Atul Kochhar, Benares Restaurant & Bar, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st March 2011

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

One of the most celebrated Indian chefs in the world, Atul Kocchar has carved out an impressive career. In 2001, at the age of 31, Atul became the first Indian chef ever to receive a Michelin star, an impressive feat for the young chef who has gone on to back this up with further Michelin success. In 2003, after a project with Marks and Spencer’s to consult on its Indian food range, Atul opted to open his own restaurant, Benares in Mayfair, London. Since Atul established Benares restaurant, it has gone on to become one of the world’s most renowned Indian restaurants with Atul’s flavours elevating the Indian cuisine to the highest level of quality. His numerous achievements include an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the University of Southampton, accolades from the British Curry Awards, as well as meetings with royals and the President of India. Atul’s modern take on Indian food has won him many fans, with appearances on Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen, and is likely to see him achieve even more accolades in the future.  

First and foremost, Atul Kochhar, thank you very much for today. It has been fantastic to come and see this operation. We've been hugely privileged to do some wonderful chefs but it's been fantastic for us to come and see a very very different style of cooking place; thank you very much.

No, thank you for including me, I feel equally privileged to be honest.

It's great to come and see and I know our members are really looking forward to seeing the video.  You've been in the UK since 1994/1995. '94. You've been hugely successful. I've just been reading about you. Marks and Spencer's, P&O, a number of restaurants you're involved; what do you put your success down to?

I don't know, I just believe in hard work and I keep my head down. For me accolades are not the destination and success is definitely not a destination, it's a journey and I just continue doing"¦I'm not sure whether I'm worthy of this but if I win two Michelin stars or even a bigger lottery I think I'll be back to work the very next day. That's the kind of ethos I was given as a child. I saw my dad working day in day out every day, he was a hard worker and that's what I have in me and I want to give my young chefs who work with me and to my kids that as well.

Obviously you trained in India. Was there a journey to come to the UK? How did you end up being in the UK?

While working in India I worked for a very elite group of hotels called Oberoi Hotels and I had never aspired, I never thought of going abroad to be honest. I was a very happy living in India and I was planning to travel across my own country and understand the cuisine better and then developed my own style one day and open a restaurant. That was my ultimate aim. While working at Oberoi Hotel I came across a gentleman who was opening a brand new restaurant in London at that time and that was Tamarind and he happened to be friends with the owners of Oberoi Hotels and Mr Oberoi kindly put a reference for me saying there's a young lad, very energetic, focused and he wants to do different things in life, talk to him. He came to speak to me and I kind of got persuaded to come to the UK.

Was that a big decision? It's not an hour flight away is it, India, in the nicest possible way, even in this modern world it's seven or eight hours away. I

t's more than seven or eight hours, Mark, it was more of social and moral decision in my mind. More social than anything else, not economical at that time because I wasn't looking at money at all at that time. It was more of a social thing that I would be leaving everybody behind. It was a tough one and I have to say that the first three years in this country I have struggled because my brother, sister, mum, dad, all the relations I left behind.

Were you accepted culturally in the UK to start with?

I think so. I think I've been very well accepted culturally and I never felt an alien here. I always felt part of this culture and when I came here and given that there was 400 years of association of English and British to India a lot of things I already knew so coming here wasn't that difficult. It was as if I'm going to a newer part of India. It was pretty much like that for me. Yes everyone spoke English and not any other language but believe it or not English is still the unified language in India in spite of Hindi being the national language. English is spoken in each and every state of India.

That's because the English are so lazy and we refuse to learn any of the language. We expect everyone to learn English. It's true. Unfortunately it's true.

No but I give it to four hundred years of association of British with India that it got into our education system and today we follow it. At college and school level I studied English history. I was quite up there with the understanding of the English system so it wasn't difficult at all, really speaking. The only thing I didn't like, I arrived here in November and it was freezing cold. That's the only thing I hated and I still hate it.

So you arrive and you come to Tamarind but what's the objective behind Tamarind? What do you set out to achieve with the restaurant?

Tamarind opened at the end of 94, so 95/96 and these two/three years were extremely crucial for Tamarind itself in terms of it as a financial project. The kind of concept I had come up with I had seen in India had moved on, Indian food compared to what it was here at that time, I'm talking 17/18 years ago. I started taking a dig on it, not in a vicious way but dig in the sense that I want to improve it. I want to do something better than that. I don't want to come and follow the queue. I want to make my own queue so to speak and that's what I started doing. I set out to set new challenges for myself and a cuisine which was not here. I started cooking very authentic food truly speaking but at the same time a very new and modern approach to it. So, part of plain presentation and understanding of the British agriculture and putting that on the plate. Those things were not being done when I came here. Chefs used to shy away. They would buy frozen vegetables, put them on the menu without thinking you know what, there is something called salsify, which is a very British thing, there is celeriac which you can put on the plate, there is turnip which can be extremely beautiful in season. Things like that chefs used to shy away and I embraced all that and I said no I'm going to do that. Lamb, mint lamb not mutton or goat. Fish was not just a fish, it was either John Dory or Monkfish or Sea Bass for me. These are the tiny minute changes which I started putting on a menu and started cooking in a more broader way and I think that kind of turned the corner for Indian food and then a lot of chefs followed after that. The changes have been spectacular and I feel very proud that Indian food set out to get a Michelin star and now it's not only me but there are five of us and I feel incredibly proud about it.

No and so you should. We spoke earlier, there is unfortunately this stereotypical view of a curry house with a layer of fat on everything, everything comes with lager, everything comes with poppadoms and Indian food isn't like that at all is it? It can be much more refined, much softer. We've also got this thing that Indian food has to be firey hot, you know, "Oh my God, give me water! Give me more lager!" and it's not like that at all.  

No absolutely not. All these myths which you have just mentioned that were associated with Indian food and it has taken time to unravel them, throw them away and start looking at Indian food in a fresh, new way. That has been very helpful and the lager part. I started pounding on, not on the beer industry as such but on the British nature of drinking beer with Indian food, it was totally unnecessary. You like it, great, but it's not a match made in heaven and no way it basically complements the food, take it from me, I'm telling you, I do this every day. I can tell you that. So, we started pairing wines and they said "How can you pair wines", I said, "Food is food and wine is wine and it can be paired". You have to have knowledge, you have to have understanding of what goes with what, and today lots and lots of restaurants have extensive wine lists. Some restaurants are proud of keeping up to three hundred bins or maybe more perhaps - Indian restaurants I'm talking about. In a bigger way I have a sommeliers room, a kind of wine room, and it has its own table and the food is not the king there, it's the wine which is the king there and wine dictates what food should come with that.

Fantastic. India's a massive country, I don't think people quite realise how big India is. How important is it for you to go back to India and experience the changes that are going on there and take all that in and bring that back to the UK? Is that something you do a lot of?

I travel back to India quite a lot. I do it at least three or four times a year, some for social reasons some for personal/professional reason and every time I'm there the quest is to find something new. It's to find out something more, see what's happening. There's always a lot happening and there's still so much more I need to learn from India. Living in this country I never knew how strong Indian sea food was. I'm a Punjabi by nature, I'm Punjabi by my family.

Sorry, where would Punjab be?

Punjab would be north west India, nearer to Delhi. It used to be a huge state, part of it came to India and a massive part when to Pakistan during the partition but the character remains the same. Whether a Punjabi is from Pakistan or from India they are the same. They are loud, they love butter, they love their meat and they know how to exert themselves so apart from that they know very little about sea food and the same for me. I knew very little about sea food but my eyes just startled as I started travelling my country from Mumbai to Calcutta on the coastline. I've done it several times now and I still think there is so much more to explore there. There's so much more to learn. They way they use spices, the way they catch their fish, the way they bring it in and there's a fisherman's curry which they do it on the beach for themselves and not for anyone else. There's so much delicious ingredients and the combinations going in and we deserve it. We deserve some of it here.

And what a wonderful way to eat it, fresh off the boat.

Absolutely, that's the best way to do it.

So you have been incredibly successful here in the UK. A number of restaurants, we've seen you on TV - what does the future hold for you? Where do you want to be in five years?

I don't think like that, Mark, I think in small terms. I'm a small person perhaps.

I think you're being very humble.

No truly speaking. I take my life the way it comes truly speaking. I plan three to six months but not even a year. This year I just want to make sure that through all the rough times we are going through at the moment, through the economy and the tax rises and instability we have, I want to make sure that this chef sails really in the right direction and I am still in position to pay a handsome bonus to my waiters and my chefs, my staff in general, and to give a good return to my investors.

Fantastic. In terms of India, if you had to pick a favourite region, if you could, where would be your favourite food region of India be?

It's pretty much asking a father which child is the favourite one.

Sure, okay. What influences you most?

What influences me most? It's a very difficult one but I can tell you what I'm poised at, what I'm looking at, at the moment and what I'm really passionate about. I'm really exploring a state in India called Andhra Pradesh. It has got part of coast but mostly landlocked. It falls in south India, it's above the Tamil Nadu and attached to a Bangalore region which is Karnataka. The cuisine there is amazing. Hyderabad is the capital of that place and the most unique thing about Hyderabad being the capital it's so Muslim in character, the food in Hyderabad. Everything about it ekes out of a Islamic influence on the food, which is amazing. Beautiful, I love it. But you step out of Hyderabad everything is so diverse and so differently kind of doused in Hinduism. Massive vegetarianism goes on there but because of the coast there's a massive fish eating community as well but what they do best is making pickles. The kind of pickles Andhra Pradesh makes nowhere in India do they do that as well, and they eat very hot food as well, I have to say that, but they also have a perfect balance. When they eat hot food there's always a pot of yogurt next to them, which is the antidote to chilli, and they always eat plenty of yogurt with their hot food because it's the right way of doing it.

Indian at the moment is going through a massive transformation. There's huge investment going into places like Mumbai, there's lots and lots of very very grand hotels springing up. Are we going to see an influx of more Atul Kochhars coming in from India into the UK because obviously the country as I say it's getting wealthier, there's more people going there for business, more hotels therefore more chefs? Is there a huge food explosion going on in India as well?

There's a massive food explosion going on in India at the moment and believe it or not until the last few years I could hire people from India easily but now people refuse to come to the UK to work here because the opportunities are humungous. Which is great for the country. Absolutely and I'm actually chuffed with that to be honest. The first time I got turned down instead of getting angry I was actually very happy. I said, you know, it's going in the right direction and it's becoming more and more stand alone restaurants are opening and that puts a massive smile on my face because I always wanted to take that fight to the hotels. Hotels have kind of, not in a vicious way but in a more capitalist way, controlled the cuisine and that was not right a lot of times.

It feels like it was here 20 years ago.

Yeah but here it was like one persons attitude controlling the cuisine of the country, not right. Every person has their opinion and they're entitled to cook the way they like it and that is what is happening in India and I am so very happy with that.

Well listen Atul, it's been wonderful to talk to you, it's been fantastic to watch you in your kitchen today. I thank you very very much for your time and I've really really enjoyed meeting you.

Thank you, Mark, it's been a privilege.

Thank you very much.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st March 2011

Atul Kochhar, Benares Restaurant & Bar, London

IN ASSOCIATION WITH