Twice Michelin Starred Chef Atul Kochhar on Thinking Outside the Spice Box
It’s no exaggeration to state that twice Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar has changed the way people perceive and experience Indian cuisine.
As the very first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star, accomplished during his tenure as Head Chef at Tamarind in 2001, the Indian born, British based chef, restaurateur and television personality Atul Kochhar went on to open Benares Restaurant where he was awarded second Michelin star in 2007 – a restaurant regarded as one of the finest Michelin Star Restaurants London, across all genres of cooking.
Yet speaking the chef about his latest venture, Hawkyn’s, he admits that he fought his natural instincts and refused to lift the lid of his spice box. “There is no Indian influence whatsoever, and I have to be honest it was a massive temptation to use the spices in the food but I kept my spice box closed,” he says of the menu which strictly features contemporary British fare such as Wood Pigeon with salsify, puy lentils, and charred ale onions, and Hawkyn’s signature Fish and Chips, served with pea purée, tartar sauce, and battered scraps.
“I am a purist in a lot of ways. I have always rated British food as great food, and while there are a lot of influences from all over the world, and if spices are called for they can be used, I just wanted to focus on the ingredients of the country and work purely with them.”
Opening in January 2017 at the Crown Inn in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, Atul admits initially he was daunted by the prospect of stepping outside his comfort zone. “But I have been living in this country for 23 years now and I think I am now qualified to open a British restaurant,” he says with confidence. “I am very happy to say that in little over eight weeks we have been accepted, have got great reviews, and people are loving it.”
Moving to the UK over two decades ago, Atul’s accent still has the syllabic rhythm of his native tongue, but there’s a British lilt and his speech is littered with colloquialisms. After allowing ourselves to get distracted with an extended introduction he cheerfully quips “let’s crack on, shall we?.”
And so we do, with the chef beginning with how he became interested in food all those years ago in the city of Jamshedpur, in Eastern India. “I come from a line of cooks, that span generations before me. I grew up in a family where the food was a centre point for everything,” he says, recalling going to the market for vegetables each and every evening as a family before preparing their evening meal together.
“It was a natural move, yet out of six children in the house I was the only one to have taken up food, others have become doctors and engineers, so I was the black sheep of the family for sometime,” he chuckles, “but then suddenly everyone realised it’s cool to be chef. I’m seen as a hero now which is quite weird – I’m not used to that.”
Atul was accepted into the OCLD School of Hotel Management, something which despite all his achievements in the meantime he still counts as one of his career highlights. “It was almost like winning the lottery, they only take twelve students each year, and rigorously train them for three years before they launch them in the industry.”
His own launch pad was The Oberoi group of hotels in India from where he was head hunted to come to the UK to open Tamarind, but he admits it was a bit of a culture shock to begin with. “At that time Indian food was exactly the way British had perceived it for a long, long time to be honest; the curry houses were in full swing; people absolutely enjoyed their vindaloos, and chicken tikka masala.”
“Coming from India it was a bit of a shock to me; I thought this kind of food doesn’t exist in India, what are we doing with this food? It took time for it to settle in, and in the early years I was quite dismissive of this type of food.”
“But with time you gain wisdom and understand that this is how people like it and nothing is wrong with that, it’s just a different way of looking at it and it can only be made better. I took that in my stride and I started experimenting with my own food.”
At Tamarind, and then Benares, Atul combined inspiration from his native India with his love of British ingredients to create a unique and innovative modern Indian cuisine. “Now, people who come from India might say that my food is not authentic, but I have grown up to develop a style that I like, and the people who eat my food they like it.”
“Now, there are lots of young lads and lasses who want to come from India to train with us which basically is a kind of reverse culinary tourism: we are Indians living in England teaching Indians how to cook Indian food!”
Part of Atul’s unique style is absorbing once ‘challenging’ British ingredients into his cooking philosophy, and he has taken these learning with him to Madrid, where he opened the Spanish outpost of Benares in 2015. “Spanish food uses a lot of pork, fish and lentils, so we are still experimenting with all those.”
“It makes me smile because I always thought that no country came close to India when it comes to lentils, but I just had to visit Spain to understand that have many varieties of lentils than we would even think of!”
Atul predicts that Indian food will continue to evolve similarly to how there is Italian food from Italy, but also a distinguishable strain of Italian food associated with New York. “I think we are coming to that level now that British Indian food will have shaped it’s own identity. We have made our own mark.”
Following extensive travel to research his book Curries of the World Atul found that Britain wasn’t alone in forming their own version of Indian food, and it was the concept of bringing these culinary treasures back from their adopted countries, full-circle, to India that inspired his first Indian restaurant, NRI in Mumbai.
“I created my menu at NRI, which stands for Not Really Indian, based on Indian cuisine that exists outside of India. So for example curry noodles from Singapore, ‘bunny chow’ from South Africa, Caribbean goat curry, and then Chicken Tikka Masala Pie here.”
“When we were planning to open a restaurant in India we thought they already have fifty million Indian restaurants why do they need another one from us? and the local Indians are absolutely loving it.”
Another first, last year Atul opened, next door to NRI, LIMA; a restaurant that specialises in Latin America food, and Peruvian cuisine in particular. Touted as one of the best new restaurants in all of India last year he says it was a gamble as whether it would be well received.
“I absolutely wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but we wanted to try cooking food in one of my restaurants and India seemed like the right place, because Peru is one country which uses spices exactly like India but just using slightly different combinations.”
“It’s quite a healthy cuisine too and India needs that inspiration. While our food is fantastic it can be pretty unhealthy because of our die-hard old practices. Peruvian food has been a great way to make them think that you can eat healthy food that is still very flavoursome.”
Elsewhere in the UK, Atul runs Sindhu, which holds 2 AA Rosettes, at the Compleat Angler hotel in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, and the Michelin Bib Gourmand awarded Indian Essence in Petts Wood, south-east London. More exotically, Atul has restaurants in Dubai, the Rang Mahal at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, and aboard the Aurora and Britannia P&O Cruise ships.
In Ireland in 2008, Atul spearheaded the opening of Ananda in Dundrum Town Centre, partnering with Asheesh Dewan, the man behind the Jaipur chain and Chakra in Greystones. While no longer involved in the restaurant, the then executive chef is Sunil Ghai, now of Pickle on Camden Street, spent a few months in Benares working with Atul before taking up the post.
On his motivation, Atul says his passion for ingredients constantly inspires him to innovate, but that he can’t put a figure on how many more restaurants he will open. “People keep asking me how many restaurants will I open, I don’t know, I never put a number to it. If I have the right team, the right opportunity and the means to do it I will do it. I totally believe in creating more employment, that’s a goal I have in my life.”
What he can be certain about are his plans for the very next restaurant in the pipeline: “There’s a lot cooking at the moment. I can’t tell you much about it, but I am thinking of bringing my restaurant NRI to UK. It will be Birmingham based.”
Following that, and having realised his dream of opening a restaurant in India, Atul says his focus is primarily to spend more time at his home in west London with his wife Deepti and their son and daughter, aged 11 and 13. “I don’t want to spread myself too thin, so that I can’t manage and I can’t see them. So I am trying to keep myself in the UK more and more.”
I couldn’t say goodbye to one of the world’s most celebrated Indian chefs without asking for his top tips for mastering the cuisine. “There are very few recipes in the Indian repertoire that don’t involve onions, and onions take an awfully long time to cook,” Atul begins.
“So the biggest tip I could give you is to be smart and prep you onions in advance. Sauté them to a degree, to a light brown colour, pack them in Ziploc bags, freeze them, and use them over a period of time, and you have cut your cooking time by at least 60%. When I cook I can dish out curries in 10 or 15 minutes.”
Whether it comes to reinventing a cuisine, developing a family of unique and innovative restaurants, or making a curry in a hurry, it seems that Atul Kochhar is a chef that always thinks outside the box.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.