Scotland’s Celebrity Chef

Khushwant Singh

Tony Singh MBE Scotland’s Celebrity Chef

August 2005

The setting: a fourth-floor terraced seating, a view of Edinburgh Castle and the Pentlands on the left, Firth of Forth on the right, with Charlotte Square sitting pretty in the middle. Cool airbrushing your face; the sun playing hide and seek; a busy Castle Street down below, and tourists with happy faces walking up and down, enjoying the Edinburgh summer festival. As much as it may seem this is no scene from a Scottish picture book. It is a vista from the posh terrace restaurant, Oloroso, created by Scotland-born, our very own, the thirty-four-year-old Tony Singh.

The lad has been the former head chef of the Queen’s royal yacht, Britannia, served as sous-chef on the Royal Scotsman train along with Prince Charles’ personal chef Graham Newbald, and is a member of the Masterchefs of Great Britain.

Oloroso, which in Spanish means ‘aroma and spices’ showcases Tony’s eclectic cuisine, whereby he uses the best of local produce with techniques from all over the world, and has, within three years of its opening (December 2001), redefined the way the world dines in Scotland, or at least in the capital city of Edinburgh.

The lounge on the east, with its breathtaking views of the hillock Arthur’s Seat, a bar with classy steel grey furnishings and the restaurant dressed in gold, charcoal, and ivory define this chic restaurant. The private dining area where brides-to-be can have a bit of fun before tying the knot is the icing on the cake.

Imagine being picked up in a Limo for a three-course meal accompanied by select wines, or the most incredible cocktails prepared by an Oloroso bartender while he divulges the secrets of the French Martini. Difficult to believe? If the Royals and celebrities can, so can you. To drop a few names, Scottish and international celebrities from Prince William to Hollywood A-listers Ewan McGregor, George Clooney and Kristen Scott Thomas have at some point dined at Oloroso.

Following the culinary trail—everything in Scotland is a trail, be it the malt or the tartan—I took a British Midland flight to reach Edinburgh from London. A gentleman in his sixties with a beak-shaped turban stood at the ‘Arrivals’, searching faces. Assuming that the lookout was for me, I walked up to him. ‘Sat Sri Akal’ with folded hands was exchanged and the gentleman introduced himself as Baldev Singh Kusbia, Tony’s father. ‘Tony was caught up in the restaurant so I’m here to pick you up,’ he announced as we walked to the multi-level car parking. ‘Much obliged,’ I replied, trying to be as courteous as possible, for Tony had put me in quite a fix while we were coordinating our meeting. After we had fixed the dates and the flight had been booked, Tony, much to my irritation, had suddenly announced that 16 August happened to be his wedding anniversary and his wife had a surprise holiday for him in store. ‘Can’t help it Khushwantji, home secretary’s order,’ he had said, rendering himself unavailable.

How my perception changed after spending four days minus the wedding anniversary day with Tony Singh. The culinary delights, the laughter, the jokes and the moments shared in the chef’s kitchen, restaurant and on the streets of Edinburgh are forever embedded in my memory, even though they started on a note of sacrilege. Ask why. Isn’t it blasphemy in Scotland to order a Jack Daniels with coke? Silly? Tony Singh had specially flown to Tennessee in USA to get the perfect JD for his bar, a sign of detail that makes Oloroso the hottest address. Wines are tested by skilled connoisseurs that travel to far off places like Swan Valley and Margaret River in Australia and France to source the best wines.

‘Coming back to the JD story—a barrel of Bourbon had been flown out of the US of A,’ said Tony as we sat chatting in one corner of the restaurant after Tony’s father had dropped me off at Oloroso. ‘We must try the spirit,’ I announced and the Bourbon served was to make for a perfect prelude to the good times in Scotland.

Tony is an unusual man, highly professional, yet at times clownish. Spirited to the hilt, he uses the four-letter word without hesitation, whether in the kitchen, restaurant or while at the wheel of his Porsche sports car. Thank god he hasn’t been to Punjab. One can pick them by the dozen!

He is a man small in height, wears an earring in one ear, and a gold chain around his neck. He wears a smart enough turban, which is placed above the ear to show off the piece of jewelry, is pot-bellied and has a heavy Leith accent that can be tough to understand for somebody born and bred in India. Basically, he is a jolly good fellow, as they would say in our Punjab! His customers and staff that comprise young men and women from all parts of the world simply love him. A Spanish girl working at Oloroso, Ana, who was in England to improve her English said she couldn’t think of working anywhere else in Edinburgh other than with Tony. ‘He’s such a great guy.’

Tony is a father of four: three daughters Aarti (eleven), Seetal (six), Harpreet (fourteen months) and a son, Balraj (eight). ‘I’ve got a TV, so no more,’ he says.

The only Sikh-run European restaurant in Scotland, Oloroso, high on Castle Street—with a seating capacity of over hundred people—initially was set up as a partnership between Tony Singh and James Sankey, a restaurant manager of high standing. Sankey was looking for a bar with a restaurant and Tony was on the lookout for a restaurant with a bar. Oloroso happened.

Sadly, Sankey died of a cardiac arrest within a couple of months of the opening. Since then, Tony Singh took over the entire management as chief director and Oloroso achieved an over two million pound turnover in the financial year 2004-5. ‘When the site was advertised in 2000, all leading restaurant chains like Pizza Express, Bank Group and Living Room ventures of England had given offers for the site,’ said Tony. Tony’s first class qualifications as a top-notch chef, and his project report, highlighting him as an individual entrepreneur, held him in good stead. Proprietors Peral Assurance decided to lease the most prime restaurant property of Edinburgh to Tony Singh and Sankey for twenty-five years. ‘Location, location and location,’ are the three golden principles that Tony suggests for new entrepreneurs.

‘What can I offer you, sir?’ A beautiful woman of European descent, dressed in black trousers and charcoal grey shirt with Oloroso embroidered on either sleeve sought our attention. ‘Some “Oloroso sherry”, please,’ said Tony as she refolded the napkins. The atmosphere was buzzing as if the whole world had descended onto the restaurant and out on the terrace. With the 2005 festival in full bloom, different languages flowed from all four corners. In the tastefully decorated and lit ambiance of the restaurant, people made merry, high on the culinary delights and spirits.

The sherry was served in tall-stemmed glasses and Tony asked me to make a choice for starters. ‘The àla carte menu changes every day,’ he said. What does that mean? ‘Depending on what is fresh and the best with our suppliers, we alter the menu. For example, my supplier called up to say that fabulous oysters had come from Galway in the Atlantic, so we had a dish “Oysters Rockefeller” going.’ Americans react to this dish like bees to pollen.

Rockefeller in the middle of Edinburgh—yeah man! ‘Our ability to have a fresh menu going each day makes us different from the rest,’ explained Tony.

Khushwant Singh