Tony Singh's enthusiasm, and the food at his new restaurant, Tasty, is sure to brighten up the Alea casino in Glasgow. He tells Karen Peattie about taking a chance on a leisure park for his latest venture
Pictures by Brendan MacNeill
It is hard not to like Tony Singh, the Leith-born chef that's one half (along with Cyrus Todiwala) of BBC2's The Incredible Spice Men
He's not wrong on that score. This light and delicate dish from the 'Bits Tae Share' menu at his latest venture, Tasty at the Alea casino at Springfield Quay leisure park in Glasgow, packs a pretty flavoursome punch. "I don't know what she'll make of it," he says.
He is referring to Scottish restaurant reviewer Joanna Blythman, who is both revered and feared in equal measure. He doesn't know when she's coming - she certainly won't book under her own name - but today he has prepared a number of dishes for the photographer whose pictures will accompany the review in The Sunday Herald. The Caterer is invited to "get stuck in".
Is he worried about Blythman's visit? "Not at all," he says. "Some reviews can be harsh, but I don't dwell on things like that - what's the point? I strive for excellence in whatever I do in life. I love a challenge - trying something new, taking things to a different level, a venture into the unknown. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't. You don't expect everyone to like what you do, but you sure as hell try your hardest."
Singh chooses this moment to talk candidly about Oloroso, his acclaimed fine-dining restaurant in Edinburgh which fell victim to the economic downturn and closed in 2012. Does he see it as a failure? "Absolutely not," he states. "We don't need reminding of what happened in 2008 - the world went crazy and Edinburgh was hit hard.
"People stopped eating out almost overnight," Singh recalls. "We were used to being busy all the time - then all of a sudden we weren't. That's a fact. The experience made me realise what's important to me - no-one died and I moved on in the knowledge that I had a great deal to be proud of.
"The knocks and the tough times help shape you - they make you look closely at how you might have done things differently and how you will do them in the future. You take stock. I've no regrets about Oloroso - it was great for Edinburgh and it gave me a profile that has helped me enormously in my career. I also learned the value of building up good relationships with your suppliers - they're as much a part of your team as your staff."
At the moment, however, it's all about Tasty at Alea. Singh, a self-styled 'culinary crusader', has long harboured ambitions to open a restaurant in Glasgow. But why choose to collaborate with a casino? Why has he not chosen to open a standalone restaurant in the city?
"I really enjoyed working with Apex and thought something similar could work in Glasgow," he says, referring to his collaboration with Apex Hotels on a pop-up restaurant at its Grassmarket hotel in Edinburgh in 2015. He has now agreed to operate a permanent restaurant on the site for the next two years.
After that success, Singh made contact with Alea casino's parent company, Caesars Entertainment UK, about a possible project, and cooked for a management team at the pop-up in Edinburgh.
"They liked the concept and they loved my food," says Singh. "So we've collaborated and it's been brilliant. I can concentrate on cooking and making the customers happy without the distraction of having to run what would otherwise be quite a complex business. I think we'll see more chefs going down this route in a world where landlords are increasingly focusing on yield and the amount of bureaucracy that goes hand-in-hand with running a small business is difficult to keep on top of."
Crispy crab roll
Singh strides across the 120-cover restaurant to the huge window with a stunning view over the Clyde and Glasgow skyline. "It's a cracking location," he says, admitting that Springfield Quay - home to a number of chain restaurants including Nando's, Frankie & Benny's and Chiquito, as well as a Hollywood Bowl, Odeon cinema and Ibis budget hotel - is "a wee bit jaded."
Not for long. Springfield Quay is currently in the throes of a £1m facelift after owners Strathclyde Pension Fund, which acquired the site in 2014, pledged to inject a new lease of life into the popular destination by making it easier for people to walk around and improving the landscaping. Work on the upgrade is expected to be completed by the summer with businesses able to operate as normal until then.
"It's perfect timing," says Singh. "It will help bring more people here and will obviously have a knock-on effect for Tasty. We're on a leisure park and that means it's somewhere for people to come and have fun - in the case of the casino, it's where the big boys and girls come to play. And I'm a fun person so I think it's pretty much a perfect match."
Tasty is indeed colourful - just like Singh himself - and draws on the vibrancy of his ancestral home of the Punjab. It's a site that's perfect for big groups of friends or colleagues heading for the casino afterwards, although couples and family groups - as long as everyone is over 18 - will also be seduced, he says.
Pork ribs with Jura Superstition glaze
Tasty by name
Head chef James Hardy, formerly of One Devonshire Gardens (under Andrew Fairlie) and Nick Nairn's former Glasgow restaurant Nairns, appears with more dishes for the photographer. The photographer duly pounces on Singh's signature haggis pakora.
As Hardy lays down a plate of ceviche, described by Singh as "pure, stunning sea bass seasoned with love and a bit of chicha via Peru", the man with the camera fulfils his professional obligation before tasting what he declares is his favourite fish. Silence ensues until the plate is clean, and then the photographer asks for more.
Singh bangs his fist down on the table. "Brilliant," he laughs. "That was gallus - just like the food." Gallus, a traditional Scottish word, means bold and cheeky. "That's the sort of reaction I want to see from customers," he says. "I want to see them smile - I want to hear them oohing and aahing."
Tasty's "gallus" street food-style is designed to transport the diner to a particular time and place. "It's a glorious mash-up of tastes and textures from around the world," he explains. "I've created menus that celebrate my Scottish and Asian roots, but that also take you back to a time and place that evokes a great memory and, on the other side of the coin, inspires you to visit somewhere new.
"For the diner, food should be all about enjoyment, having fun and discovering a new taste sensation," says Singh. "For me, it's about making the food I cook interesting and unforgettable - well, I want people to come back to the restaurant time and time again, don't I? There's no culinary rulebook in my world. I like to push boundaries."
If diners don't want to share they can opt for the higher-end 'Glasvegas' menu, featuring sea bass baked en papillote, lobster thermidor, steaks and Singh's meat platter, which takes its inspiration from India's North West Frontier and offers tandoori chicken, seekh kebab and chilli venison served straight from the tandoor. Singh's mother's recipe for Punjabi-spiced salmon also makes an appearance.
Finally, there's a visit to the 'Sweetie Shop', which serves up a "fantabulous selection of Tony's tasty and tantalising treats". In Tony's Tuck Shop diners can choose a jeely piece - usually that means a jam sandwich, but in Singh's world it's made with deep-fried brioche, jam, vanilla custard and ice-cream. Or how about Tony's T cake? The man himself calls it "a wee cheeky take on the Glesga classic served with ice-cream and sweeties". Gallus indeed.
Tony Singh on…
"While as many ingredients as possible are sourced in Scotland, to me local also means the British Isles. Let's not get too hung up on provenance. Of course it's important, but small producers, the cottage industries, can only produce so much. We have to support these hard-working companies, but we also have to be realistic.
"With my type of cooking, many of the ingredients I use couldn't possibly be locally sourced. But if someone knows of a Scottish mango grower, please let me know."
…being a celebrity chef
"Brad Pitt's a celebrity. Tony Singh? He's just a guy from Leith who loves to cook. I don't think of myself as someone who's in the public eye.
"I do love my TV work, though. Cyrus Todiwala is fantastic and talented and if people like what we do and want to see more of us on the telly and if we're asked then yes - I definitely want to do more. I loved doing Celebrity Pointless last year and that's happening again - I just hope we do better than we did last time."
About Tony Singh
Tony Singh is immensely proud of his Leith roots and is a VisitScotland 'Real Scot', meaning that he's an ambassador for Scotland and all things Scottish with the responsibility of promoting the nation and its delicacies.
He is popular with foodies all over the UK thanks to his appearances on TV shows including Saturday Kitchen, The Incredible Spice Men, Great British Menu and A Cook Abroad, in which he travels to India to trace his family roots.
Singh trained at Edinburgh's Telford College and "worked his way up the cookery ladder, enduring long hours in hot kitchens". His CV is impressive - there were stints at Gravetye Manor in East Grinstead and the St Ermin's Hotel in London, but largely his experience has been in his beloved Scotland, with roles at Skibo Castle, Greywalls in East Lothian, the Balmoral and the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Singh's much-lauded restaurant Oloroso closed in 2012, and Singh also ran Roti and Tony's Table in Edinburgh. He has written a cookbook, Tasty, and is working on another.
Singh is the third celebrity chef to open a restaurant within a Caesars Entertainment UK casino. Tasty at Alea Glasgow follows Marco Pierre White's Steakhouse at Alea Nottingham and James Martin at Manchester235. Tasty is open for dinner seven nights a week.
Alea Glasgow, Springfield Quay, Paisley Road, Glasgow G5 8NP
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