Jaipur, Rajasthan, which he was handpicked to head up the Indian kitchens for.

“The guests who came to stay at the Rajvilas,” he states, “were the Who’s Who of the world glitterati. It was all sheer luxury. But I had some reservations about where I was working, which I thought was a tad limiting in terms of the size. Having said that, what I didn’t always face was the problem that so many hotel-run restaurant operations face, which is that the chef has no control on the buying of the produce. Contracts would be issued by faceless personnel with the criteria just being based on pricing rather quality. At Rajvilas, even though there was good lamb coming in from as far afield as New Zealand or Angus beef from Scotland, it wasn’t being utilised towards Indian cooking, more so towards French or other cuisines.”

Singh found that frustrating. He felt he was in a groove where Indian food was mired in tradition and becoming repetitive: “I needed it to move and evolve.” At the same time, Singh had been reading books from the likes of such western uber-chefs as Escoffier and Marco Pierre White, the latter’s White Heat being particularly inspirational.

It was at this point that Singh was approached by ex-Tandoori Editor and now restaurateur, Iqbal Wahhab to launch the Cinnamon Club. The rest as they say is history. With Singh appointed as the head chef and brought over to London, the Cinnamon Club was opened to generally favourable reviews - “highly innovative”, “dazzlingly different”, “like no other Indian”  “ravishing” – are just some of the comments restaurant reviewers used to praise the its cooking.
Even now though, a Michelin Star still eludes the restaurant.

“I’m not disappointed at all for not having received a star,” says Singh. “I have to give my cooking the best shot I can. The Cinnamon Club is doing excellent business and I would probably have to take some sort of a detour in order to start thinking how I can make my cooking more “Michelin-friendly”, which would be absurd.  I just have to continue building on the reputation we have and that is good enough for me.”

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