Top Chef

Posted on Analysis Aug 2008 - by Tandoori Magazine
Top Chef

One of UK’s top Indian chefs, Michelin starred Atul Kochhar is also the best known with a high media profile. He talks exclusively to Humayun Hussain.

His cooking has left critics gushing, pouring such praise over Atul Kochhar’s endeavours as “exquisite without being precious” and “I’ve just had the best Indian meal that I’ve eaten.” Yet Kochhar takes it all in his stride. “I’m a guy,” he says, “who wakes up every morning and takes each day as it comes. No matter what it is, no matter what challenge, I’ll try and deal with it.”

About the only clue that even gets us close to revealing how and why he has become the UK’s most high profile Indian chef comes by way of him stating that he has remained “passionate” and “committed” throughout his career. But a number of his high level contemporaries are also as passionate and talented as Kochhar so has luck something to do with it?

There is no easy answer. What we do know is that from restaurant entrepreneurs to TV cookery programme makers and publishers are clamouring for his input.

As this issue of Tandoori goes to press, Kochhar may have pulled out of the consultancy he offered to a restaurant in Mauritius, but he has two imminent openings this summer: Ananda, in Dublin and Vatika in the heart of the Hampshire countryside – both establishments offering his by now trademark haute cuisine. He’s also just about to launch his second cookery book Fish Indian Style (see book giveaway panel and recipe pages) and of course, millions of TV viewers across the country have got to know him via such series as the Great British Menu, Saturday Cooks and Saturday Kitchen.

Kochhar knows how to spread his brand name.

With Vatika, Kochhar contradicts what most chefs would do. Rather than having Indian food being given a modern European twist, he’s approached his menu from another direction.

“The restaurant’s countryside location also means that it’s surrounded by gentrified English people,” he states. So what I’ve done is to keep the seasonal cooking as British as possible, but given it an Indian twist. I’m not going to deny the fact that I’m aiming for the highest level of fine dining possible, but equally, wanting a Michelin star isn’t even on my mind. The notion at Vatika is to champion local ingredients and what Hampshire stands for.”

As our chat progresses, Kochhar is at pains to remind me that when Tamarind opened, with him at the kitchen’s helm, I was the first journalist to interview him and comment that his presentation was at a different level. Only, he wasn’t quite sure whether to take it as a compliment or not!

“From Tamarind through to Benares,” admits Kochhar, “what I’ve tried to do is to gradually move away from the conventions of Indian cooking. It’s always been intentional on my part to make the food more westernised yet to also experiment within the confines of traditional Indian cooking, which in itself has always been a great melting pot of different religions, different cultures and different cuisines. I may be classically trained, but living and working in the UK has also made me want to understand how the top European restaurants cook and serve their food. Vatika is very much a fruition of that thinking.”

I ask Kochhar how he defines what’s the Indian element and what’s European in a dish? “That’s a difficult one,” he admits. “There are no rules or clear cut definitions to the execution. However, I perceive it to be in terms of how I use my spices. For instance, if a British chef might have potted shrimps on his menu, I’ll make chilli potted shrimps as an equivalent. The same would apply to a dish such as Lancashire hot pot. Ultimately, it has a lot to do with the knowledge and experience a chef has of a particular ingredient or spice because that will determine how you use it.”

Born in Jamshedpur, in the eastern part of India, Kochhar is one of six siblings. His father was a caterer so he was already surrounded by food from an early age. “Dad took great pride in local and seasonal ingredients,” he says, “which is always the case in the Indian subcontinent, where the mango season or some other seasonal vegetable or fruit would be so looked forward to. Initially, my parents aspired that I become a doctor, but having joined medical school, I literally walked out of it two weeks later because my heart just wasn’t in it. Of course, I got a lot of flak for it from them. But I persuaded them to let me take up hotel management studies though my father suggested I have a change of scene and do that in the then named Madras.

That really became quite an eye-opening experience for me. Being of Punjabi background, the cultural difference was startling. After finishing my degree, I got accepted at the Oberoi School of Hotel Management in Delhi, which was a fantastic experience for me as I worked for them for three years till I was head hunted to launch Tamarind in 1994.”

Surprisingly, while at the Oberoi, where his mentor said that he do nothing else, but “widen his horizons”, Kochhar learnt everything from French and Italian cooking to Thai and Chinese. Only, Indian never even came into the repertoire until he had joined Tamarind.

Wasn’t that a little daunting considering Tamarind was launched as one of the first upmarket Indian restaurants of its kind? “Not at all,” says Kochhar. “I had just come out of a five star hotel environment at the Oberoi so it was really no different. That said, I knew that I had to perform to the expected standards.

After eight years at Tamarind and the restaurant firmly established as one of London’s finest Indian eateries, Kochhar made up his mind that his time had come and he should stake a claim in the company with some of his own investment. The owners declined and Kochhar knew then and there he had to move on and launch a restaurant that would be very much his own. It was to be Benares.

Having acquired the Mayfair site, a short distance from Tamarind, in 2002, Kochhar ploughed in some of his own money and the backing of other investors. He also knew that menu wise he would up the game from what he was cooking in his former stint.

“It doesn’t matter how experienced or how old you are,” he notes, “whenever you launch a new restaurant, of course there are questions you ask yourself and face up to a lot of pressure about how successful it will be. It never becomes easier because every time you open a new place, the stakes are much higher and your reputation is on the line even more due to the level of expectation.

There is no doubt that the period following the opening of Benares was a very tough one for me. I was a chef who suddenly had to become an entrepreneur and that was quite difficult for me. Understanding and balancing the accounts was something that took time for me to grasp. It was a big learning curve for me though I am very grateful to my business partners because they were very patient and helpful.”

At first, Kochhar kept the Benares menu “safe” and none too adventurous.

“I was heading a new team,” he says, “I didn’t want to take too many risks and I think I made the right decision. But then I slowly changed the cooking to what it is now. Market availability is important, but even more crucial is how good that produce is. So whether it’s partridge in the autumn or St George’s mushrooms in April, if its quality seasonal produce then I will try and have on my menu.

My clientele are sophisticated and well travelled enough to know that what they will get at Benares is Indian haute cuisine. They have a discerning palate, which ranges from them knowing about fine ingredients to fine wine. So if coming here makes them happy and I can continue to do business, I’ll also continue to experiment and keep taking the cooking to a new level.”

With a client list that incorporates the great and the good from the world over and a family life that includes a wife and two children, I ask Kochhar what he envisages to be doing in a decade from now. “I’ve never thought of it. I live for today and want to be successful at everything I try.”

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