In an interview with Restaurant India, Michelin Starred Chef Atul Kochhar shares his comeback to India.
Who has ever thought of a soft spoken boy from Jamshedpur would made waves in global lands. Growing as a chef who has always preferred an ingredient based cooking rather than a cuisine based cooking, Chef Atul Kochhar was first Indian to get the Michelin star as a head chef at Tamarind in UK. He has cooked food for some of the great personalities, set up two Michelin star restaurants in UK, authored four cookbooks and is a familiar face on TV. More than 20 years later, the Michelin Star chef has returned back to India opening his two restaurants in Mumbai- Lima and NRI. “I don’t know what’s early ad what’s late. A lot of people told me you came very late to England, Indian food has already made waves here. I believe there is always room for a cuisine. I am kind of a person who looks at a glass and say its half full and not full,” laughs Kochhar who remembers cooking for Amitabh Bacchan as an unforgettable memory.
His early stint with food
My food journey started from home as my grandfather had a bakery and being Punjabi’s we migrated within in India. We moved to Jamshedpur which was in Bihar, now Jharkhand. Grown in a strong Punjabi household and when move out of the house we dealt with a world that was different. It was quite learning and I used to feel that whole of India is like that, until I left for Chennai and realised that world is very different there. We think differently, we live differently; we cook differently in each of the region. It was learning in terms of how palate has developed and I think it became a very curious study for me.
Entering the culinary world
I went with an open mind that I will be an hotelier and would join the hotel industry but, the second year I made up my mind to be a chef. When I passed out from hotel school, I went to Oberoi School of Management and learned a lot from there. I started looking at food very differently and became more ingredient based chef rather than a cuisine based chef and that was the best thing that happened to me. I migrated to United Kingdom in 1994 to open a restaurant called Tamarind and it was again change of scenery, change of products, change of culture and it kept me evolving and going.
Opening own restaurants
I was keeping my tap on how British cuisine was evolving. London being a city where all the time you live in very infused society, all the flavours, all the cultures are happening around you and it’s really difficult to become the fancy you and actually get into it. And, then in 2002 I opened my own restaurant Benares and first time I got my Michelin star at Tamarind and then at Benares and that gave me a kind of confidence. I opened restaurant in Madrid, two restaurants in India, I had expanded in London opening two more restaurants. Apart from that I write book, sometimes TV to share my love for food and be viral to audience. I am focusing on writing my 5th book this year.
Coming back to India
When I was thinking of doing a restaurant in India I was very clear I will be doing a new cuisine in India and will introduce my fellow countrymen to some new flavours. I was researching through my book ‘Curries of the world’ and in massive research I found that Indian diasporas are going out of the country and Indian food becoming different purely because it was migrating. And, often it is the ingredient change because at some location you get the ingredient and at some you don’t. And, in that situation the food evolve. I think taking the lead from there I started looking at more countries. I looked at Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and most of Africa- Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda where all Indian concentration was. And, then of course at United Kingdom. So, I have picked Indian food that has gone out of India and has become something different like Roti Cannai, Curry Noodles from Singapore, Indian Spice social chow, Zeera Chciken and all those became part of the menu. I call the restaurant NRI because I wanted to call something which is inheritably Indian but still not Indian.
Response at NRI and Lima
It’s pretty good but as driven businessmen I am never happy because I want to do better and better. It’s been about six months and there is profit in business. We are not an old seasoned restaurant, it’s a new restaurant and new restaurant is always like a new baby. It’s doing well; it’s healthy, laughing and smiling.
Bringing fun in dining
I have done fine dine restaurants plenty of time and I really want to have fun with food now so, have come up with a cuisine which is light, easy and fits the bill. I am more into fun dining than into fine dining. NRI and Lima both are on same line when people walk in, they should associate themselves with something new but, it is inheritably part of us and the music is great. And, these are things which I have tried to achieve.
Serving food in UK
Its indigenous food because I am not cooking for Indians in London, I am cooking for British people in London. I have to craft a cuisine and a menu that suits the people who lives in United Nations. The way they cook their vegetable, the way they like their meat. But, British people also love the flavours Indian cuisine has. You have to create the food for its surrounding and its demographics. So, yes it’s authentic and it does inspire from where the food originate and it’s from India. About 20 Indians, 60 per cent British and rest others.
On India’s growth
India is developing compared to other. For me India is still growing and there is lots of things to do to push our cuisines and offerings. We have this self confidence which has come through in last 10 years with people like AD Singh and Riyaaz Amlani who have started doing good restaurants. And, I think those are the things which have paved the way for people like me to come to the industry. I think we are getting there, we need to improve lots of things and we don’t have a supply chain which is biggest issue in India.
Choosing Mumbai over Delhi
The real estate opportunity. It’s crazy and unrealistic in my opinion in Delhi and Mumbai seems more sensible to open a restaurant.
Getting Michelin Star
It was an unbelievable feeling. I can’t believe that being an Indian I would get a star and it’s was unrealistic.
My favourite cuisine is Thai food because when we used to get out it was either south Indian or Chinese food. Thai food came late to India when I was about to leave India. I got a flavour of Chinese and Indian and that’s was thai and hence I got addicted to it. And, I have been Thailand many time, I love the food, culture and people there.
Favourite restaurant in India
Bukhara and Mahesh Lunch Home.
On shows like Masterchefs
These shows are actually reality shows. I don’t think they are making anybody a chef. Chefs are made in the kitchen and are made through experiences. These people have passion for food and that’s why they come to shows like Masterchef India and they get chosen. It means their training has just started and they need to go through trainings to become a chef. Of while, I am a big fan of this format but we portray the wrong image of the kitchens. But, you need to sustain yourself in the kitchen as a good trainee and you need huge round of strength.
I am writing my 5th cookbook at the moment and don’t have the name for it right now. I have lot of young baby in my lap and I need to look after them before starting something next. So, next 18 months I would like to focus on the same.