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November 23, 2012

Q&A with Vivek Singh at Cinnamon Soho

By Spear's

Emily Rookwood talks to Vivek Singh at Cinnamon Soho about his latest book, his kitchen philosophy and how chefs should handle the media

I met Vivek Singh in Cinnamon Soho, the most recent addition to his Cinnamon collection, which includes Cinnamon Club and Cinnamon Kitchen. As I arrived he was busily looking over PDFs of his then soon to be released book Cinnamon Kitchen: The Cookbook as he chattered away on the phone to what I assume must have been his publisher.

During his coffee break we sat down to talk about books, accidentally becoming a chef and kitchen philosophy.

Why did you decide to branch out and open Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho?

The idea behind Cinnamon Kitchen — it was meant to be cooler, younger and have a more relaxed environment.

Cinnamon Club was high end. It set a new benchmark for Indian fine dining using quality ingredients and set in great surroundings — like a gentleman’s club.

People felt like it was a place only for the rich and famous and even though it was hugely successful people would always ask the same questions: Do you allow children? Do I need to wear a tie? Are jeans allowed? We were all of those things but people didn’t realise it.

We were perceived as something very exclusive and for that reason I wanted to do something less exclusive, more welcoming and generally younger.

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We opened Cinnamon Kitchen the same week that Lehman Brothers crashed. Great timing, eh?! We wanted to combine modern Indian food with traditional Indian spices, using the best seasonal products. Essentially it is exactly the same product but just with different packaging.

Cinnamon Soho has been open for 6 months. It has been the worst summer ever with the Olympics but things now are looking up. This is only a small restaurant but it is doing pretty well.

Apart from spending time behind the stove and at the pass, you have a pretty active media life. Do you think that having a media presence is key to being a successful chef in today’s market?

I think it is very important. It is really important to think differently, or have your own point of view or some beliefs which you base your menus or cooking on. It is equally important to get out there and tell people what makes you unique. After all, everybody likes a good story.

So what is your story?

I came to food much later on. I didn’t start cooking until I was 21 or 22, which is quite late on. I got into hotel school by chance really and meandered my way through three years in hotel school and eventually bumbled into the kitchen.

I was always OK in the kitchen but never took it very seriously as an option — until I landed in the middle of it. I had an opportunity. I got selected for a particular job and it was the best one going then.

It was a wonderful thing that opened doors for me and once I’d got into it I realized how much more there was to learn. There is this whole world is in front of you.

So, I finished hotel school and went to work in the Oberoi hotels. They had a fantastic training programme for chefs and I came out of it, well, not very good, though I would have easily been one of the best chefs in the country — but that wasn’t a big thing.

I knew I was so insignificant compared to this amazing journey that lay ahead. But the world is a different place now, we all have — regardless of which part of the world we live in — a lot more access to food. And there are a lot more ‘how to’ videos on youtube!

Vivek Singh on Cinnamon Soho

What have you learnt about running your own restaurants that you couldn’t find on youtube?

When you are creating, cooking and sending it out to the people you are serving that is one skill and it requires a certain amount of thinking and expertise. But you can only run one restaurant like that [personally].

There is the bigger reality — we run several kitchens. For example Cinnamon Club has 19 chefs, including me 20 chefs, we have 12 or 13 chefs in Cinnamon Kitchen and 6 or 7 chefs here [at Cinnamon Soho], so it is always about more than just one person.

It is about the team and in order for the team to function people need to have the sense that can contribute.

Having that trust to leave other people to do their thing, to deliver for you is a harder skill to obtain then going out and promote your cuisine. Certainly I found it harder than being able to cook it yourself.

It is harder to get people to do it for you and it is even harder to get people to think like you, but those are the things spur you on.

Going from one restaurant to two to three the main thing I’ve learnt is it is just not possible without a team. In order for the team to be well-oiled and believe in the same thing, you need to allow creative space for people to be able to contribute

This is a very different approach to many celebrity chefs, why do you run your kitchen this way?

I like to see more and more chefs wanting to believe in what I believe in, so chefs will come and agree with what I am saying and think I’d like to cook like this. For me it is more about the way you see food.

When people are very controlling and very specific ‘this is what I am, this is who I am and this is my menu’ and everyone else has zero creative input, no matter how good the menu, they will end up doing it rather than believing in it.

They might be physically and mentally present but they won’t have their heart in it. I want people to have their mind and their heart in it.

That is why I need to find a way, and I hope I do, of giving people a bit more scope. If it is too prescriptive people will do it but not necessarily live it.

A parting kitchen thought…

A pestle and mortar is the best and perhaps only piece of equipment you’ll ever need to make the most amazing fresh-tasting dishes.
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