Atul Kochhar, Benares Restaurant

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd June 2016

Atul Kochhar discusses his role as Chef Patron at Benares and his own inspirations with regards to pursuing a career as a Chef.

Name: Atul Kochhar

Atul Kochhar

Place of Work: Benares

Role: Chef Patron

Twitter: @atulkochhar

Bio: Atul Kochhar is one of the first Indian chefs to win a Michelin star. Born in India, Atul's career started in 1993 at the Oberoi Hotel Group in India as a sous chef, supervising a team of 18. He then moved to renowned chef Bernard Kunig’s Hilton restaurant in 1994.

Building on his experience, later that year Atul came to London to open Tamarind restaurant and, as head chef, was awarded his first Michelin star in 2001. Atul left Tamarind in 2002, opening Benares Restaurant & Bar, named after Northern India’s spiritual city, in Mayfair April 2003. 

Chef Skills

Atul Kochhar takes us through his personal experiences whilst being in the Culinary Industry. These key skills that young Chefs and industry professionals learn as part of their basic training.

How long have you worked there?

12 years.

How did you rise to the top of the field?

It's been a lot like building a house - you lay the foundations for your career brick by brick. Everyday a little work has gone towards helping me become who I am and what I have done. I think that's true with most people and it's how well you lay the bricks for your career that's important if you're hoping to be successful.

Shoddy work is plentiful so do your job with the right amount of passion. That's been the philosophy for helping me achieve what I've wanted to in both my work and my life. 

Atul Kochhar food

Where do you get your biggest culinary inspirations from?  

 From my fellow chefs, from my peers, contemporaries like Tom Kerridge, looking at them and how they work. I also get inspiration from the nature of the ingredients and when I  travel. 

 You can find inspiration anywhere, though it can be sitting right in front of you on your desk. It depends on what sets off your inspiration and what makes you do something new and gets you to try something you've not done before. It's really up to you and your attitude,  believing you want to create something.

What experience and how many years in your opinion would someone need to get to the top of the industry?

 I don't think you can put a fixed number on how many years are necessary because these days you see very young talented kids coming through the ranks. With relatively little experience they still create amazing menus and their restaurants are also very highly rated.

So I think it's less to do with the number of years' experience you have and much more to do with your own mindset, how you use your imagination and conduct your business.

What would you suggest those wishing to become top chefs need to learn and who are good people to talk to and/or work with?

I don't think it matters where you come from or what your background is, you need to first find what your passion is because cuisine has become a very general subject. The way you wear different colours on different days because your mood changes - food has become very much like that.

So decide what you want to believe in and if there is a "faith" you want to believe in, then you have to choose what you want to do and there are many gurus for that. But before you pick your own faith, it's good to learn other faiths also - to be more secular as well. That makes you a more open-minded person. So I would say learn as many flavours and as many cuisines as you can before you decide what your own "faith" will be.

Atul Kochhar from the menu

I was lucky to be born and trained in India where I was not trained as an Indian chef but as a chef. I was trained in different principles and all types of cooking: Japanese, Thai, continental (we called it Continental rather than breaking it down into Spanish, Italian), American which was also all thrown together but now you can learn Mexican; Peruvian; Brazilian - the options are numerous now. 

It's good to test the water by learning wherever you can, getting more influences and then you will know what you want to cook rather than just guessing. 

Learn different influences and flavours - it's all about the ingredients. The more ingredients you can bring onto your plate with a greater understanding and how to convert them into great recipes, that's what takes these days. 

Here in the UK, there are many people to learn from. Some you'd have to wait for months to get to see but people like Tom Kerridge come top of my mind, Jason Atherton's another, Marcus Wareing and Angela Hartnett.

What qualities do you think makes a successful candidate's CV stand out from other applicants?

I think how honestly you write a CV. The person only knows you by reading your CV so the more passionately you can explain what you have been doing, what you want to learn and where you want to go, that would make a big difference.

When I'm reading a CV, I want to see where that person's coming from and where he has been. These are the only things I look at but I don't decide until I've seen their face. How passionately that CV has been written shows me how serious that person is about cooking. I always follow it up with a phone conversation - if I pick a CV I like to talk to that person before I invite them to come and see me. When you talk on the phone there should be enthusiasm not: "Yeah OK, tell me when to come." That casual attitude doesn't stick with anyone. You have to be eager, show the other person how much you want to do this.

Scallops

What would be your top 5 tips for someone hoping to begin a career in the industry?

 1) Love your food.

 2) Keep your head down, by being honest and doing what you're told.

 3) Learn to respect ingredients. 

 4) Learn to respect people who are already in the industry because there's a lot you can learn from them - A lot of young kids learn a few things and become very arrogant, you should never stop learning. You learn everyday.

 5) Consistency is very big - You can't be happy one day and miserable the next. I repeat my father's words: "Be consistent in whatever you want to do. Even if you want to be useless,  make sure you're useless every day." People respect that.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd June 2016

Atul Kochhar, Benares Restaurant