Vivek Singh is one of the most renowned modern Indian chefs in the country, with a collection of leading London restaurants to his name, including The Cinnamon Club, Cinnamon Kitchen, Cinnamon Soho and Cinnamon Bazaar. At this year’s Commercial Kitchen Show, he gave a frank account of how his attitude towards kitchen design is shaped by his upbringing and why size isn’t everything when it comes to creating the perfect back-of-house set-up.
Walk into one of Vivek Singh’s kitchens and you’ll encounter some of the most modern and robust catering equipment around.
The iconic Indian chef, who is credited with changing the perception of Indian food in the UK, is accustomed to producing dishes using some of the best kit that money can buy and knows full well that when you’ve got hundreds of expectant punters to feed, you can’t afford to scrimp on equipment.
It couldn’t be more different to the environment he grew up in, where the smells and sights of traditional Indian dishes being cooked in the family home in Asansol, West Bengal, fostered his love of the kitchen. One of his earliest recollections is of his mother cooking, and when he thinks back to those days he realises just how little she had to work with.
“There was just a concrete slab, a kerosene stove and, much later, in the mid to late 70s, an LPG two-burner stove. That’s all she had. The fridge didn’t arrive until 1980. The stove where she did the actual cooking was on the veranda on two different kilns. They were fired morning and every evening using coal. She maybe cooked eight or nine different things for any given meal and she would know how to rotate those pans around the two kilns,” said Singh during an interview on stage at Commercial Kitchen.
It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that this very basic and primitive approach to cooking is firmly in vogue among London restaurants right now, with numerous operators creating concepts based around fire and coal.
“I think technology can go full circle and when you’ve done enough cooking in combi ovens with ultra precision and a sophisticated level of consistency, I think as a chef it can get a bit boring. People are coming back to cooking on fire, cooking on coal, cooking on charcoal.”
It wasn’t until he got his first job in a five-star hotel that he realised just what a difference a fully-equipped commercial kitchen makes. He admits that it was a “joy” to see everything laid out properly, plenty of storage and enough prep space to be able to stand up to chop vegetables. “Before hotels I had never seen walk-in fridges or walk-in chillers, it was amazing,” he remembers.
His experiences have taught him that technologically advanced equipment is worth the investment as it tends to pay off from an environmental or efficiency perspective, while size should never be a barrier to a good kitchen.
“If anything being too big can be a disadvantage,” he says. At the Cinnamon Kitchen on Devonshire Square, the back-of-house area is about 50% bigger than it actually needs to be. “All it means if that for every 100 steps that a chef takes or needs to take in a day, he’s taking 150. When you do that over five days a week, 50 weeks a year, you realise he’s actually running around much more than he needs to. Having a bigger kitchen may not always necessarily be the best thing.”
For Singh, who has published five cookbooks and holds a regular guest slot on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, the most important consideration when planning a kitchen is whether it is fit for purpose.
“Is it going to be able to allow you to deliver the kind of menu or dishes you want to produce in the quantity you can produce it — and in the time and speed that you need? It has got to work within the business model that you have set up; there’s no point setting up a fast casual restaurant concept if you can’t cook everything to be able to get people in and out within 35-40 minutes.”
All of the kitchens within the Cinnamon Collection are different. The kitchen at The Cinnamon Club spans some 2,500 square feet and serves around 100,000 customers a year spending £120 a head on dinner. The kitchen at Cinnamon Soho, in contrast, occupies just 600 square feet. Some of that is down to the fact that rents and the cost of space has grown enormously since Singh opened his first restaurant.
He says there is no magic formula for determining how much space should be given over to the kitchen and how much to customer seating, except that the kitchen needs to be sufficiently designed to handle the maximum number of seats and table turns.
“It needs to work backwards from the menu — what techniques are you using, what kind of dishes, what kind of sections? It has to work backwards from there, not the other way round. You don’t want to be drawing the kitchen and then figuring out what you’re going to cook.”
Desert island dishes
If you could take one piece of kitchen equipment onto a desert island, what would it be? That was one of the questions put to Vivek Singh at the Commercial Kitchen show and his reply was unequivocal.
“I’d probably take a tandoori oven,” he replied. “It’s such a simple, cost-effective kit that gives tonnes of identity to the cuisine that we cook and what people expect from us and also what we’re able to deliver out of it — the range of breads and the range of kebabs and meats and fish. It’s extremely versatile.”