(January 19, 2022) When Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar opened Masalchi in London, which means “spice master,” the enterprising chef might have been referring to himself. Not only is he a master of flavours, he’s also synonymous with gourmet Indian cuisine – when food connoisseurs in the UK think of Indian cuisine, the first name that comes to mind is Kochhar and his chain of restaurants.
Kochhar is the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star for his London restaurant Tamarind a little over 20 years ago. He garnered yet another star for his next restaurant — Benares. A rising star in Indian the culinary world when he left the Oberoi Hotel Group in 1994 to move to the UK, Kochhar’s culinary flair has grown to greater heights. Yet, there is a depth to the chef that goes beyond his epicurean prowess – he is an author, TV presenter and philanthropist. Global Indian caught up with chef extraordinaire Atul Kochhar in an exclusive interview.
The big break
When Kochhar was growing up in the steel city of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, he already understood what food was all about as his family ran a small catering business. When the time came to decide on a career, he was clear about one thing — no engineering or medicine for him. Instead, he enrolled in the Institute of Hotel Management Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition (Chennai) and, slowly gave the culinary world a food philosophy that has only gotten better.
After he graduated from IHM, Kochhar’s career took off – as sous chef at The Oberoi, New Delhi (1993). In just a year, he had embraced epicurean wisdom, and understood the fundamentals of fine-dining. For a young sincere Kochhar, it was time to start dreaming big. His big break came in 1994. “I moved to the UK in 1994 to work under the guidance of renowned chef Bernard Kunig,” recalls the Indian Michelin-starred chef. He joined Tamarind, the newly-opened Indian restaurant at London’s famed Mayfair area. “When I arrived in London, Tamarind had just opened. But I relished the challenges thrown in. Moving to a new city was certainly a test that has paid off. When you keep the faith, you can achieve anything,” smiles the Michelin-starred chef.
Putting Indian cuisine on global map
Kochhar might have been away from India for over 30 years, but his intrinsic Indianness has matured, be it personally, or in the taste trail he conjures up. Deeply researched cuisines with a tip of the hat to tradition and technique, the palette of Indian spice is diverse and nuanced. Kochhar’s restaurant Kanishka’s offerings are case in point. His special chicken tikka pie – the famous Punjabi dish served in a puff pastry or maas, a Sikkim-inspired venison tartare with mustard oil mayonnaise, naan crouton and onions, spiced scallops, Tibetan lobster thukpa and grilled pigeon breast with beetroot ketchup and pine nuts – the flavours endear themselves to the eclectic yet tradition-seeking food connoisseur. Critics also rave about Kochhar’s restaurants and dishes.
The ‘Michelin’ star
In 2001, Kochhar became one of the first Indian chefs to bag a Michelin star as Tamarind’s head chef. Later. he got the coveted star again for the much-acclaimed Benares. Yet, the soft-spoken chef is modest about these achievements. His focus is on the culinary exploits. “There are no words to describe how it feels to have achieved two Michelin stars but they are also incredibly important rewards that the culinary industry delivers on a daily basis. Like so much in life, as we give to the world, so the world gives back. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?” mulls the artistic chef.
Taking a plunge with Benares
From chef to entrepreneur with Kochhar’s epicurean debut, Benares in London illustrates his journey – heartening yet challenging. Not easy to take a plunge, Kochhar reveals, “Changing my thought process was the biggest challenge. It took time, I made mistakes but I finally got there. I started understanding the left and right of the balance sheet. It’s been quite a journey.”
Today, each Kochhar restaurant is an ode to a delectable spice trail – a unique identity and explorations of cuisines with India as its muse. The unique names, Kochhar explains is because, “I am continuously seeking inspiration from my travels. My restaurants deliver first class food and welcome our guests into inviting environments, so each name means something different to me – that’s very important.”
As for food, creativity is the key, “I take pride in designing dishes to enlighten the palate – mixing the freshest ingredients and a large pinch of imagination,” smiles the chef.
For instance, his focus for Kanishka is on the unexplored cuisine from north-eastern Indian or the so-called Sister States. “The cuisine here is that of elevated simplicity – relying on fantastic quality ingredients,” explains the man.
Since Kanishka, he has opened Mathura in Westminster, and the latest is Masalchi, in the globally renowned entertainment district of Wembley Park. There are plans for more restaurants too. “We are keeping busy! And next we will unveil Riwaz in the market town of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire and then probably Riwaz in Tunbridge Wells,” says the perpetual student of culinary tales.
His restaurant Saga in Gurgaon, he owes to his partner, “It’s the genius of my business partner – Vishal Anand, who helped me understand the concept. I am in total awe of the place. I love it,” he says.
Kochhar, the author
Kochhar has unveiled a world of tastes with each signature dish, so it was only apt that he author his prowess in innumerable cookbooks over the years too. “A cookbook is something to treasure and I relish in sharing exotic but simple recipes on each page,” he adds. His latest cookbook will be on the stands in March 2022 – vegetarian curries exploring recipes from India, Africa and the Middle East. “It’s called Curry Everyday, featuring a mouthwatering selection of vegetarian dishes,” he informs.
Unwinding with family
The family man revels in cooking with his son. “I think he might follow in his father’s footsteps,” predicts the doting father. The celebrity chef is a philanthropist. “I support charities including Great Ormond Street Hospital – which is close to my heart. I have visited Antarctica twice to raise money for the children of Great Ormond Street, as well as standing as an ambassador to the British Asian Trust.”
A celebrity chef, which he brushes off as inconsequential, his meals have been relished by acting greats like Dustin Hoffman, George Clooney and Amitabh Bachchan (and many others). “Fantastic food brings joy and we serve the nation’s favourite chicken curry and some new and lesser-known dishes – all of which put a smile on people’s faces,” says Kochhar, already deep in thought about the flavours he will put together next to evoke a smile, and some satisfied souls – yes, the Kochhar “saga” continues.