01 Jan 2002
The Cinnamon Club Chef and CEO, Vivek Singh has led a culinary revolution, developing signature dishes and a powerful brand.
Singh arrived in London with a team of five chefs. Two more were added for Cinnamon Club’s launch. That team now is 20 strong. Of the eight people in the original kitchen, six are still with the group. In an industry famed for its high staff turnover, the 125 Cinnamon employees remain exceptionally loyal. Here, he reveals his approach to leadership:
“We always grow people from within. My head chef, Abdul, was part of my opening team 11 years ago. Very few guys have come in from outside and taken on senior positions. For junior people, experience is not important, background is not important. It’s essentially hunger. What do they want, why do they want to come?”
"Anybody can cook, anybody can become an Indian chef. All you need is a bit of intelligence, common sense, and you don’t need to be Indian for that. You need a good palate and to be able to speak and express what you’re thinking. And, essentially, lots of heart. If you’re prepared to work hard, anybody can be a chef. In the last three years or so, we have had three different apprentices come through, none of them from an Indian or Asian background. They’ve gone on to take on sections and deliver quality and taste, sometimes better than the experienced guys. It’s because they have a broader way of looking at it.”
“I do blow a fuse once in a while or whatever, but in general I'm very much in control. Firm, but in control. I don’t swear at somebody who joined yesterday. I swear at people who’ve worked with me six years or whatever, because they understand my expectations, or they ought to understand my expectations. However, at the same time, if I have to swear every day at every service that I'm in the kitchen, if I'm throwing things around, turning things away, that says something about me more than it says something about them.”
“In the old days I was very protective of my team, my chefs. I’d get into massive arguments with anybody on the service side. There was a lot of friction. Now I'm more understanding, more appreciative of what front of house does and what value they bring. My approach possibly is still challenging. I challenge, and question, but it’s more conciliatory, it’s not so aggressive.
There’s still a very driven focus. It’s all driven by the chef, by the kitchen, but it’s not necessarily against the front. In that sense my style has changed.”
“I learned very quickly if I was going to use this fantastic produce, then there was very little point in me following the same cooking techniques and the same processes that I had been trained in. If I was going to spend £10 on a beautiful piece of halibut, then I didn’t want to cut it into small pieces and cook it into a bowl of brown sauce. Pointless. I might as well serve frozen dogfish from halfway across the planet. Why use good quality produce, and not allow it to express itself?”
“Food’s fantastic. There’s so much history, there’s so much art, but there’s also so much evolution at the same time, so many fundamental changes happening in the way we experience, taste and appreciate food. And there’s so much more that can be done. What we’ve done is done, but there’s no reason to stop.”
“In one restaurant with 250 people in the evening, it’s impossible to do everything yourself. That’s why there’s a team of 20 people. If I'm in the kitchen I'm only looking at one third of the food that’s going out of the kitchen, because somebody else is looking at the starters, somebody else is looking at the desserts. It’s about who you delegate to and what you delegate. That is the biggest challenge. When we went from one restaurant to two, my visibility and my own physical presence went down 50 per cent. People would see me every day, from ten in the morning until midnight, then I was seeing them only two and a half days a week, or whatever, and they were thinking where’s he gone?”
“In our business, it’s very difficult to motivate people simply by money. You cannot. A chef might earn £20,000 a year. For that, he works 40, 50, 60 hours sometimes, a week, in a very hot environment. If I was relying on money as a motivator, I would never be able to build a team. So we’re big on our values, what makes us different, what makes us unique, why do we do things differently? When we say how about doing it like this or why are you doing it like this, the common answer is because it’s easier. Often that’s not the right answer, because if it’s easy, that’s not good enough.
“I say to the guys, there’s two things I can give you. One is I can give you knowledge. Nothing is secret, everything is open. And I can give you respect.”
“You can grow yourself, you’re good, you follow instructions, you do things the way you’re told. But how can you have the same effect on the people below you, so we’re all constantly pulling and bringing people up? It’s a slightly different skill to growing yourself. But to bring other people up to the next level, that’s the challenge I see, from here onwards. It will be about those people who can spot talent and see the potential in something”.