Now I’ve discovered the wonderful Cinnamon Kitchen, I keep heading back there, so my route via Liverpool St Station is becoming very familiar – in all the best ways. It was a special pleasure this morning to be going there to interview head chef Abdul Yaseen about his favourite cookbooks and find out more about the influences on his cooking.
One of the things he is especially known for are his amazing canapes and when I went to the Cinnamon Kitchen for his special canape tasting menu last November, it was one of the most exciting meals I’ve ever had: foods of intense flavours with different layers that evolve in gorgeous surprises; the canapes are also visually stunning. During our discussion, Abdul said that one of the major things he feels he has contributed to the culinary world is making bite-sized food carry the same ethos of complexity and depth of flavours as a main course does. You get the complete package in a single bite. And what a bite it is!
I asked Abdul how he came to be a chef. He told me that the seeds of a budding chef were evident from about the age of 8 or 9 when he liked to help in the kitchen and would make himself omelettes. He came from a large family and when everyone gathered together for a big family meal and were cooking in the courtyard, he would be helping to pod peas and do the basics, so even as a child he was making a connection with ingredients and how to get the best from them. However, he went on, he was the only chef in the clan. He comes from a family where the men – including his father – were professional sportsmen. His late father was supportive and trusted his decision to go to catering college but it was an unusual choice for someone like him. Now, said Abdul, things have changed in India and people’s expectations are different and being a chef and working in the food industry is now regarded as one of the top professions.
When he was first at college, Abdul didn’t know he wanted to end up working as a chef but he says the study of hotel management and nutrition makes you complete as a chef. You learn about the science and engineering behind food preparation and how to live. He talked about the standards and practices you hone at this time and carry with you as second nature.
Abdul’s inspiration came from traditional chefs and once he came to the UK in 2001 he then became inspired by the techniques he discovered here, particularly the way people work with meat. He wants to cook food that retains its texture; food that speaks a story. His style combines its roots in Indian cuisine with its spices and flavours with Western techniques of food preparation. For instance, when cooking a Vindaloo it’s about taking the highlights of the dish and balancing all the elements, the spices with the vinegar, and simmering the meat rather than stirring constantly as this breaks down the texture. His food has different layers that build up right until you finish eating it; his style is about protecting the flavours. Eating, he says, begins with the eye, what you see before you; there should be a relationship between what looks good and how good the food tastes. All the steps should follow through for a complete experience.
He has a lot of respect for spices and what they can do and his food is about taking Indian cooking to a higher level. Perhaps behind every great chef there is a necessary search for perfection, for pushing the boundaries. Certainly Abdul admits to never being satisfied, always pushing himself to achieve more and be more creative. He likes to experiment and go beyond the borders of tradition. He is also respectful of feedback and says that what his customers feel after a meal is important to him.
Then we moved on to his books and much of what Abdul had already told me was reflected in his choices and I also learned quite a lot more.
1. Larousse Gastronomique (first published 1938) – Abdul said that it was rightly called a ‘bible’. It will give you ideas for anything you want to try; you can always fall back on getting the information you need from this book and it’s something every young chef needs.
2. Cooking Delights of the Maharajas, Digvijaya Singh (1982) – This book is one of a kind, said Abdul. When the moguls invaded India they brought cooks from places like Afghanistan to create lots of delicacies, leaving behind a culinary legacy that integrated with the traditional Indian cuisine. Abdul discovered the book soon after leaving college and was fascinated by discovering what other people did with food and it was full of surprises.
3. The Escoffier Cookbook: Guide to the Fine Art of French Cuisine, Auguste Escoffier – First published in the 1890s, the book is an inspiration, said Abdul. Escoffier is the exponent of a style of cooking where Abdul will follow the guidelines. He explained that for instance, the method of caramelisation of onions for flavour comes from Escoffier; the method of sealing meat first to retain the flavour, which is something that doesn’t happen in traditional Indian cooking. Abdul talked about the process of making a confit, a way to tenderize meat without ruining the texture; the art of slow French cooking and protecting the prime ingredient. Abdul said there was a link between these old French techniques and the new style of cooking he does at The Cinnamon Kitchen.
4. Charlie Trotter’s Cookbook (1994) – Trotter is surprising and creative, said Abdul. He likes the scientific part of the American Trotter’s cooking and compared him to Heston Blumenthal in UK. But it’s not just the science of Trotter’s cooking that appeals to Abdul, but his respect for the ingredients and food that’s nourishing.
5. White Heat, Marco Pierre White (1990) – In his heyday, said Abdul, White was a legend. His way with oysters, for instance, and his vision of food was inspirational.
6. Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain (2001) – The story is the best thing about this book, said Abdul. It’s about life in the kitchen and the culinary world; all the do’s and don’ts. It’s a history of this life and Abdul would recommend it to anyone contemplating working in the industry as it will help define if that’s what they really want. It opens your mind and exposes what that world is really like.
7. Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, Thomas Keller (2008) – This is very intelligent cooking, said Abdul. It makes you more aware of the flavours and textures of food; you don’t have to expose food to high temperatures or the liquid they are immersed in so they don’t lose any of their flavours. Meats are marinaded first and sealed in a vacuum pack and left for a time to absorb the seasonings before being cooked sous vide.
8. The Healing Cuisine of China: 300 Recipes for Vibrant Health and Longevity, Zhuo Zhao (1998) – What Abdul likes about this is finding out about the healing qualities of the cuisine of China and how the food helps detox the body. He feels it has a lot to offer if done with the right approach. After living in the West for some time, Zhuo Zhao became aware that the West had no understanding of how diet could play an important role in health, so she returned to her native land to do some research and then wrote this book. Abdul says he’s interested in how many of the spices used in Indian cooking have medicinal properties, for instance cinnamon is an amazing antioxidant and fenugreek is a blood cleanser. He’s fascinated to discover the impact plants, seeds and spices can make on one’s health and he’s bringing some of these ideas to The Cinnamon Kitchen’s menu.
9. Setting the Table: Lessons and inspirations from one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs, Danny Meyer (2010) – All the ‘Cinnamon’ chefs read this, said Abdul. It teaches you how to run a restaurant business; to have an eye on your product. It’s important to be pushed, he said, to be inspired and be aware of what’s similar in the market; how to protect your territory when you do something innovative. It tells you how to relate to feedback. Basically – it teaches you how to be successful. A chef, Abdul said, needs to be an entrepreneur too. You have to be constantly changing and moving on; having fresh ideas and to be offering something different to everyone else.
10. Grande Livre de Cuisine, Alain Ducasse (1990) – A book about the philosophy of food and cooking. Ducasse created a restaurant concept – Spoon – which serves modern French cuisine that, said Abdul, brings quite a few ingredients to the plate to surprise you. The book makes you aware of how fine you can go with your cooking but still keep a simple effect and make it look artistic on the plate. It opens up ideas about how cookery can be perceived.
Finally, I asked Abdul which his No.1 book would be and he said Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. The book is inspirational and there’s a lot to be learnt from it.
It was really fascinating and enjoyable talking to Abdul. I love his cooking – it takes Indian cuisine into a league of its own and is quite stunning and exciting – but I also learnt a lot about understanding Abdul’s style of cooking from our conversation. I hope you have too from what I’ve written … and really, if you are anywhere near The Cinnamon Kitchen … indeed make a special journey … Abdul’s food is extraordinarily wonderful and if you haven’t tried it yet, do so soon!
If you’ve enjoyed this post click here to read more interviews in the Top Ten Cookery Books series.