Vivek Singh, the dynamic mastermind behind the Cinnamon Collection has been delighting guests with his own style of modern Indian cuisine for 20 years. Ever since The Cinnamon Club in Westminster opened its doors in 2001, Vivek has built a reputation for offering some of the best Indian food in London and is passionate about developing talent within the industry. As articulate as he is inspiring, Vivek regularly appears on television and has written six books on Indian cuisine.
This year, Vivek celebrates his 20th Anniversary at the Cinnamon Club and his team of talented chefs and front of house staff have been working hard all year to mark the occasion with bottomless chaat parties in July, special tasting menu events in August and a Diwali dinner to be held this November. Stir it Up magazine caught up with Vivek recently to ask him about his unique style of cooking and to reflect on the last 20 years.
How did you develop your own style of Indian cuisine?
My own style of cuisine was born out of a desire to break the mold and push boundaries to create innovative Indian cooking. I focus on using the best produce and ingredients possible; I was frustrated with the perception that ‘curry’ didn’t require good ingredients.
How do you define Modern Indian cuisine?
For me, modern Indian cuisine is more than just smartening up traditional Indian dishes. The process is always ongoing – the journey of a cuisine can’t stand still and claim to be current. To be considered as ‘modern’ you need to be constantly pushing boundaries and adapting.
When introducing new dishes to your menu, what is your development process?
When developing new dishes, I always start with an ingredient. I think about what is in season/what is new. Then I think about which techniques and spicing I can use to make it taste the best it possibly can.
When being guided by the seasons for your menu, have you encountered any surprise ingredients over the years?
I haven’t really come across any surprise ingredients, but when I first discovered quinoa around ten years ago I was amazed how long it had been around and used in cooking all over the world. This ‘mother of all grains’ is not actually a grain at all but a seed.
What has inspired you to continue innovating?
Innovating almost becomes second nature when you have worked in the industry for so long and trained your mind to be curious and constantly asking questions.
What prompted you to open your first restaurant and why did you choose that specific location?
I honestly believed that there was so much more creativity to be explored in Indian cuisine – we hadn’t really scratched the surface! I can’t say I set out to inspire modern Indian dining in the UK, but I certainly wanted to show people there was a lot more to Indian cooking and its repertoire than was being showcased at the time. There were opportunities for smaller, more frequently changing menus and more considered combinations. Indian food wasn’t considered to be a dining experience and I wanted to change this misconception.
It wasn’t so much that we picked the location, but that the location picked me. Iqbal Wahhab had pulled rabbits out of the bag to secure The Old Westminster Library for The Cinnamon Club, and it felt perfect from the minute I walked in.
What were your stand-out memories of the first year at The Cinnamon Club?
I have several! From the very first day of opening it was certainly memorable. We launched with an event for 650 guests with no commercial gas and cooking equipment. It was the biggest restaurant opening of the year and we managed to pull it off without any rehearsal or soft launch. I also remember the time after 9/11 when all international travel came to a halt, along with the economy, but we managed to make it through. Finally, one of my most favourite moments was when we walked into the dining room and the entire restaurant applauded. It felt incredibly special.
Your 20th Anniversary celebrations include a Diwali Dinner this November, how did you decide upon the menu and are there any surprises in store for your guests?
The Diwali dinner is the final event this year but certainly not the end of the celebrations! Diwali is a particularly special time of year, when friends, family and communities can get together and celebrate everything positive that has happened over the past months. This year, it is particularly important. The menu will be quite fluid – there are four different chefs and we are each cooking two dishes; one close to our hearts and one that is completely new to us, so there will definitely be a few surprises!
What lessons have you learnt over the last 20 years?
There are almost too many to mention! But I would say that you should only get into restaurants if you truly love them, not because you want to sell them.
What have been your favourite memories?
One of my most favourite memories is when we had to turn Mick Jagger away from The Cinnamon Club because there were no tables left. Other than that, I’m most proud of the impact The Cinnamon Club has had on the people who have worked and passed through it in their careers. Some of the finest talent in the global modern Indian culinary scene all over the world has come out of our kitchens, not to mention our own long-standing team, many of whom have been with us for years. The head chefs, each being home-grown within The Cinnamon Collection, have over 220 years of experience cooking and working together.
Encouraging and nurturing new talent is extremely important to me, and it is even more important than ever with the current recruitment issue.