VA­RI­ETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE

HARDEEP SINGH KOHLI ON SWAP­PING TV STU­DIOS FOR THE KITCHEN

The Herald Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: TRI­CIA MAL­LEY AND ROSS GILLE­SPIE

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

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