(This interview was first published in The Herald, May 2014.)
GIVEN half a chance, Tony Singh would happily scoff an entire plate of scones and jam along with his cup of home-brewed Masala chai.
The Edinburgh chef puts his sweet tooth down to his Asian genes - and his Glasgow heritage. “My mum was born in Glasgow so I reckon I get my fondness for sugar from her,” he jokes over breakfast at home.
True to form, his new cookbook features some interesting takes on traditional Scottish sweeties, such as tablet tart, chocolate shortbread trifle and baked Alaska with marmalade. And on the menu at his new restaurant, the Old Bakehouse in West Linton, which opens at the end of this month, there will be chocolate soup and a Nutella pancake gateau alongside savoury dishes.
He’s on the lookout for more traditional local dishes, both sweet and savoury, that he can put his personal spin on: Singh’s speciality is giving seasonal, local Scottish ingredients a modern twist with a range of Indian spices. This was recently illustrated in the BBC TV series and spin-off cookbook The Incredible Spice Men which he co-presented with Welsh chef Cyrus Todiwala; and on the Food and Drink programme, on which he appeared alongside Michel Roux Jr.
Both new projects are firmly focused on fun rather than fine dining. “People are so stuck on Michelin-starred chefs cooking on the telly they feel under pressure to recreate that kind of food at home, but it’s really not necessary,” he says. “I’m focusing on fresh, home-cooked food that doesn’t cost a fortune. At the restaurant the locals are my main clientele and I’ll be cooking primarily for them.”
His philosophy - that good food should be available to all – is informed not only by the financial bruising he experienced at Oloroso after the 2008 banking crisis, but also by his Sikh faith (though he is non-Orthodox as he eats meat and drinks alcohol
in “copious quantities”.) The three tenets of Sikhism – work hard, share what you have and free yourself to meditate on God - have led him to believe good nourishment for all is the key to an equal, dignified society and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, exacerbated by the Coalition government’s welfare cuts, has skewed that.
Growing up in Leith, Singh would cook for his local Langar (Sikh community kitchen) where everybody eats the same food for free, regardless of income or status. Now 43, the father-of-four remains very involved in the Leith community food project and is appalled by the proliferation of food banks in Scotland.
His personal experience of the 2008 banking crisis while chef- patron of Oloroso clarified his conviction. “By 2005 I’d managed to pay back my 22 investors and started moving into profit but after 2008 the banks hiked up interest rates and I was having to change what I was doing just to service the debt.” He sold up in 2011, determined to find another outlet for his home-cooked dishes away from central Edinburgh.
A third-generation Scots Sikh, Singh’s great-grandfather Kesar Singh Kusbia came to Edinburgh from Punjab in 1947 as a refugee of India’s war of independence. Both he and Tony’s grandfather Tunda were self-employed door-to-door drapers. Kesar came from a family of haberdashers and tailors and Tony’s wife Bechan’s family had woollen mills and textile plants.
“But they had to leave it all behind. Some people went from being millionaires to being penniless overnight.”
His maternal grandparents settled in Glasgow and his mother Kulvinder was born at the Rottenrow maternity hospital. Several uncles live on Glasgow’s south side; his father and one uncle started the first Indian curry delivery service called the Old Calcutta Carry-Out. Nobody else in his family has been or is involved in restaurants. His late father Baldev was a lorry and bus driver in Edinburgh. “He was very industrious and proud to be working class.”
He has returned twice to India, once with Bechan and their daughters Arrti, Seetal and Hartreet and son Balrawj - and they loved it. “But things are changing at such a pace,” he notes. “It’s very difficult for many at the lower end of the scale to get traction in terms of bank loans, mortgages. While the growth of the middle class is good, there’s a feeling they’re trying to keep the lower classes back so they can continue tending to their needs.”
Does he feel things are, or could be, better in Scotland? “There’s always going to be the rich and the poor, but I like to think we have more social equality. We must never lose that attitude of caring for people who can’t look after themselves. There should always be a chance to move up out of your station.”
He dismisses UKIP leader Nigel Farage as anti-immigration.
“Scotland is more diverse and tolerant than it was in my grandfathers’ time. Immigrants have more chance of prospering. As a small country, Scotland knows it needs immigrants to help it grow. People tend to worry about immigrants stealing their jobs in times of economic stress but it’s being made an issue as a way of sidestepping the real cause of the economic downturn.”
Asked how he intends to vote in the independence referendum, he says: “I believe that if Scotland votes Yes it will have a better chance of creating an equal society, so that’s how I’m voting.
“Food is a runaway Scottish success story and more and more chefs are looking at independence more favourably. Voters need to know this is just the start; there are lots of things to be thrashed out after the Yes vote, like Trident (which I would keep) and Europe (which I’d get out of).”
He hopes his children won’t grow up believing status is tied only to wealth. “All work should be meaningful. We have a very celebrity-focused culture now, where the concept of hard work and reward are being lost.”
It was thanks to his dyslexia he became a chef. “Kids like me were punted out to the practical subjects.” He left Leith Academy at 16 with an O Grade in Home Economics before attending Telford College and going on to cook on the Royal Yacht Britannia, at the Balmoral Hotel and Skibo Castle.
He made a conscious decision from the start not to go down the Indian curry restaurant route because he didn’t recognise their cooking as authentic. “The dishes were all made with the same basic sauce whereas I was used to home-style curries that were very fresh and very fragrant.”
He contends chicken tikka masala, generally acknowledged as being invented in Glasgow, is actually based on a 100-year-old recipe for butter chicken.
“Things have changed since then, and now there are some really good restaurants doing authentic regional Indian dishes with Scottish produce, like Balbir’s in Glasgow and Mithas in Edinburgh.
“But you’d have to study for 100 years to truly understand Indian food.”