Jessi Singh helms the kitchen at Don’t Tell Aunty
India-born chef Jessi Singh helms the kitchen at Don’t Tell Aunty, a playful dining and drinking hotspot in Sydney, Australia, that likes to turn Indian tradition on its head.
Chef Jessi previously ran Horn Please, Dhaba and Babu Ji in Melbourne before moving to the US and opening the acclaimed Babu Ji in NYC and Bibi Ji in California.
Now he’s back in Australia we talk to him about cooking in different countries, where he gets his inspiration, and upsetting aunties with his reworking of traditional Indian dishes.
So Jessi, growing up you had the original farm-to-table experience – can you please tell us about this and how it’s informed you as a chef.
Being born into a farming family in Punjab, North India, growing food was just a part of life. The best life experience was to learn about food first-hand from family members and learn how to cook and make the most of home-grown food throughout the different seasons.
As we never had a fridge or a freezer, we had to grow food for different seasons and learn how to dry, store and preserve them. I learned how to milk buffaloes then how to use their milk to make yoghurt and butter in my very early childhood.
Because of this early life experience, it helped me to appreciate the cooking process and the importance of fresh and amazing produce as a chef.
You cook playful Indian dishes, such as your famous uni biryani – where do you get your inspiration from?
I love food and live between Australia and the USA. For me, food has to have lots of flavours (vegetables, spices, seafood, flavourful broths, etc.) I love eating raw seafood and adding spices and bold flavours to it. Having lived in India, America and Australia, I’ve learned to love cuisines from a wide array of different cultures and always try to play with the different styles across the Indian subcontinent.
More than anything, though, it’s just my own personality and natural instinct that pushes me to mix it up with my own unique take on Indian cuisine.
Do you ever struggle to get unusual ingredients for your dishes?
Always! My uni biryani needs beautiful, fresh sea urchin, which is very seasonal and weather dependent. Some of the more niche Indian spices can also be tricky to come by, such as black cardamon, real black salt, dry green mango powder, fresh turmeric or fresh green curry leaves. But it’s all about knowing where to go and being adaptable with certain dishes to work around it.
Have you ever had any Indian aunties or uncles come to eat at your restaurants who are upset by the way you are changing tradition?
Yes, all the time. It’s impossible to satisfy Indian aunties who are the best cooks themselves. When someone has cooked Indian food their entire life and comes to eat at my restaurant, they get a big shock since my style is so different. But in saying that, if they have an open mind, they’re usually very proud of me, too, as they appreciate what I’m doing to hero exciting Indian food and revive the Indian restaurant scene.
How familiar do you find your diners are with Indian food?
Many customers have been looking to try Indian food for a while or have guests that they’re trying to expose with a great first experience. Presentation is key. We ensure our dishes make a great first impression with creative plating, but are not overwhelming.
Our tasting menus gives several crowd pleasing “safe” options for newcomers with a few more distinct curries that encourage them to expand their pallets on future visits.
Have you seen India change in its dining habits over the years? What about in the big cities of Delhi and Mumbai – how would you describe the dining scene there these days?
Yes, there have been big changes all over India. Skyrocketing real estate value has forced a lot of people to sell their land since it’s impossible for small farmers to survive. With farming land becoming smaller and smaller, and the huge lower- and middle-class population, western-style frozen processed foods have become really popular.
That being said, Mumbai and Delhi still have some of the best street food that anyone can eat. There are a lot of home-grown chefs opening more and more restaurants now in Delhi and Mumbai which is great to see.
You’ve run restaurants in Melbourne, then NYC, and now in Sydney – what’s it like being back on Australian soil and are there differences in running a restaurant in the US versus Australia?
I’m very happy to have come home. Running restaurants in two different countries has its own rewards and challenges. In terms of differences, fresh ingredients are better in Australia but it can be impossible to find staff who want to work nights and weekends. USA has a lot more hospitality staff who are keen to work, not to mention a much bigger population to feed compared to Australia.
Why did you decide to work with a sommelier, Raj, for your restaurants?
Raj is a fellow Indian-born, also working in hospitality. We both have the same love for the Indian food that brought us together and both love pairing amazing food with amazing wine.
What do you see for the future – any plans to expand and open more restaurants?
Definitely. I’m always looking for the next opportunity and adventure. Currently exploring opening new restaurants in LA and Melbourne, so watch this space.
Thank you, Chef Jessi, and we’re looking forward to hearing more about what you get up to next. You want to see more from her? Check out her new recipe.
What is your plan for your future as a chef?
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