Atul Kochhar, Benares, Mayfair

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th August 2013
Atul Kochhar is chef-patron of Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Benares in Mayfair. Formerly he was the head chef at Mayfair’s Tamarind where he won it the joint-first Michelin star ever awarded to an Indian restaurant. Since then the accolades have mounted up as have the new openings, the TV appearances and the books – most recently Atul’s Curries of the World. The Staff Canteen caught up with him to find out how his Indian upbringing and his chef father have influenced his cooking and exactly which of those curries of the world is his favourite… Your father was a caterer in India; how much did he influence your cooking? A lot. My dad had an outdoor catering company in Jamshedpur in India where I grew up . He used to let me into the kitchen and work with the chefs so some of the classical Indian food I pretty much learned while I was still at school. I would say he was quite ahead of his time. He would buy everything fresh for his business and for home and he hated the idea of buying anything that came from outside the district we lived in, so he would buy local onions, local mangoes and so on. He used to drive me nuts when we went shopping together because I wanted to finish the shopping and go play cricket with my mates rather than shop for the entire afternoon! But now I look back on it and realise how essential that ethos was that he was putting into me, and I love the fact that I learned those things at an early age. How did you make the move to the UK in the mid-nineties? When I was working as a chef at the Oberoi group of hotels in India, I met the future owners of Tamarind and they were looking to open up a hi-spec Indian restaurant in London. I had been with the Oberoi group for five years and I wanted to see the world; I wanted to train under other chefs, so when they got in touch I immediately accepted. London was on my radar – I knew about the Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc and of course Marco Pierre White was big at that time, so I wanted to come here and meet them and work with them if possible. I thought I would come here, take the job and see if I could do stages around these places. However, when I got here I was so busy that I never managed to work for them but I did manage to befriend them and I learned a lot of things from them. How has your cooking style and philosophy developed since you’ve been in the UK? I started on a very traditional note; I wanted to play safe and make sure that I did the right kind of cooking for people in the UK; But things changed after a couple of years working at Tamarind. I had a visit from my father and he asked if he could try the menu so I invited him to the restaurant one afternoon and cooked most of the dishes for him. It was nerve-wracking because he’s a real perfectionist. I was worried about getting a telling-off and in fact I did get a telling-off but in a different way than I had expected. He took me for a walk in Hyde Park and he said: “From an early age I dragged you around the markets and I taught you how to buy ingredients; what has gone wrong with your buying skills? I see a white pumpkin on your menu; I see pomfret on your menu; I see okra on your menu – tell me which part of the UK these ingredients come from.” He got quite angry with me and he said: “One of the jobs of a caterer is to support the local agriculture and you’re just not doing that.” That conversation really set me straight in a way. After that I started devising menus based around local British ingredients and I didn’t look back. I also brought in more modern cooking techniques, not just the traditional ones I had been using and really my cooking went full throttle from there. It must have worked because a couple of years later you received your first Michelin star; how did it feel to become the joint-first Indian restaurant to win one? It was unbelievable; I can’t explain it any better than that one word. It took a couple of days just to sink in. I saw it not just as my own achievement but as the achievement of the team as well and for Indian food in general. What inspired you to open up your own place, Benares? I was basically running Tamarind like it was my own place and I’d always thought it would have to take something very special to tempt me away from there; that came in the form of owning my own business, Benares, with a friend of mine with whom I go back many years; we studied together in college in Chennai, and I thought, yes this is absolutely right; I should do it. You had a new book out this year: Atul’s Curries of the World; was that interesting to research and were there any surprises? Yes, it came about from lots of different trips I’ve had to different parts of the world and in each place I was always interested to find out about their curries. In the end I had such a big collection that I thought it would make a great book idea. The Middle East really surprised me because I always thought they had their own stews but I never realised they had their own curries. However it turns out that the Arabs were one of the main reasons that the traditional spice route actually started. They used to come to India to trade for spices then take them back to their own countries and then on to Venice where they would sell them. Because of that nowadays places like Sudan Ethiopia and Somalia create these amazing spice blends which are essentially garam masalas. Apart from Indian obviously, what is your favourite curry from around the world? It might sound clichéd but I love Thai food. I grew up in India eating Indian, Chinese and a bit of Thai food because they were the closest countries to us and when you’re eating Thai food you get a bit of a kick off eating Indian and Chinese food together, I love that fact. Anything in the pipeline we should know about? To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Benares we’re writing a Benares cookbook which should come out next year.  Apart from that, no fixed plans; I’m the kind of person who likes to take each day the way it comes. View Atul's recipe for Aloo Tikki here View Atul's recipe for Nimbuwali Machchi here      

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th August 2013

Atul Kochhar, Benares, Mayfair