This is part one of my interview with Jagdish Singh, exec chef of India's Castle; part two of our interview will run tomorrow.
Jagdish Singh is prepping himself for a photo shoot, and he's not happy with the ski cap pulled down over his dark hair. He leaps up from the table, hurries to the kitchen and returns donning a stark white toque...embossed with Mickey Mouse. It's an American icon that Singh, the executive chef of India's Castle, wasn't familiar with growing up in Punjab, India. But his mother, who taught him how to cook, gave it to him years ago, and it reminds him of those days on the family farm. "I got into cooking because after years of watching my mother cook in our kitchen at home -- everything she did was vegetarian -- I realized that I, too, had a natural niche for understanding Indian cookery," recalls Singh.
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"I would experiment on my own and try to replicate my mother's recipes," he adds, and "if the aroma of my recipe wasn't similar to that of my mom's, I'd try again, and that's the process that really got me started on my cooking career." On the farm he learned value of hard work, too. "I was reminded daily that in order to put bread and butter on the table, we had to shed sweat -- and a lot if it," he recalls. "My parents tried their best to send myself and my siblings to school to earn an education -- and we all cherished the opportunity -- but as soon as I grew into my teens, I knew I could do very well in the culinary industry, so I pursued it."
He landed his first professional job in the kitchen at sixteen, cooking in a five-star Indian restaurant, where he stayed for five years before taking a leap of faith and jetting off to New York. "I wanted to go to a different country and have a better life, and I had family and friends there," says Singh. But the food he was cooking was very different from what he'd eaten and cooked in India. "The biggest difference was that people here, especially those who are new to Indian cuisine, assume that everything is a curry and really spicy, and that's not the case at home," he explains.
Still, he persevered, adapting his dishes to American tastes, and then after six years in New York, he packed his bags and relocated in London, a city that has a curry house on every corner. "I have a sister in London, who owns a few Indian restaurants there, and I was missing my family, so I took some time off from America to be closer to her," recalls Singh.
He cooked in London for a few years, and then a friend -- a man he says is "like family" -- encouraged him to come to Denver to open a new restaurant: India's Castle, where Singh is also a partner. "I've been here for eight years, and I love it here. What I love most about cooking," he notes, is that it "involves multiple human emotions and actions. I have to be patient yet precise, bold yet soft and, most important, creative yet practical, and learning to balance these emotions and actions has to be the best part of cooking."
In the following interview, Singh weighs in on the ginger test, explains why Indian food deserves more of a following and reflects on the day he felt like a celebrity.
How do you describe your food? My food is unique to the palate, authentic in origin, exquisite to the senses and bursting with flavors from the fresh ingredients and the blend of traditional Indian spices used during each preparation. My experiences throughout my life, from the smells of my mother's kitchen to the bustling restaurants in the U.K., to critics' reviews in the United States, have encouraged me to cook and innovate all while keeping every recipe as authentic as possible. It's true that the majority of Indian cuisine is curry-based -- curry literally means a dish that contains sauce or gravy -- but there are many dishes that aren't curry-based, like the tandoori specialties or the dry vegetables, not to mention the deep-fried fritters and stuffed naan breads. And regarding all Indian food being spicy, first do the ginger test: If you can put a piece of raw, peeled ginger in your mouth, chew it and tolerate it, then you can easily tolerate any type of Indian food. Ginger is always the spiciest spice added to the base of Indian curries, besides the actual chile peppers or the cayenne peppers, and if the ginger is too spicy for you, then just ask us to make your food mild.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, charismatic, honest, determined, adventurous, optimistic, friendly, kind, committed and generous.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Garlic and ginger paste is essential to an Indian kitchen, and I find it to be the most aromatic combination of fresh ingredients that a nose has ever smelled. This paste will blow your senses away -- literally. If you just take a few fresh cloves of garlic and fresh peeled, or even unpeeled, ginger and grind them to a fine paste and cook the paste in some vegetable oil, you'll realize why I'm so obsessed. Even after decades of cooking, I still look forward to that aroma every time I cook.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Mint. My partner Jay grows mint leaves in his back yard, and because we make a significant amount of the mint chutney for our customers, we like all the fresh and organic mint leaves we can get our hands on.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Sharp, high-quality knives and high-quality nonstick pans.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: Not surprisingly, I'd like to see more exposure for the art of Indian food -- and when I say exposure, I mean in the media. I'd like to see more Indian food shows on the Food Network; on blogs, newspapers and in magazines; and I'd also like to see local food media pay more attention to those authentic restaurants that try their hardest to please local customers with their creativity day in and day out.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our chicken tikka masala is the signature dish of India's Castle, and our most popular. We marinate the chicken overnight, cook it in the clay oven and then serve it in a garlic, ginger and tomato cream curry sauce. It's like eating a meal in heaven. Really, it's that good.
Biggest menu bomb: I have yet to run into this problem, and I really hope I never do.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Fast food.
One food you detest: Bizarre foods like jellyfish, octopus, frogs and insects. The idea of eating those kinds of things grosses me out. Fortunately, I haven't had any of them and I don't plan to in the future.
One food you can't live without: Pizza -- those Italians make one of the greatest foods on earth.
What's never in your kitchen? Bad habits or negative energy. I try my best to provide the kitchen with plenty of positive energy and positive attitude so we can offer the best product to our customers.
What's always in your kitchen? Creativity. Because Indian food varies from region to region, there is always something new to try -- and learn -- from all the other regions. Even though dishes from the northern region of India dominate our menu, I'm always anxious to learn about foods from other regions by engaging with other chefs, or just experimenting with recipes I come across and hopefully putting them on the menu in the future.
Craziest night in the kitchen: About five years ago, right after Lori Midson had written a great restaurant review of us in the Rocky Mountain News -- it's a review that we still honor as one of our greatest achievements. I think it was a Saturday night, and we got totally slammed. In fact, we had so many customers that we set a sales record that day that we still strive to beat. The scene in the kitchen was completely chaotic, with everyone running around and screaming and yelling and cooking to satisfy all those hungry folks. It was absolutely nuts, but we managed to do a good job.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Losing your composure -- and yelling -- when you're faced with stressful situations.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: There's heavy competition in this industry; there are just so many places to eat -- and great ones at that. For a chef to have a successful cooking career, they really need to be polished and experienced with all sorts of different foods from all sorts of different regions. There's so much talent and expertise out there that you have to constantly be innovative.
Best nugget of advice for a culinary-school graduate: Cooking should be pursued by those with a genuine passion for the craft.
Which chef has most inspired you? My mother is the reason for my success and my creativity. When I was young, I had no idea the profound impact my mother would have on me as I watched her cook, but I now know that everything I am today is because of her. I'm sure she'd be proud of me, and I hope she's out there somewhere watching me do what she, herself, was so good at. I've also been inspired by chef Sanjeev Kapoor. He's truly a master of the art of cooking, and his style and knowledge about world foods has inspired me to keep learning and become more like him.
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If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I probably would have gotten a degree in design engineering or some sort of an automotive degree where I could design and make cars from scratch, using only human hands. But I'm so glad that I became a chef, because it really gives me time to appreciate life in the form of an art all while feeding a bunch of hungry people and exposing them to the great Indian culture through food.