After three and a half years in America, the thing chef Jessi Singh missed most about Australia, where he’d owned three popular Indian restaurants, was visiting the markets.
“In America, you don’t have a connection with the purveyor, the fishmonger, the farmers. Everything’s done on the phone,” he says. “You missed out, as a cook.”
In Australia, he “really enjoyed going out to the farm, picking up a lamb, or picking up a goat, just doing my own thing”.
In 2014 Singh and wife Jennifer sold their well-received Australian eateries Dhaba at the Mill, Horn Please and Babu Ji St Kilda and moved to America. In May the following year they opened Babu Ji New York.
The East Village diner was an immediate hit, and perennially packed. New York magazine, the New York Times and Zagat all praised the cool, contemporary Australian-Indian spot for its easy-going service, approachable tasting menu and really, really good food.
In July 2016, Babu Ji’s meteoric rise was halted by legal action when labour lawyer Maimon Kirschenbaum – representing two plaintiffs who were employees of the New York restaurant – claimed the Singhs withheld tips and failed to pay overtime to staff members who allegedly worked 60-plus hours a week. (Kirschenbaum is a controversial and polarising figure in New York, known for filing wage-related lawsuits against a plethora of restaurants including Le Bernardin, Nobu and Mario Batali's Babbo.)
Babu Ji agreed to settle for a reported US$95,000.
Months later, Kirschenbaum brought new claims – including bullying allegations – against Babu Ji. The restaurant again settled, this time for US$130,000. Singh says that in court the claims made against him were found to be untrue. His company, though, still paid the settlements to the now-former employees.
Singh denies any wrongdoing, and disputes the way the scandal was reported in Eater, the New York-based website that covered the lawsuit extensively. He says the publication ran their initial story without contacting him.
“[Eater] never heard my side of the story, they just heard the story from [Kirschenbaum],” Singh says.
Soon after, Babu Ji closed its East Village restaurant, re-opening another Manhattan venue in a bigger location. The diner’s San Francisco sister restaurant – which opened after the legal action commenced – also shuttered to make way for a Santa Barbara venue, which opened in February this year.
While in the US, Singh employed an accounting firm to manage staff wages, but is now hyper-aware of the need to be more hands-on.
“You have to sit down with your employees every week, listen to their concerns and grievances,” he says. “If anybody missed their punch-out, if anybody didn’t get paid, you fix things right away.”
Though he still owns both US restaurants, on returning to Australia Singh was understandably hesitant to take on the responsibilities that come with being an owner-operator.
“It’s very hard to run a small business as a chef-owner,” he says. “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.”
Putting the overseas experience behind him, Singh’s next chapter is a homecoming. Six years after he and wife Jennifer first opened Horn Please, Singh has returned to one of the venues he sold when he moved overseas – this time as executive chef and consultant. Amar and Raj Singh will continue as owners.
“Horn Please has always been a very special place to us,” Singh says. “We worked really hard … It’s like your favourite child.”
Back behind the pans, Singh is serving creative, contemporary dishes with influence from India, Southeast Asia and the US, such as blue swimmer crab croquettes with mint and coriander chutney; smoked lamb chops marinated in red wine and tandoori masala; goat slow-cooked with bone marrow, caramelised onion, tomato and spices; and the spice-loaded Colonel Tso’s Cauliflower.
“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,” Singh 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 chillies ... If you’re ever going to have fried food, you want to have good fried food.”
Much of the produce at Horn Please is sourced at local markets, which Singh is thrilled about.
“I love Queen Victoria Market, all my purveyors are based there,” Singh says. “The whole menu will focus on farmers’ markets.”
167 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North
(03) 9497 8101
Mon to Wed 6pm–9pm
Thu to Sat 6pm–10pm