Atul Kochhar was the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star at his highly-regarded restaurant Benares in London’s Mayfair. Indian-born and British-based, Atul now oversees a handful of successful eateries in the UK, as well as Madrid, Dubai and Mumbai, and creates menus for P&O Cruises. We caught up with him to discuss his growing empire…
Who is your culinary inspiration and why? My inspiration is mostly an evolutionary process, a gentle nudge from where I live. It could be something I have seen or an exciting new chef that inspires me.
Tell us about your early cooking career in India. I started my cooking career at The Oberoi group of hotels in India. In June 1993 I graduated to the five star deluxe Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi. Here I worked as a sous chef in one of the five restaurants in the hotel. I then moved to the fine dining restaurant of Bernard Kunig.
In your opinion, why are so many traditional curry houses going out of business in the UK? The shortage of skilled curry chefs in the UK is one of the major reasons. Another reason is that people’s knowledge and taste for more regional Indian cooking has increased, they are looking for more than a curry house.
What advice can you offer to fellow Indian chefs in terms of appealing to British diners? Indian food to me is part of British gastronomy and it will continue to grow with people’s taste and perceptions. It’s important to stay in tune with your customers and trends.
How did it feel to be the first Indian chef to gain a Michelin star? I still find it very hard to believe. It was a complete shock.
How is your style of cooking received in Mumbai? I cook Indian food for a modern, intuitive and cultured crowd. It’s so exciting to be able to push the boundaries with people’s expectations of Indian cuisine and I’m very proud that we’re always moving on and always evolving. I travel the world, eat in as many places I can and I keep making sure that my menu, my team and my style responds to trends, changes in produce, and constantly evolves be it in London, Spain, Dubai or Mumbai. I believe that growing up in various cultural environments has helped me see a more worldly style of cooking.
Every chef worth his salt these days seems to have a restaurant interest in Dubai. Why do you think that is and what was the appeal of Dubai for you? Dubai is a global destination for culinary scene with multicultural cuisine, dining spots and events. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that?
What are the challenges faced cooking on board a cruise liner? It’s important to plan months in advance. Nowadays, people’s diets and requirements are a lot more discerning; vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free etc. We have to rely a lot on frozen (raw food), which is the next best thing to fresh. Vegetables will be bought on the last day before we set off. All these are logistics but you need to plan months in advance to find the ingredients.
Your website refers to Madrid as “the gastronomic capital of Europe”. How have you married traditional Spanish ingredients with your traditional Indian cooking techniques? Rather than create a carbon copy of Benares London, we have eagerly enhanced our repertoire of modern Indian cuisine with the delicacies of the Spanish larder. Hence, you’ll find starters like pekorah with boquerones (anchovies) and Spanish staples like calamari and octopus on the menu.
And now for three questions that we ask all of our Leading Lights…
1. What are your three kitchen secrets? i) Cook with the seasons ii) use spice to enhance ingredients not overpower them iii) and finally work as a team.
2. What is your favourite ingredient and why? That’s a very difficult question, and not one that I could possibly answer! Ginger, chilli and cardamom, though it’s hard to narrow it down to just those three. I love using a variety of spices in my dishes: they create such complexity and let you make each dish very unique.
3. Please could you share your favourite recipe. Chicken Tikka Masala Pie Click here to try Atul’s delicious recipe!