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In Conversation with Tony Singh MBE (Part 1)

Credits: @mctsingh

Award-winning chef Tony Singh MBE shares his culinary insights from his lockdown kitchen in Edinburgh, Scotland. Tony makes regular appearances on our screens in The Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen, as well as a myriad of guest appearances on shows including Celebrity Eggheads and Celebrity Mastermind. He also stars in the BBC 2 series ‘The Incredible Spice Men’ alongside Cyrus Todiwala. As a second-generation Scottish Sikh Tony’s food is a vibrant fusion of South Asian and Scottish cuisine inspired by both growing up in Leith and learning to cook alongside his mother. His latest and most unique venture is Tony’s Supper Club offering an intimate and personalised dining experience in Tony’s very own kitchen.

It is no secret that food has been romanticised, especially in our own contemporary social media mandated culture, for its uniting capacity to bring us together, especially in times of crisis. For celebrity Scottish chef Tony Singh MBE, however, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has reinforced the divisive reality that the lack of accessibility to and education about food can herald, which he shares with me as we discuss his biggest learnings from the lockdown kitchen of a professional chef.

Prior to the announcement of the UK lockdown on March 23rd, Tony had been busily preparing for his weekend supper clubs with his sous chef, which he hosts in his very own Edinburgh kitchen. ‘The first month [of lockdown] was a novelty. It was a shock because we had to stop work’ which meant cancelling supper clubs for the immediate time being. Unlike many, however, Tony didn’t stop working until a month later, spending his time juggling bookings and rearranging the supper club’s meticulous schedule. Despite having to halt work, Tony found an unexpected gift in lockdown. Like many of us, he was able to spend some quality time with his family. 'Everybody sat around the table again’ which recreated the fond comfort of shared meals before his four children became busy with work and study.

Having reopened in the last few weeks, Tony has been busy rebooking guests. The news of the rule of six and the concept of the supper club derived from being hosted in his own home, however, has meant that he cannot have guests and his sous chef which would mean more than two households mixing. Faced with the restrictive reality of the latest rules and no way to prove that guests all belong to one household, Tony and his team are continuing to reschedule guests or provide refunds, with select perks for those of his guests who have rebooked, ‘if they’re sticking by me, I need to stick by my customers’ he explains.

As many of us returned to food as a source of reassurance during lockdown, particularly childhood treats, for Tony it was older recipes from his early training as a chef that provided this comforting nostalgia. Whilst he steered clear of social media cooking trends, one recipe, in particular, Tony enjoyed revisiting was a twice-baked goat cheese souffle ‘that was all the rage about 1999 to 2000’.

Turning to Tony’s routine during the lockdown I ask about how he got involved in cooking for the NHS and what this meant for him, a journey documented on his social media. With the onset of lockdown and an influx of stories about NHS workers going without meals Tony got in contact with the London charity ‘Help Them Help Us’. A charity dedicated to supporting the wellbeing of NHS staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tony sought to facilitate the initiative with his local hospital in Edinburgh. Inspired by the bravery of those on the front lines, Tony notes that he ‘has always had an appreciation for the NHS’ but in particular as a Sikh one of the foundational tenants of his faith is ‘Sewa’ which means ‘selfless service’, which coincides with the Sikh belief in the equality and importance of all people. Tony was motivated by the ethos of the Sikh ‘langar kitchen’ which is a communal kitchen in the Gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, designed for serving free meals to all regardless of their background. As such Tony emphasises that the primary focus for the meals that he was creating for the NHS was accessibility, ‘so I always made sure it was vegetarian, dessert without eggs and made it so it was a one container meal that could be heated up easily’. The dishes themselves were predominantly high carb-based to facilitate the long working hours of the NHS staff and gluten-free when dishes would allow. Most importantly according to Tony ‘the main criteria was not to exclude anybody’ and so ‘the main thing in my head was to make it nutritional, tasty and accessible for everybody there’. In order to maintain social distancing and manage risk, Tony arranged pick-ups with his local hospital according to their schedule for a period of around three months. Since the easing of the lockdown there has been less demand for donations of prepared food and so Tony has been visiting NHS kitchens across Edinburgh to create recipes that can be cooked in the staff canteens.

Closer to home, Tony set up a neighbourhood group chat whereby neighbours could share food or lend various ingredients and by the summer people were even growing their own fruit and sharing it with the street. ‘That’s the thing with adversity, it brings out the best and it brings out the worst in people’ and food became the medium by which to spread this sense of community.

As we all continue to face this uncertainty, Tony shares some of his best tips for lockdown life from the kitchen.

What advice do you have for lockdown cooking or when people aren’t able to access the shops as readily?

1) Plan your whole week’s menu. Just say you are starting off on a Sunday and you have a roast, then you have the leftovers from the roast which can make a soup or salad. Normally by Wednesday and Thursday you have foods leftover.

2) The biggest thing is the knowledge. If you have access to the internet use YouTube or BBC Good Food because the recipes do work. 3) Getting to know how your local butcher or fishmonger, if you are lucky enough to have one, have expanded their way of reaching consumers and are doing deliveries.

What store cupboard essentials would you share with our readers?

This goes back to the education of what these essentials are. Fresh yeast is good but dried yeast is perfect to have in your store cupboard. Lentils, pulses, rice, chickpeas, flour and frozen vegetables, if you have freezer space, are just as good as fresh.

In the next part, Tony discusses the politics of food education and accessibility, the future of the food industry and shares his student-friendly lockdown recipes! Edited by Anoushka Chakrapani, Food and Drink Editor

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