After selling up and making his name in the United States, the innovative chef returns to Fitzroy North to put his distinctively Australian stamp on Indian cuisine.
After three and a half years in America, the thing Jessi Singh missed most was the markets. “In America, you don’t have a connection with the purveyor, the fishmonger, the farmers. Everything’s done on the phone,” he explains. “You missed out as a cook, man. And I really enjoyed going out to the farm, picking up a lamb, or picking up a goat, just doing my own thing.”
Despite that lack of access to local produce, Singh and his partner Jennifer made something of a splash in the States. The East Village edition of Babu Ji, which the Singhs imported wholesale from St Kilda, was an immediate hit. The New York Magazine, The Times and the Zagat Guide all singing its praises, and the Infatuation named it the best NY Eatery in 2015. A San Fran sister restaurant soon followed.
But, in 2017, the ascent of Babu Ji abruptly stopped. A pair of lawsuits were launched against the restaurant, with former employees claiming the Singhs withheld tips and failed to pay overtime, insisting instead on a flat fee regardless of working upwards of 60 hours a week. And, food magazine Eater alleged that Singh bullied the former employees, threatening one’s family in Hindi and calling the other a ‘sisterfucker’.
Both the New York and San Francisco soon closed (though the East Village restaurant re-opened in a new location, and Singh recently opened a new venue in Santa Barbara with sommelier Rajat Parr). Singh’s lawyers reportedly settled both suits for a total of around US$225,000. Singh, however, disputes this version of events, and the way it was reported in Eater. “Multiple media outlets, after the litigation came out, they all did interviews and all did their investigations. You didn’t hear one thing from them other than Eater, because Eater I refused to entertain them because they never heard my side of the story, they just heard the story from the lawyer,” he says. “If you were so concerned, you should have done your research on us. You can’t go on one gossip magazine.”
Singh says both cases were won in court, and that Federal Judges found the claims made against him were untrue. He also says that there were settlements made with former employees, though they were paid out by Human Resources and payroll companies. “When I first went to America, the first thing I had to do was get a proper HR firm, proper accounting, proper bookkeeping. I always practiced from the first day of my business that I don’t know how to do those things; I’m a chef. I’m a cook,” he explains. “In America, I didn’t settle. Those companies, they paid the money. It was their job to protect me and pay my staff proper wages. They controlled the bank account, not me.”
Understandably, in returning to Australia, Singh was hesitant to take on the responsibilities of an owner-operator. “It’s very hard to run a small business as a chef owner, so I’ve moved on from that position,” he says. “I don’t own restaurants anymore. I’m happy to be the chef. I’m very good at it, making something special. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
So, with the excoriating experience behind him, Singh’s next chapter is a homecoming. Jennifer and Jessi opened Horn Please six years ago, and now he’s returning in the capacity of executive chef. Amar and Raj Singh will continue in their capacity as owners. “Horn Please has always been a very special place to us,” he says. “Horn Please was like our first real restaurant. We worked really hard, and we enjoyed the four or five years. It’s like your favourite child.”
Back behind the pans, Singh is planning to revamp the street-food heavy menu, with Indian and Chinese style dim sum, blue swimmer crab croquettes with mint and coriander chutney, and an onion or cauliflower kulcha naan pizza. Along with his south-east Asian influences, Singh also took some inspiration from his time in the US. “My favourite new dish is chilli chicken. It’s a classic Indian dish - it’s spicy, it’s chicken, it’s deep-fried. It has those elements of comfort food. That’s what I’m employing from Southern American food, but converting it to a chilli chicken,” he says. “What I love about Southern cuisine is they eat hot. So I’m making my own hot sauce, then using a touch of spice, adding some onions and chillis to make that dish. If you’re ever going to have fried food, you want to have good fried food.”
Singh’s planning to change the menu regularly, with new dishes following the seasons. “The whole menu will focus on farmers markets. I love Queen Victoria Market, from day one,” he says. “All my purveyors are based there. Every two or three months, during the seasons, we’ll switch.”
There’s also been a minor renovation within Horn Please, with some local street artists drafted to spray the interior. “In my neighbourhood, I always see these guys tagging everywhere,” says Singh. “So I showed them what the Indian trucks look like and I asked a couple of them to come and paint for me.”
With his experience in the States - not to mention the increased focus on unpaid wages following recent allegations against high-profile restaurateurs here in Australia - Singh is hyper-aware of needing to be (and appear to be) above board. “The biggest lesson for me, was that it’s going to be my name. I learned to be involved on a weekly basis to know whether this person’s got paid. It was a huge eye-opener to go to that side,” he says. “It was massive for us to learn about staying on top of things. Of course, some employees aren’t going to be happy, there’s always going to be an employee that’s going to leave. You have to sit down with your employees every week, listen to their concerns and grievances, if anybody missed their punch-out, if anybody didn’t get paid, to fix things right away.”
Singh says that without satisfied staff, small businesses like Horn Please would grind to a halt. “I started as an employee. Nobody has given me a business; I worked my way up from a dishwasher,” he says. “My employees are my family, my friends, they’re my business partners. You need everybody in a restaurant.”
167 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North VIC 3068
Phone: 03 9497 8101
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