In this exclusive interview, I speak with Atul Kochhar-one of the few Chefs in the world to be awarded two Michelin Stars. He was the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star during his time at Tamarind and then went on to receive his second after opening his own restaurant, “Benares” which showcases a modern Indian menu. He is also author of several highly successful Indian cookery books which have gained him a high profile reputation. In this interview, we talk about how Atul came to make a successful career in Indian food and the various dimensions of the cuisine.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your career and what brought you to make a career in Indian food?
I was born and raised in India. My father ran a catering business. This was my initial influence, and has been an industry I have always been involved in, and enjoyed. But also, growing up in India, with family and friends, there is a peer pressure where they want you to do something like become a doctor or an engineer or an accountant or something like that-something which is a more solid trade than being a chef. So initially I was trying to be a doctor. As I got into medical school, within a few weeks I came out, I realised it wasn’t for me and I told my Dad that I wanted to be a chef. But my idea was to be a good chef than any old chef. I went to a catering college and then I trained at Oberoi Hotel Management and worked for Oberoi hotels in India. During the process, I picked up different cuisines. I worked in different principles. I was posted in French fine dining and then Italian. I also did Chinese and Japanese and Thai cooking. Then I decided I think now I’ve learnt everything I could have and I would like to do my own food and that’s where the Indian cuisine came along.
Q: What has been the impact to your career and cooking style, after being awarded Michelin stars?
Actually it has not impacted me. Being awarded the Michelin stars didn’t change anything in my career, I have remained natural and I have continued to do so. As a child, because I grew up in the Eastern part of India, though it was a modern part of the country, people still had to rely more on the seasonality’s of produce rather than the refrigerator, so I grew up thinking that cauliflower grows in winter, potatoes in Autumn, mushrooms would come in the later part of Autumn so I picked up things like that and that was a normal thing to be honest. When I started cooking in India, despite of all the facilities around me, it has always been a priority in my career to use seasonal and local food rather getting carried away with food that is frozen or for example food has been flown in from the other parts of the world. I have never been a fan of ingredients being brought in from foreign countries. I feel that I can try them but why should I when I can use produce when they are at their prime, which are grown in front of my eyes. That concept is a really big part of my career and what I subscribe to. When I first came to the UK, the first year and a half was a very challenging time for me-trying to understand what vegetables grow in what season because the seasons slightly differ here in the UK compared to India. But, above all, I always use ingredients first that come from the UK and then the European continent. I try not to complicate things and keep things local. That has always been part of my cooking and I’m not telling you that as a selling point. To me, this is very basic and it should be like that.
Q: How do your travels to India inspire your cooking style?
I travel to India at least three to four times a year for both social and professional reasons. Every time I go there the country doesn’t stop to amaze me-for good and bad reasons. It’s a fun place. It’s home-it’s where I feel very comfortable. It’s always inspirational. There is so much to learn from India because each and every state is a country by itself and each has its own cuisine. There are lots of things to learn about the different cuisines-it just amazes me. I try not to label a city in India as being my favourite as I would find myself going there again and again. I keep my mind open and like to explore different places and pick up different influences as I go along. I don’t actually think that there is a single state in India that I haven’t visited. I’ve been to each and every state.
Q: How does fine-dining in India contrast against Europe and the USA?
Every country has its own ethos-its own culture. The boundaries or the rules of fine dining are prescribed according to the peoples need in that country. It’s the same in India. People in India have a different perception of fine dining. I don’t think anyone from outside India can come in and impose any rules on them or their perception. They will make their own changes and they will raise the bar as time goes along because they will understand the specifications better and they will understand how much it should be regulated. A beef tomato is a beef tomato. A cherry tomato is a cherry tomato. That concept will come with time. But once they have gone through those clarifications I think fine dining is set to become more pronounced in India in time.
Q: How can Indian food fit into contemporary cuisine?
I think Indian food has always been very slick and suave. It is a cosmopolitan cuisine that has so many ingredients. I don’t think any cuisine in the world has got so many influences the way that Indian food has. It is a very rich cuisine and is very varied. It’s a cuisine that has always been very popular. In the contemporary sense, I’ll explain in a slightly geographical way-every region in the world will have their own sense of how Indian food should be perceived. The way Indian food is perceived in the UK is the best outside India. The way Indian food is perceived in America, well I think they are still in the dark ages in my opinion-they still have a lot to learn. The rest of the continents are waking up to Indian food now and they are learning slowly but fast. I think Indian food has the potential to dominate the world cuisine. I think there will be a time in the future when people build hotels and think we need to have an Indian restaurant in this hotel. There was a time when all you would see in hotels were very Cosmopolitan restaurants but I think very soon Indian cuisine can be the new Italian.
Q: What do you feel about how Indian food has become a part of British culture?
India was under the British rule for just under 400 years. I think gradually, Indian food started influencing the British mainstream cuisine about 4 or 5 centuries ago. Spices have been used in the UK for a very long time in classic English dishes and in the past if certain spices were not available in the UK, special quests were often made to India to bring the spices home and so they are not new to the cuisine in that respect. There has always been an association. In the last 50 years, since India’s independence, that association has become stronger and more and more Indian people have moved to the UK. But it’s not only the influence of the immigrants-I feel that the people of the UK have also warmly embraced the Indian cuisine. I think the average English family eats Indian food about once or twice a week. It has become part of the British repertoire of cuisine. I perceive Indian food as being part of British cuisine rather than a stand-alone cuisine.
Q: Do you think food education gives enough consideration to world cuisines?
I think education on Indian cuisine is important but I don’t think it needs to be emphasised more than any other cuisine. I think education on developing the understanding of ingredients in general is probably the most important aspect and that understanding develops over time. For example, if someone has never used parsley before-the first time they try it, they may not like it and think it’s awful. But then, over time, they may try it again and start using it and they may begin to find that it works well with different ingredients-they might find it works well with butter, or that it works well with garlic and after experimenting like this, before they know it, they will be using parsley like they have been using it for ages. It’s the same thing with spices. There are no boundaries, rules or regulations. Once you start experimenting, you will learn to know what works and what doesn’t work. And then it gets easier and people will start to use them in their everyday cooking. I think people are already quite aware of Indian food but I feel that food education on understanding ingredients and learning how to experiment with them to create new flavours is important.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration, and what are your influences?
My inspiration can come from anywhere to be honest. It could be from a fine dining place, a book, a recipe that I’ve read in the back of a newspaper-anything really. But what really inspires me are the seasons. When I look at fresh seasonal produce I look at it and think “Gosh, I could do this, this and this” and so I’ll come back with a recipe and that’s how ideas develop for me. So I might have an idea which turns into a thought which turns more into an irritating thought that makes me want to go through with it and develop it. Once I’ve executed the thought, then a more hands on process starts and I’ll develop and beef up the recipe even more and see what it looks like on the plate, check the taste and see how the flavours blend. Then if it is good enough I put it on the menu.
Q: What do you think of the description of food as an art-form?
I do believe that food is an art form. It’s an art form that is very natural. It can be purified, it can be reformed and it can be improved as time goes by. It’s an art form where the artist can keep getting better at it.
Q: How do you put your own signature on Indian food?
Every person has their own individual style. It’s very much like fingerprints. Every person has their own fingerprints which are their very own and it’s different from anyone else’s. In the same context, the way that you would use your ingredients and the way you would make a concoction from them, would be your own unique way of doing it. When you read a recipe or when you see a chef cooking you only get the general idea of what they’re trying to do but when you cook the same thing yourself, you do it with your own hands. In India there is a saying, “It’s all in the hands”. There is no strict methodology when it comes to cooking. I always tell my cooks, pour your heart into it and the more you love what you’re doing, the better the end product is going to become.
In this insight into Atul’s fascinating career, it has taught us that whilst Indian food is perhaps sometimes misunderstood as being simple, overly spicy or heavy, it is actually a very vast and varied cuisine with many ingredients, which in turn enables it to be very slick, complex and cosmopolitan as a result. It has also been reinforced that although Indian food is warmly embraced in Britain, it still is an ancient cuisine and one that has the potential to dominate and be a strong contender as a world cuisine.