Tony Singh at one of his street food containers in Edinburgh (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Tony Singh, chef and restaurateur
Tony Singh has cooked for the stars and even a king and queen. He’s featured in television shows and been the subject of endless column inches in the newspapers. It may seem like a life of glamour and high jinks. But there has also been personal tragedy and financial disaster along the way to becoming one of Scotland’s best-known chefs.
Soon after he opened the acclaimed Oloroso restaurant in Edinburgh his business partner died. The 2008 financial crash forced him to bring in insolvency specialists. A new venture in East Lothian lasted only a matter of weeks.
“You could say there have been a lot of ups and downs,” he says. “But I’ve learned a lot and it hasn’t dented my enthusiasm for the business.”
He now runs dining experiences at his home in Edinburgh and has just ventured into ‘street food’, investing in three shipping containers which have been installed on the site of a block of disused public toilets in Tollcross. His brother and son offer a variety of takeaway menus from two of the units.
He’s now in the process of setting up a property investment company which will help other chefs get their restaurant plans off the ground.
“I know what they will go through. I’ve lived through the experience from working in the kitchen to running the business,” says Singh.
He’s enlisted David Orr, commercial property partner at Aberdein Considine, to help. “I’ve been impressed with how David has helped structure the investments and how the firm works,” he says. “They’ve done what they said they would do and have not been too ‘lawyerish’ about it.”
Singh has fought a number of battles on behalf of his business interests, not least an ultimately successful scrap with Royal Bank of Scotland which called in his overdraft on Oloroso when the crash almost claimed the bank itself.
Oloroso, the former rooftop restaurant in Castle Street, opened in 2001 and had been one of the city’s best known dining venues, attracting business leaders, celebrities, such as Sean Connery, the Gallaghers from Oasis and even the King and Queen of Denmark.
But tragedy struck when Singh’s business partner James Sankey died a year after suffering a heart attack.
“Not only did I lose a great friend, James was front of house, he ran the restaurant and looked after the books. It was a blow to all of us,” he says.
By 2005 he was able to lead a £1.2m management buy-out of the investors, giving them all a decent return, but the financial crash of 2008-09 saw the business lunch trade dry up and in 2010 the bank called in its loan facility. It forced him into a company voluntary arrangement (CVA), handled by insolvency firm MLM, to restructure the restaurant’s debt.
“CVAs were quite new and we were one of the first in Scotland to use one,” he says. “We got 75% agreement from creditors. Only RBS and HMRC voted against.”
The company was making a loss and he sold to the Thai-themed chain Chaophraya. In recent years he’s also sold Tony’s Table, Roti and a short-lived gastro pub venture in West Linton.
‘The press liked the image of a Scottish chef in a turban and a kilt’
His cooking career began on a youth training scheme with Scottish & Newcastle and saw him spend time in the kitchens at the Mount Royale, the Balmoral, the Royal Scotsman train, Martin’s in Thistle Street, and the Royal Yacht Britannia where he was the first civilian head chef.
It was during his time on the yacht that he entered for ITV Chef of the Year. Winning the competition drew the attention of the press – “they liked the image of a Scottish chef in a turban and a kilt” – and was the start of a celebrity sideline that still sees him popping up on various cookery programmes. He’s lately appeared on Saturday Kitchen and has been doing some other filming.
“They don’t pay much, usually expenses, but TV exposure is priceless,” he says.
It has certainly done no harm in attracting guests to his twice weekly home dining experiences and he is looking ahead to his property venture that he hopes will mark a new phase in his cooking journey.
He now believes the restaurant experience has to change – and that includes the diners themselves.
“Restaurants nowadays cater for vegetarians, vegans, those with lactose and gluten intolerance. There are flexitarians who switch from one diet to another.
“That’s fine and it is right that we serve what people want. But it is only reasonable to notify the restaurant in advance about these conditions and not expect them to stock all these ingredients that may or may not be needed. It’s just adding to costs and potential waste.”
Singh believes that for these reasons restaurants should – and will – increasingly limit their dishes and that prices will have to rise as margins are so thin.
He says he’d like to open another restaurant “if I could find the right partner with deep enough pockets,” and says he has his eye on a site.
“Being a chef is hard work,” he says. “But it has been a lot of fun and I do miss the buzz and camaraderie of the kitchen.”
Occupation: Chef and restaurateur
Education: Leith Academy and Telford College (Catering)
Career highlights: Began on a YTS scheme with S&N, worked through various hotel kitchens and the Royal Yacht Britannia, opened Oloroso restaurant in Edinburgh in 2001. Now running home dining experiences and launched a street food venture.
Who would you say inspired you?
My lecturers at Telford College and the cooks who taught me during the YTS days
How do you relax?
I have taken up shooting and I am looking into pottery classes
What gets you wound up?
Things that do not make sense. Red tape. With the technology we now have I don’t understand why things don’t happen more quickly.
If you could invite three people living or dead to a fantasy dinner party who would you choose?
God, the devil and my grandfather (who I never met)