When Michelin Star chef Atul Kochhar is invited to present some of his specials, one knows that it is bound to be a runaway success. The Ritz-Carlton, Bangalore is staging a sublime culinary experience by London based Chef Atul Kochhar, as he showcases accents from three of his well-known restaurants on April 7, 8 and 9. As the very first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star, accomplished during his tenure as Head Chef at Tamarind in 2001, Atul went on to open the highly acclaimed Benares Restaurant & Bar for which he was awarded another Michelin star in 2007. With regular return trips to his native country, India, Atul ensures that his creative dishes constantly evolve and continue to surprise and delight the senses. He has had the honor to cook for Prince Charles at St. James’ Palace and was invited to meet Her Majesty, The Queen. Dedicating time outside of the kitchen to philanthropic endeavors, Atul has worked with The Prince’s Trust and stands as an ambassador to The British Asian Trust to support high impact charities in South Asia and the UK. Several Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities including Amitabh Bachchan, besides others have been ardent lovers of Atul’s culinary masterpieces. Author of several cookbooks, Atul has also made numerous television appearances. The chef enjoys spending time at home in London with his wife Deepti and their two young children and loves to keep coming back to his roots in India to continue his research on the rich food traditions of our country.
Atul presented a three night tryst at Riwaz, The Ritz-Carlton giving guests a flavour of Lima on first night, NRI on the second, and Benaras on the third night. The menus have been styled after the cuisine style from that particular restaurant, so diners can celebrate accents of their choice. Lima, the Latin American Lounge Bar by Chef Atul Kochhar in BKC Mumbai has a menu based on the trending Peruvian cuisine and is an uber chic tapas bar, where Michelin star quality meets Mexican, Brazilian and Peruvian food accents. The guests were treated to some of the specials like Sea bass classico, Quinoa and mint salad, Chicken gochujang, Black cod miso and Tres Leche at Lima on April 7. Atul returned from London to home shores with a flavour palate that is not just Indian (or NRI) but has global influences. NRI, acronym for Not Really Indian is his labour of love in Mumbai that serves global Indian cuisine. Food connoisseurs were served some of Atul’s specials at the NRI evening on April 8. Dalim shakarkandhi chaat made of roasted sweet potatoes, pomegranate, yoghurt foam was served as first course followed by Mamak rojak salad, a Malaysian fruit salad topped with rojak sauce. Non vegetarians were served Jerk spiced chicken salad. The second course came in the form of Nimbu dhaniya paneer, lemongrass and coriander flavoured cottage cheese steaks with soya glaze and kachumber for vegetarians and Mamak lamb chops, Australian lamb chops marinated with kecap manis, kaffir lime, red chillies and honey was just what the meat lovers would love to devour. The Imli kokum jeera gola, a tangy sorbet made with tamarind came as a palate cleanser in between the courses. Bunny chow mutton Durban mutton curry in a hollow bread served with plantain chip and slaw made for a delicious main course and the five course meal ended with the Lakri methai and samai, a traditional Fiji-Indian crisp sweet dough fritter, served with vermicelli pudding.
The three night affair will culminate tonight with a surreal dining experience with a carefully crafted menu from the glorious Benares. Benares delivers acclaimed modern Indian cuisine as chic as its location in central Mayfair in London. Putting progressive Indian cuisine on the map, this restaurant also got Atul Kochhar his 2nd Michelin star. The outstanding menu on the 9th will be the pièce de résistance, taking diners to a sublime high with dishes such as Pan Seared Scallop with jhal muri, grape and ginger dressing, chargrilled Scottish salmon with coconut and curry leaf sauce with the sweet master stroke – Rhubarb Bhapa Doi, Gulab Jamun Brulée. This gala evening promises to be a befitting finale to the three day tasting of Atul Kochhar signature recipes.
Namita Gupta caught up with Chef Atul Kochhar for Ritz Magazine and this is what he shares in a candid conversation.
- When was the first time you entered kitchen and how did you decide to take up cooking professionally?
I belong to a foodie family. My grandfather had a bakery and my father ran a catering business and my mum and four sisters were all amazing cooks. Being the second youngest in the family, I got pampered a lot, but also it drew me to the kitchen quite a lot, as I didn’t have an older brother to play with. Till my younger brother arrived I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and as time passed by, I started enjoying giving my hand to my dad’s business and realised that I wanted to go to a hotel school rather than studying medicine or engineering, where everyone else was heading out at that time. While in the hotel school, I decided that kitchen is where my destined place would be. I was good at cooking and also at mathematics and my friends would tease me if I was going to be an accountant chef, but after all these years it’s come handy.
- You studied at a hotel school in Chennai and then the Oberoi Group before moving to the UK. How has the journey been so far?
I studied at a hotel management school in Chennai and then joined the Oberoi School of Hotel Management for three years and worked two years after that with them. I wanted to see the world, so when I got an offer from a new restaurant opening in London, I decided to take a chance and try it out. At that time, British gastronomy was creative waves with Chef Gordon Ramsay and others and I became part of that movement. Good things were happening with food in London at the time and I decided to start flaunting our Indian flavours in a lot more British sense. Soon, I was tagged as a British-Indian chef rather than an Indian chef. It was a bit of a surprise for me when everyone was talking about me and soon I landed up with a Michelin star as well. That was one of the biggest achievements for our entire Indian cuisine.
- What’s been your forte since then and do you keep coming back to your roots for your research?
I’m a person who likes to cook food that makes me happy. I’ve never done it for accolades and I still don’t do it to win any laurels. Lot of people worry that they might lose the Michelin star but it never tends to bother me. I like to cook from my heart and practice the ethos that I’ve learnt. I don’t want to give up my tradition as it’s too close to my heart. I don’t talk about religion, but I believe in tradition, which is the use of spices with age-old techniques and I flaunt with the ingredients and play with the new techniques coming through. I’m in India atleast five times a year. My parents live here. Although my dad passed away, I’m deeply rooted here in India. Whenever I’m in India, I steal some time off and go to the metros and also the remote parts of India. I connect with people and sometimes even a mere chat with them makes you open your eyes and one wonders-darn! I never looked at it that way. That’s such a great trend, or ingredient, or something that’s been in front of your eyes and you never noticed it…all those things excite me and I take it back to my test kitchens. I have four chefs in my test kitchen where we play with new recipes, new techniques and ingredients over a period of time and then we launch it at our restaurants, introduce new dishes or a new menu. I also love going to New York and love Latin America a lot in terms of food. What I learnt in school is what I follow – learn about the ingredients and the rest will follow. I follow that instinctively. Next stop for me is Peru in September, hopefully, but I still have to take my wife’s permission to do that. She’s given up her career to allow me to follow my passion and career. We take family trips too, but I take off on my own too to explore the various cuisines of the world. I love to travel, walk around and would love to take up golf soon.
- What are some of the newest trends that you have come across and what is Atul Kochhar’s signature style?
At the moment, what people are loving is Caribbean cuisine. The flavours are very unique and there are blends of British, Indian and African flavours. Also, food is not just about the taste, but the plating and the music and the smells around you. I create food keeping all that in mind that people call progressive Indian, which I always question, were we not always progressing? The economy was such that we couldn’t bow to our food, but in the last many decades, we have achieved a lot and each of the generations has seen stalwarts like Jiggs Kalra, Manjeet Singh Gill, Arun Agarwal and others who paved the way for us. We are doing the right thing and we would pave the way for the youngsters to come. And there are some really talented ones out there. In India, we don’t have an Indian cuisine as yet, here we have Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, you name it. I want to achieve a unified cuisine and I’ve always strived to tell the world about Indian cuisine. I’m a Punjabi, born in East India in Jamshedpur and studied in Chennai and worked West India for a while so that has given me a 360 degree view to my own country. Some of my favourite dishes that I like to cook time and time again always have my twist to the classics. I also love to cook with seasonal vegetables. People love my Rogan Josh, but in summer I would use the loin of lamb, come autumn, I go on to the shoulder of lamb and in winter I go to the shank of the lamb as different cuts give a different sense of seasonality and ingredients around it would change depending on the season, from asparagus to turnips, to pumpkin and that’s how I play with the flavours. Mother Nature is the best guide and if you work with her as a cook you have to do very little. All the great cooks know that kitchen secret and never work hard on pumping flavours into what is natural. I learnt that at a young age from my father, who was a great lover of seasonal produce.
- You’ve cooked for some of the choicest of celebrities and stars across the world, including Prince Charles at St. James’ Palace. Please share some of your experiences.
That’s an exhaustive list! Among the actors some of the names at the top of my mind are Amitabh Bachchan. Amitji is at Benaras quite often whenever he is in London. From the other side of the world we have elite diners such as George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman, besides a lot of famous English Grammy award winning singers.