Interview: Hardeep Singh Kohli on new Leith curry and beer house VDeep

Former Celebrity Masterchef finalist curates new Indian menu at the Vintage's new 'Leith Lab'

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Interview: Hardeep Singh Kohli

Photo: Paul Johnston at Copper Mango

Until recently, it was known as the Vintage, one of the strongest of Leith’s many dining experiences for its inventive combination of contemporary food and craft beers. But this weekend, the Henderson Street corner site just a stone’s throw from the Shore will demonstrate why its owners have dubbed this venue their ‘Leith Lab’. Just as the Vintage graduated to Glasgow’s Drygate complex and a planned new venue in Edinburgh city centre over the next few months, so Henderson Street is about to hothouse a new idea. VDeep is a unique and untested collision of curry and craft beers, devised and hosted by television personality and food aficionado Hardeep Singh Kohli and the inordinately skilled head chef of the Vintage as was, Ruairidh Skinner.

‘It’s my vision and they’ve very kindly let me play,’ says Kohli of the existing Vintage team. ‘I couldn’t have done it without their knowledge and the backroom support they bring, and they’re really good mates of mine, which makes it even better.’ He’s known owners Darren Blackburn and Richard McLelland (the latter also of Williams Bros brewers) for two and a half years, since the 2006 Celebrity Masterchef finalist and former One Show reporter was invited to do a curry cooking pop-up in the Vintage during the Edinburgh festival. ‘I just really thought the vibe was special, and that’s after doing lots of pop-ups in lots of restaurants. There’s a quiet brilliance about Ruairidh.’

He’s sitting under a scaffold putting the finishing decorative touches to a remodelled interior, which now has communal bench seating, the tables decorated with the logos of the beers the bar will stock and the chairs adorned with curry-themed, pop culture-referencing slogan-stitched cushions (‘korma chameleon’, ‘aubergine is not my lover’). This conviviality is typical of Indian dining, he says, which he’s grown to love through his mum’s cooking and then late-teens Saturday jobs in a Bishopbriggs curry house while he was at university.

‘The guys here are really passionate about Indian food,’ he says, ‘and when they first mentioned this to me, the gist of the conversation was “is it weird if we do curry without a brown person involved?” No, I said, and then I realised what they were really asking. Everything I do is based on collaboration, and this is just an extension of that.’

Kohli is executive chef, and every one of Skinner’s dishes must meet with his approval, but at the same time he says his own ideas only really come to life with Skinner’s tweaks. ‘For all the men involved in this organisation,’ he says tellingly, ‘there’s very little ego. All that matters is the quality of the food. There isn’t a single dish on the menu we haven’t both worked on together.’

There’s much of his Sikh upbringing in this restaurant, he says, like the fact everyone sits together and shares, and this feeds into the menu of smaller dishes designed for sharing. ‘There’s a dish you get in every Sikh temple, a black lentil dal makhani, and it’s one of the most delicious dishes you’ll ever have. Ruairidh cooks it, but he’s never seen it cooked in a Sikh house or a Sikh temple. I have, and that’s the kind of thing that informed how we work together.’

What’s special here, he says, is that VDeep curates the menu as the Vintage used to; it doesn’t offer a choice of meats and a choice of sauces to create a generic mix and match experience like most British curry houses. ‘I think folk are ready now to manage a change deeper into the idea of Indian food,’ he says, pointing to the wealth of variety that stretches from the curries made in the foothills of the northern Himalayas to the dosas and idlis of the south.

Incorporated within this is the idea of using fresh, seasonal Scottish produce to create an unlikely concept, a menu of Indian food which relies on seasonal flavours as much as strong herb and spice flavours. ‘We’re already talking to the forager about wild garlic,’ he says. ‘We have a saag aloo dish, which is spinach and potato in the UK but in the Punjab is any old green leaf cooked down for four or five hours, and that’s what we’re doing here – kale, spring greens, sprout tops, whatever’s in season. That’s the right way to do it.’

He also talks enthusiastically of he and Skinner’s pork cheek vindaloo (‘the most misunderstood of all the curries, you don’t need to put the toilet paper in the freezer for after’) finished with raspberry beer, a braised beef bhuna, a tandoori chicken coloured with spice rather than colouring and a curried cauliflower cheese. ‘There’s a dish in India called aloo tikka, which is a street dish, just fried spiced potatoes,’ he says. ‘It’s like bubble and squeak, so our version is “bubble and Sikh”.’ There will also be breakfasts of Indian eggs and bacon naan sandwiches, and spiced Sunday roasts.

This is obviously a long haul deal for Kohli and, while he won’t be drawn on whether he prefers television work or working with food, there’s no doubt VDeep comes from a place of passion more than opportunity. ‘I never wanted to be that guy from telly who just comes in,’ he says, mentioning no Ramsays in particular. ‘It’s real hard work being in a kitchen. My wee brother (comedian and actor Sanjeev Kohli) was in, I used to feed him when was a kid and I can’t hide anything from him, he’ll tell me what he thinks. But he really, genuinely enjoyed it. We have a dish, Bangin’ Bertha, it’s a smoked aubergine curry… he’s never liked it, but he sat and ate a bowl of it.’ He clearly loves making food to be enjoyed.

Now based in Edinburgh full-time, he was 21 years a Londoner and has dreams of, as happened with the Vintage, exporting VDeep to his home city of Glasgow. ‘But Edinburgh is the best food city in the UK, pound for pound,’ he states definitively, mentioning favourites including The Edinburgh Larder, Contini’s, Roy Brett at Ondine (‘better than J Sheekey in London’), the Outsider, Stack and Martin Wishart.

‘We’ve got Michelin stars just yards away from here, you get excellent dim sum, fantastic Turkish food, great Korean food, great sushi. And of course Indian food too, with the example of Mother India. For half a million people? I’m a Glasgow boy, I’m not meant to love this city but I really do, and Leith in particular. It’s no coincidence that Glasgow boys like Darren, Richard and I feel so at home here.’

VDeep opens on Sat 21 Feb. 60 Henderson Street, Edinburgh, 0131 563 5293, thevintageleith.co.uk

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