VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE
HARDEEP SINGH KOHLI ON SWAPPING TV STUDIOS FOR THE KITCHEN
BEFORE we’ve even shaken hands, Hardeep Singh Kohli is spooning morsels of warm food directly into my mouth. Simultaneously savouring a succession of sensory explosions – unctuous green chilli butter crab, sharp-sweet pork cheek vindaloo in raspberry beer, smoky aubergine and pea Bhegan Bhartha, silky confit coconut pork belly – while struggling to remove my coat and put down my bag, it strikes me that this most intimate of culinary experiences might well be the closest I’ll get to penning my own take on Fifty Shades of Gravy.
“This is good, isn’t it?” asks the slimmed-down Scots comedian and broadcaster-turned-chef, somewhat rhetorically. Before I can catch my breath, he adds: “In my opinion it’s the best Indian food you’ll ever have tasted.”
I feel electrified by Kohli’s unbridled enthusiasm. In the searing heat of the kitchen of his new Edinburgh restaurant VDeep we’re soon discussing the merits of using green chilli, rather than red, with east coast crab in the traditional South Indian dish (the Scots crab, I’m told, has a different sweetness and its brown meat a more subtle flavour than South Indian, so less fiery green chilli enhances it). Of how dhal should be made with local, seasonal greens and herbs, not just frozen spinach as it is in many Indian restaurants; how his food is less heavy than traditional Scots Indian cuisine, and contains healthy rapeseed oil from the Highlands and quality butter from Fife instead of ghee.
The “curation”, as he puts it, of Indian food in Scotland has been virtually non-existent since its first incarnation in the 1960s as a way of extending the licensing hours. “In those days people were looking for a big umami hit when they were pissed and all the sauces were basically the same, with cream and butter and tinned tomato soup added to make them taste different; it’s been the same for years, since I started working in restaurants at age 16.
“Our food, on the other hand, is modern, unfussy, unpretentious and definitely not ego-driven,” he says without a hint of irony.
To be fair, he has good reason to be proud of his new venture, billed as Scotland’s first craft beer and curry bar, where he is co-owner and executive chef. The food is front-loaded with flavour and a lightness of touch that allows individual ingredients to sing out; it promises to spice up the long-standing, if torpid, Scots love affair with Indian food.
VDeep is the culmination of Kohli’s long-nurtured desire to have his own restaurant, almost realised in 2010 when he launched a pop-up quiz night called Ruby Tuesday at a pub in his former neighbourhood in Dalston, East London, following his live cooking tour Nearly Naked in 2008. He’s since performed a second culinary live show Indian Takeaway, where he fed his guests and, according to the publicity material, “marvelling at his subtle and inventive blend of spices and ingredients, they will chat. And chat. And chat. And that’s the show”.
He’s moved back to Scotland to live in Edinburgh; VDeep – actually more of a gastropub than a restaurant – is in the space that formerly housed the highly respected Vintage in Leith, and is a collaboration with Vintage’s dynamic young head chef Ruairidh Skinner and co-owner Darren Blackburn.
There are 21 dishes on the menu, all at around £7 and designed for sharing, to encourage diners to experiment with flavours without feeling they’re risking too much financially, and to help spark food conversations with others at the table. Conviviality, it’s called, and it’s the new buzzword of the most progressive restaurants; witness the runaway success of Glasgow’s Ox and Finch and Edinburgh’s Gardeners’ Cottage. Conviviality is the basis of the Slow Food ethos and the route to a true appreciation of good, well-cooked food.
The sharing out of food is not a new idea; in the best 18th-century Scottish country houses it was the norm to serve large platters in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves; and in Punjab, where Kohli’s parents were born before moving to Glasgow in the 1970s, it’s established practice to fill your empty plate from large central dishes. Eating this way automatically invokes conversation and breaks down barriers.
GIVEN his fondness for verbal provocation and witty asides, as well as for food, it makes sense that Kohli, 46, would want to share the love on a permanent basis. “I came out of the womb eating,” he says. “When I was young we always sat around the table eating from large bowls of food to be shared. We’re very excited about the prospect of creating a kind of food community here in Leith, and eventually we hope to be able to work with homeless charities to feed the less fortunate and create training opportunities.”
Last year, Kohli – who describes himself as a “cultural or secular Sikh who is interested in all religions” – presented a Radio 4 programme on Faith and Food. He spoke in particular of the Sikh langar, or free kitchen, which expresses the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humankind. He reckons langar still has a role to play in promoting equality in modern society.
His Jesuit schooling has also had a big influence. Kohli and his brother, the actor and writer Sanjeev, attended St Aloysius school in Glasgow, and he is now dating a “lapsed Catholic actor from Giffnock who lives in London” following his divorce from his wife Sharmilla in 2009. His daughter and son, now 17 and 21, live with their mother in London.
“The Catholic culture at school has rubbed off on me massively,” he says. “There is more crossover in the Abrahamic religions than people think. Catholic culture is based around food, periods of abstinence followed by celebrations, much like Islam and Judaisim. But we hear less about Lent because it’s more personalised than, say, Ramadan, where it’s very strict.
“There’s the fish and chips on a Friday thing. But also transsubstantation, the eating of the body of Christ at Communion, a tradition based on the Last Supper. There are food references all the way through Catholicism.
“The long tables and benches at VDeep are based on the way we ate at my old school in Garnethill. Thanks to the Jesuit brand of Catholicism and Sikhism, I have social justice etched into my heart. This is my calling. I’ve never felt more focused in my life.” All the same, there’s a restlessness about Kohli that is perhaps illustrated in his eclectic range of interests, from politics (he is pro-independence), religion, food, theatre, stand-up and broadcasting. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop being restless,” he says. “I always think I’ve got more to achieve.”
He has worked continuously for the BBC for more than 25 years, despite being suspended from his plum role as a roving reporter on BBC One’s primetime The One Show following a complaint of “inappropriate sexual behaviour” from a female colleague. He has since gone on record to say he was “hung out to dry” by his BBC bosses and has never returned to television, but is a regular on Radio Four.
“It was a hug around the shoulders after filming had ended and the young woman said something,” he says now. “I’m not an angel; I say things that are edgy and I can be a pain in the arse. Maybe I forgot that I’m a big name and a well-known personality.
“There was no formal complaint. I took the decision to remove myself from the programme for a month. Then I got an email saying I was suspended for six months and I’ve never been back. I was briefed against by my own boss, a woman. The story was leaked to the press. She was head of studio and she still works for the BBC. She’s Teflon lady.” What does he think motivated her? “I don’t think it was personal. I don’t think anyone in there has a profound dislike of me. It’s like when you’re a person of colour you need to be kept in your place. And I was put in my place,” he says. “If I was a terrible man I wouldn’t still be here. I won’t return to The One Show because it’s s**** and an embarrassment. It was much better in my time.”
But it’s probably fair to say he took a tumble to himself. With the benefit of time, however, he reckons it wasn’t all bad. “Looking back, it was probably the best thing that happened to me. The episode sparked an awareness of gender politics. It made me think about how I related to women. I used to automatically kiss women colleagues; now I’ve got to think about other people.
“I’ve never stopped working for the BBC for 26 years and have won awards. I appear on Question Time and deputise for Claire Balding. I will always be interested in making TV, but for me there isn’t much TV I’d be keen to make. There’s not a huge amount out there that suits what I want to do.”
I was briefed against by my own boss, a woman. She still works for the BBC. She’s Teflon lady
Too many people, he says, are using TV to sell other things, not for the joy of sharing information. “TV is a horrible business, very competitive and cut-throat. The industry has created automatons; I was never one of those people.
“But if you took radio away from me I’d curl up and die.”
Food, on the other hand, is fundamentally meritocratic and less dog-eat-dog. He has a profound appreciation of the generosity of spirit among his many friends in the food world – he namedrops Yotam Ottolenghi, Angela Hartnett, Mark Hix, Heston Blumenthal “and of course Gordon” (Ramsay) quicker than it takes to plop balls of confit coconut pork pakora into hot oil.
He intends to invite them to VDeep as guest chefs. “I’m immigrant class. So why would Heston give me the time of day? Because we share a passion for food. I don’t stand on Ruairidh’s shoulders thinking I could do a better job. Food is a very sharing culture.”
So is chasing Michelin stars too last year for him? “I love Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart and Andrew Fairlie and I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve achieved. But I couldn’t eat there more than three times a year. We would all be the poorer if they didn’t exist, though they’re more likely to come here than we are to go to them.”
Following his documentary What the English Really Think About the Scots, he remains convinced the English simply don’t think about Scots. “We’re not relevant to them. They don’t care and are dismissive of us,” he says.
I HAVE often written that Edinburgh is the greatest food city in the UK. Kohli agrees. “I don’t know another country of our size that produces fresh produce to the level we do. It’s astonishing. The shame is we don’t eat enough of it.”
Does he think Scotland has finally lost its culinary and cultural cringe? “A lot was asked of the people of Scotland last year politically. One must respect the will of the people, but it’s naive in the extreme if you think that’s the end of the dialogue [on Scottish independence].
“It always used to appal me that we weren’t taught Burns in school, but were given Shakespeare. In England they don’t know Burns. How can we be confident when people don’t know what this country was before 1707?
“The referendum was political dialogue; now I think it’s the beginning of a process of internal dialogue. There are a lot of things I didn’t think about before. I realise that actually the patriarchy has written the rules – a lot has to change. I want a parliament with 50 per cent women.”
So is Scotland’s renewed love affair with food a sign that we are embracing our feminine side? “Food should be the perfect balance between male and female. I was first fed by my mother, but as a single man I’ve learned most from Ruairidh. Look at us, we’re big bearded men feeding each other off spoons. It’s an intimate process mutually enjoyed without embarrassment because it comes from pure passion.”
While I hope I’m not big or bearded quite yet, I think I know what he means.
Clockwise from above: Kohli with a selection of dishes at his new venture, VDeep; in his role of executive chef; with brother Sanjeev in the Channel 4 comedy series Meet the Magoons; a bekilted Kohli posing for the Robert Burns project As Others See Us. Below right: one of the dishes designed for communal sharing at VDeep
Kohli with VDeep chef Ruairidh Skinner and co-owner Darren Blackburn. The trio are keen to encourage convivial dining, which Kohli grew up with after his parents moved to Glasgow from Punjab in the 1970s