Klay's Hardeep Somal on Showing Shanghai What Indian Food Can Be

By Sophie Steiner, March 9, 2021

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Chef Hardeep Somal has made more than just a name for himself during the last 10 years in Shanghai – he’s won numerous awards, given The Camel a major facelift, helped start Shanghai institutions like The Bull and Claw and recently kicked off the beginnings of his own empire with Klay – a contemporary Indian restaurant serving small plates and highballs inspired by the many ingredients and spices that run through India’s underbelly. And this is just the beginning. We stopped by Klay to see how he’s settling into his most recent project. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I don’t think this will surprise anyone, but I tended to get myself into trouble as a kid. So as a break from London when I was 19, my dad sent me to live with my uncle for a year in Germany. He managed some properties there – one of which was an Italian pizzeria – where he got me a job. 

I started out as a dishwasher, but I began chatting with the chefs and getting interested in what they do. I eventually asked if I could help prep, and soon enough I found myself making 5-kilo batches of dough by hand, slicing meat and dicing vegetables.

Image provided by Hardeep Somal

When I returned to London, I told my dad – to his dismay – that I wanted to cook. Eventually my parents got on board and helped me land my first job as a trainee chef at an airport hotel in Heathrow. After two years, I made the jump into fine dining by joining the team at Royal Gardens in Kensington, where I worked with Norman Farquharson. 

When I say ‘work,’ I mean non-stop – 8.30am-11pm at least. The time I spent there was intense, but I learned so much, and my co-workers became my family. I started to understand true creativity in the kitchen crafts the most beautiful food. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

How did you get started in restaurants in Shanghai? 
After a handful of other stints around the Heathrow area, I eventually met Gavin White, who opened glo, a trendy Asian fusion restaurant. After working there for a few years, Gavin approached me with an opportunity to open glo London in Shanghai with him, and I immediately said yes. 

Image provided by Hardeep Somal

Fast forward a couple years and a ton of ideation, menu design and planning, and I arrived in Shanghai in 2011. By 2013, I almost left, but after meeting my wife, I decided to stay and give Shanghai a proper go.

I signed on with the Camel Group, spruced up the menu there and opened The Camel Suzhou. Eventually I became a partner in opening The Bull and Claw – where I worked as head chef for more than three years, plus Hooked and Saucepan

When did you decide you wanted to open your own restaurant?
I’ve known since I worked at The Camel. I loved working with that team and wouldn’t give up that time up for anything. But my current business partner, Geo Valdivieso (Unico, Up, The Captain,The Broken Dagger) helped me realize that if I want to take the next step, I need to have no boundaries. I need to be the one making all decisions, from food to drinks to restaurant design to playlist.

We started bouncing ideas around and that’s how the Klay concept was born. Although it went through a few iterations (that would have involved more of the club scene), we are happy with what we landed on. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

What is your vision for Klay?
My parents are Punjabi, making me a first-generation Londoner. I grew up eating Indian food in an area with lots of Indian people and restaurants, so that’s comfort to me. But, I want to take that concept a step further – like what’s happened with contemporary Indian restaurants in other foodie cities like London and Singapore – and show Shanghai what Indian food can really be. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

I don’t want to copy anything else that’s out there, I want Klay to be my own interpretation of modern Indian – small plates (like at Kricket in London), bold flavors and fun presentation, all coupled with incredible cocktails that highlight the tastes and aromas of India for Shanghai’s socialites. 

What is your favorite dish on Klay’s menu?
The Lamb Gosht Curry. It’s a traditional lamb rogan josh cooked fresh daily. We use Mongolian lamb that’s never been frozen – it’s the best quality available in the country. I’ve found that there are amazing local products, and we should touch them. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

I’m a very product-focused person, and the taste itself is what convinces me. While others will only put the highest-grade New Zealand lamb on their menu, I’ve found what I think is more delicious, and – bonus – it’s local. I’m always looking for better products and proud to say that I source it all myself.

[At this point, business partner Geo Valdivieso chips in: “The Lobster Masala is insane – pure comfort food, especially with a warm naan.”]

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A review published last week about Klay in soft opening caused quite a stir in the Shanghai foodie scene – what was your take on it?
I don’t take it personally; I’m a happy person, and I’m going to continue doing what I love and what I do well. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But it’s not going to ever stop me; I’ll still be here for many years.

Everything falls by its own weight. I’m proud we didn’t give in to further media attention. The people of Shanghai came out and supported us to find out the truth of the situation, and when you have the support of the people, that’s all you need.

Image provided by Hardeep Somal

What inspires you when you’re creating new dishes?
First and foremost, I think about what I enjoy eating. What is going to look cool, taste delicious and sound good on paper factors in. People today eat with all five senses – how it tastes matters just as much as what they see on a plate and what they read about it. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

I also want to expand further into our vegetarian menu. Vegetarian food is very popular in the Indian community, and a lot of vegetarians are drawn to Indian food for this reason. I plan to add a lot more in the coming weeks, focusing on colors, flavors, how spices will blend together with various proteins, and what the standout factor will be. I want to continue to catch people’s attention. 

Is there anything you won’t eat?
Intestines, chicken feet and other bizarre hot pot items that I don’t want to ask about. 

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I truly don’t know. I’ve always been a hands-on, creative person; school was never my thing. I actually never went to culinary school; I’ve learned everything I know from direct, practical experience.

I have both the passion and drive to be successful at what I do, and when I see people smiling back at me, happy from what I’ve been able to put in front of them and the experience I’ve provided for them, I feel fulfilled. 

Image provided by Hardeep Somal

If you could go back and give a younger Chef Hardeep some advice, or advice to any other chefs that are starting out their careers, what would you say?
Follow what you want to do no matter what. If there’s something you want to try, push boundaries, and just do it. Do something different from your daily cooking routine. Taste everything. Never be afraid of stepping out of your comfort zone. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

You have a really interesting story, where will it go from here?  
With Klay, we have many steps we plan to take. For starters, we are installing a hydroponic spice and herb garden that we will use for seasoning our food and creating infusions for our cocktails. We plan to deck out the space in huge abstract art by [Siu Tang’s creative agency] The Orangeblowfish. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A lunch menu will be coming out around spring, followed by a Mumbai-style brunch (think egg curries, fried bread, fusion sandwiches, Indian burgers and platters of nibbles and finger foods) all paired with Geo’s free flow. We are also toying with the idea of opening a second kitchen for delivery and takeaway only. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Klay is just the first step though; we are only at the tip of the iceberg. Shanghai is a beautiful place when you have the right partnerships, so be on the lookout for more distinct yet exciting concepts. This is just the beginning from us.

Klay's grand opening will be in the beginning of April, exact date is TBD. 

See a listing for Klay

[Cover image provided by Hardeep Somal]

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