A chai & a chaat with Vivek Singh

Snaffling yet another of Cinnamon Kitchen’s smoky-as-you-like lamb seekh kebabs wrapped in roomali roti, I give silent thanks yet again that Vivek Singh decided to defy family expectation and become a chef rather than an engineer. The Cinnamon group- Club, Kitchen and Soho– has arguably become a beacon for excellence in Indian food, both in the capital and beyond- embracing both traditional and modernity in a marvellously fluid manner which often surprises but never jars.

And, never one to greedily hoard his riches, the affable, accidental chef has just written his fourth cookbook- a comprehensive volume allowing you, should you be so inclined, to recreate almost the entire Cinnamon Kitchen menu- and the cocktails of the restaurant’s Anise bar to boot. But I doubt Vivek’s worried. The man seems to have a particular Midas touch- helped along by good humour, hard work and an ocean of food-loving supporters. There’s just something about Cinnamon…

Cinnamon Kitchen’s Tandoori-Style King Prawns with Bengali Kedgeree

Vivek is inspired by the seasons, using abundant ingredients to turn out a menu replete with traditional Indian classics given that inimitable CK twist. The restaurant is pretty smart, but there’s a conscious move away from formality and structure. Dishes are served in a relaxed manner with little concern for the rigid, multi-course menu, and guests are as welcome to order a drink and a grilled dish as a full-blown feast. Although, once you start sampling, that might be the logical conclusion.

Marco Pierre White and Eric Chavot are two chefs Vivek credits as his own culinary inspirations. Chavot has been a close personal friend since he was founding menu consultant for Cinnamon Club a decade ago. He’s also vocal about the UK’s future talent- loyally citing three of his own team as ones to watch- Raju and his playful cooking at Cinnamon Soho; Rakesh’s measured approach at Cinnamon Club; and Abdul at Cinnamon Kitchen, whose flare, Vivek says, is evident in everything he does.

It’s not all incestuous (albeit deserved) backslapping, though: Vivek also rates Paul Foster and Masterchef winner Shelina Permalloo pretty highly- and has acknowledged both their skills with guests stints in his kitchens. He does escape, occasionally, though- when you might find him dining at Hunan, Hawksmoor, or a branch of Mirch Masala. After a heavy shift, there’s nothing that sorts the chef out better than a gin-based, spiced ‘Calcutta Cuppa’ at Anise.

All that recipe testing took its toll on Vivek, but he’s recovered sufficiently to think about a menu he’d create with favourite dishes from the book. A Spiced Kir Royale and pao bhaji might do for a late-night snack with friends, but to seriously impress, he’d opt to awe with chargrilled broccoli florets, rose petals and almonds; rump of lamb with garlic and spinach sauce;  and grilled aubergine with peanuts;  finishing victoriously with his legendary spiced pistachio cake. Where’s my invite?!

Cinnamon Kitchen’s Roast Saddle of Venison with Pickling Sauce & Stir-Fried Beetroot

But, for all that gastro-genius, sometimes a magician like Vivek just wants to conjure up the kind of homely fare that reminds him of India. That’s the butter chicken so loved in Delhi; masala dosa- breakfast of choice in the South; sweet-toothed Bengali’s rosso gollas; the refined Moghul-influenced biryanis of Hyderabad; and Mumbai beach snacks like bhel puri and pao bhaji. For these, the family-style canteens and snack kiosks of London’s Indian enclaves are a welcome hangout.

On Green Street, or Drummond St, or in Tooting, Wembley and Southall, Vivek can sample the regional specialities he thinks the British are becoming more receptive to. These areas also offer boundless opportunity for the chef to stock up on his kitchen essentials- pestle and mortars for grinding masalas; pungent mustard oil; kalonji, or nigella seeds; sweetly aromatic fennel seeds; fresh chillies and coriander; and turmeric- versatile, haunting, and a bugger to get out of your whites.

Cinnamon Kitchen’s Marinated & Grilled Portobello Mushrooms

It’s a rare thing, in any industry, to have a character as talented and successful as Vivek who manages to retain every ounce of their humour, warmth and generosity- even rarer amongst chefs. But then, as evidenced by Cinnamon Club, Cinnamon Kitchen and now Cinnamon Soho, Vivek’s never been one to go by the book. Unless it’s his new cookbook, that is- in which case he’s as committed to following the formula- as you will be, conjuring a little of that Cinnamon magic in your own kitchen.

Cinnamon Kitchen: The Cookbook’ by Vivek Singh is published by Absolute Press, RRP £25

For more on the Cinnamon group restaurants, visit Cinnamon Club, Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho’s websites.

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