Who is Tony Singh?
A third-generation Scottish Sikh who is happy, helpful and cheeky.
What are your hobbies?
Hobbies… That’s a tricky one. Being in the industry as long as I have, it’s been hard to find the time for hobbies. I was in the cadets as a lad for a good few years and I really enjoyed shooting and camping. Now, I still love shooting and trying my hand at archery.
Who are your role models?
My dad and all the generations that have come before us. What they did, coming to the UK and leaving their families, and everything they know, took enormous sacrifice, determination and bravery.
What is your favourite book and song?
Ah, I can’t just pick one! There’s so many … From one end of the spectrum, one of my favourite books is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Cracking. And on the other end, one of my favourite songs is Laiyan Te Tod Nibhavi Chad Ke from the 1963 movie, Pine De Kuri
Your father Baldev Singh was one of the first Sikh lorry drivers in Scotland, how was that for himself? How did that make you feel knowing this history?
My dad and our elders are my role models. I am only here because of their great sacrifice and hard work. When my great grandfather came over after the partition, he sent for my granddad, granny, dad and his eldest brother to come to Edinburgh for a short while and help rebuild the lives they lost in India. The plan had always been that Scotland would be a place to make some money and then go back home safely, but then my granddad died in a car crash when my dad was only 16. That changed everything. My dad now had to look after his mother and grandfather, while bringing up 5 brothers and 2 sisters. School stopped immediately and he has been working ever since. From the little my dad shares about his childhood, or of the hardship they faced, I know that all he thought about was their safety and wellbeing.
I don’t think it ever occurred to him that he was one of the first lorry drivers, or that there was anything to celebrate, even now – he just did everything he could to get food on the table. It was hard graft and I know for certain that his family, even before we kids all arrived, didn’t see very much of him. By the time I came along, my dad had married all his siblings, had my older brother and sister and probably done the length of Britain at least a thousand times.
Knowing what I do about our history fills me with great pride, admiration and a desire to do my family, my dad, proud. Growing up, all I wanted was to show them that their sacrifice had been worthwhile.
Before the cooking world, what were you doing before that?
Well, seeing as I went straight from secondary school into the Youth Training Scheme to become a chef, I’d say I was just being a kid – messing about with my pals, getting into trouble… driving my poor mum mad!
How did you get into cooking?
I was a hungry kid (can you tell?) and our household was huge. If you wanted extras or a treat, you helped out in the kitchen – so that’s what I did. I spent a lot of time with my mum, who always knew how to make anything out of leftovers. Definitely a necessary life skill! But I also learnt by doing Seva at the Gurdwara. I loved it and still do.
Where did your love from food come from?
Punjabi household; good food is like breathing, we can’t live without it.
What is your favourite dish?
Oh, this definitely depends on where I am but mostly on, who I am with. If I had to pick one right now, I would say my mums’ chicken sabzi with all the family around me. Nothing beats it.
Have you ever received any negativity in your career?
Lol, when you’re a chef you always get some. The fact is, you are only as good as your last plate of food and you have to remember taste is very subjective. I always try and take a positive away from a complaint (as long as it’s justified). If it’s just some keyboard warrior having a go on a site because they can, I just agree to disagree.
At aged 30 you became the Chef Patron at Oloroso in Edinburgh how did that happen?
Lots and lots, and lots, of hard work (and definitely a bit of luck too).
After I won ITV Chef of the Year in 2000 – that was the first professional televised chefs’ competition – I went out on my own to look for a restaurant and investors interested in partnering with me. That’s when I found my dear late friend, James Sankey. With his front of house expertise and my kitchen prowess, we opened Oloroso in 2001.
How hard was it to become a Chef coming from an Asian background?
Extremely. I couldn’t get into apprenticeships back then – they were being phased out and every time I went in for a trail I was met with “we don’t do curry son”. I said I didn’t either, but cheekiness only got be me so far. If it hadn’t had been for the YTS, I would never have got my foot in the door.
You also owned the restaurant’s Roti in 2005 and in 2009 you opened Tony’s table, what an achievement how did that happen?
Thank you. Well, Roti came from the desire to show Indian food in its all its glory. It was a fine dining restaurant where I wanted to show people that Indian food can be as fine and fancy as anything else out there. As for Tony’ Table – when we decided to open, the banks were in the middle of a financial collapse. We wanted to have a beautiful bistro that was all about the value for money.
You released your own recipe book in 2014 how did that happen?
After my television series The Incredible Spicemen with my friend Cyrus Todiwala, and the launch of our cookbook, I was asked to do another by myself called Tasty.
You also received an MBE for your contribution to the food industry. How did that make you feel?
I was incredibly honoured and proud (and certainly in disbelief), but at the same time, I was conflicted. The British Empire did not play a small part in the partition or why my elders moved here in the first place. But after speaking with my family, I realised that by accepting the award I could help show others that if a third-generation Sikh from Leith who was bad at school, could achieve this then anything is possible for young aspiring Asians.
You also do a lot of charity work, why do you do this?
Because it is a part of who I am. Whether born in Scotland or Sweden, or whether you can speak Punjabi or not, read Gurmukhi or not, keep your Kesh or not, I am a Sikh and I know in my soul I am a Guru’s Sikh and that means Seva.
What would you say to someone who wanted to become a chef?
You have to love it and know there is nothing else out there you want to do. The long unsociable hours, low wages and cutthroat business environment aren’t for everyone but if you can persevere, the world is your oyster.
What is next for Tony?
To be honest, I am not sure yet but I can say for certain is that the planning will be done over good food and good company.