Vivek Singh tells Aaron Morby how the informal setting of his second restaurant, the Cinnamon Kitchen, helped it win a British Curry Award
Need to know Acclaimed Indian chef Vivek Singh, head of the Cinnamon Club Group, has had a remarkable 11 years by anybody's terms. Since coming to Britain he has pioneered modern Indian cuisine and become a TV celebrity chef. If that was not sufficient, he is chief executive officer of the business he has steered from restaurant start-up to a growing group about to open its third restaurant in London.
It is a long journey from the Delhi hotel school where he started training and his big career break with the Oberoi Hotel Group where he started out in the flight kitchen producing 2,000 meals a day.
Singh's talents soon got him noticed and he was fast-tracked to head chef at the flagship Rajvilas hotel in Jaipur at the age of 26.
"I learned to cook at the Oberoi and enjoyed every minute of it," he recalls. "Owner PRS Oberoi was a great inspiration. He never worried about immediate competition and had the vision to look beyond everyday challenges. It's no surprise the three finest UK Indian restaurants are run by former Oberoi chefs."
In 2000, a group of private investors approached Singh with the idea of taking luxury modern Indian cuisine to Britain.
"It seemed like a gamble at the time, but I saw the opportunity to do something different," he says.
Starting out As head chef of his first restaurant, Singh crafted the marriage of flavours that made the Cinnamon Club stand out. The idea is to serve modern Indian food using the finest British ingredients and culinary traditions. The Cinnamon Club is located in the grandeur of the former Westminster library.
Singh says: "Fortunately, it never crossed our minds that the area we were looking at for the club was a restaurant desert. That it was just round the corner from the House of Commons was also not that important to us at the outset." Ten years on, the critically acclaimed Cinnamon Club is a destination restaurant, which counts politicians and the media among its lunchtime customers. In the evenings, foodies keenly interested in Indian cuisine tend to fill the tables.
Cinnamon Kitchen "After the success of the Club we wanted to do something more informal, a place with the same values but not linked to exclusivity," explains Singh. Fittingly, the Cinnamon Kitchen occupies the former spice house of London's historic East India Company in the heart of the City of London.
The Kitchen opened in the week Lehman Brothers collapsed. "We opened at such a bad time, but it wasn't like we had seen better, so it could only go upwards," says Singh.
While the Club boasts beautiful old world rooms, high ceilings and great stretches of brown-leather panelling, the Kitchen has a sleek, modern interior that has come to symbolise modern Indian cuisine. The atmosphere is younger and trendier, and draws in an affluent and discerning business crowd.
An open-all-year terrace and sleek Anise bar with spice-infused cocktails makes it popular with drinkers as well as diners. A customer favourite at the Cinnamon Kitchen is the tandoor bar and grill, which allows diners to directly interact with a dedicated chef.
Food The menu is lighter and more fish-based at the Kitchen than the more gamey Club menu. There are flavours from all over the subcontinent. Dishes include tandoori king prawns with Bengali kedgeree; plaice with sweet tamarind and curried yogurt; roast lamb with mint-onion sauce and pilau rice; and almond, and pepper panna cotta with ginger dates.
Favourite supplier Finclass Meats supplies both restaurants, with the bulk of its meat from London's Smithfield market.
"Owner Gordon Hogg is brilliant because he sources the very best and goes out of his way to find something new. He finds us a large variety of game when in season, and goes as far as Northern Ireland for red deer," says Singh.
Finclass is also the only London butcher to sell Mey Select beef from Prince Charles's estate in Scotland.
Business philosophy Both restaurants are a testament to the philosophy of remaining inventive and challenging preconceived ideas about Indian food.
"We are constantly innovating and adapting, and casting the net into fresh areas to draw in new customers," explains Singh.
"We need to think beyond the comfort zone. It is important to keep pushing the boat out to find new suppliers, equipment and customers. That is the fundamental reason why we are successful."
Singh is clear that the business must keep growing. "We aim to do this in a measured way and organically. We are crafters and creators rather than acquirers. Our philosophy is to develop our people and promote within; a growing business helps us do that," he says.
Financials The business has grown steadily over 11 years and now boasts an £8m turnover. The first three years trading at the Cinnamon Club were a challenge, but now it is doing brisk trade serving 100,000 customers a year, generating £5m.
Now in its third year, the Cinnamon Kitchen has doubled turnover since topping £1.5m in year one and serves 55,000 meals a year from 150 dining places.
Spotlight on the future
Vivek Singh's next project is a restaurant in London's Soho. "It's going to be very much along the lines of the Cinnamon Kitchen. The ethos will be innovation, quality produce and seasonal ingredients," he says.
"Because Soho has it own vibe we will move to all-day dining. Cinnamon Soho will target shoppers, and pre- and post-theatre trade with a relaxed atmosphere created by people coming and going for signature dishes of around £13, or dropping in for a few drinks and small plates at £5-£7 each."
The premises in Kingley Street are a modest 500sq ft and are being fitted out to open at the end of March.
Looking further forward, Singh believes there is room for premises in west London, but he admits that somewhere in Canary Wharf would be his next favoured move. "It all depends on what opportunities present themselves," he says.
vivek singh's revelations
Favourite hotel Four Season Kuda Huraa, Maldives
Favourite restaurant Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, Bordeux
What book has inspired you? White Heat by Marco Pierre White
Motto Shut up and get on with it If you weren't a chef, what would you have been? A farmer
Which hotelier do you most admire? PRS Oberoi
Describe your business in five words Constantly evolving, creative, modern, Indian
Facts and stats
Executive chef/CEO Cinnamon Kitchen Vivek Singh
General manager Jean Luc-Giquel
Head chef Abdul Yaseen
Number of years open 3
Typical meal price (per head) £28