Foodie Features

Atul Kochhar – The Spice Of Life

By Rosie Birkett

Horrified by the way his country’s native cuisine was being translated in the UK, Atul Kochhar set about elevating standards for British Indian cuisine when he moved here in the 90s. Two decades later, his restaurant Benares is one of the world’s finest Indian restaurants. We caught up with the chef in London.

One of the most recognisable and respected faces in British Indian cuisine, Atul Kochhar was – along with Vineet Bhatia at Zaika – one of the first Indian chefs in the UK to receive a Michelin star (at London’s Tamarind in 2001) and has blazed the trail for a generation of chefs elevating Indian cuisine in this country.

But when he arrived here from the kitchens of India’s glamorous Oberoi Hotels, he was shocked by the way the food of his motherland was being translated. “When I came to this country I was still pretty young and although I had training and education, I was still a novice,” he says. “But the Indian food in this country was still in the dark ages – there were dishes on the menu which were unheard of and the menus looked like textbooks.

“So I took a bold step and made a small menu – which was a revelation – and it took some time to understand the market, the demographic, local tastes and local ingredients; it was an amazing voyage of learning. I was only trying to do good food, that’s all. My aim was to serve the cuisine in its right sense. In India there’s no such thing as Indian cuisine – it’s all regional cuisine.”

Leaving Tamarind in 2002 to set up his own venture, Benares, Kochhar regained a Michelin-star in 2007 that he still holds to this day and has earned a reputation for the restaurant as one of the world’s finest Indian eateries.

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Numerous cookbooks, television appearances and accolades have followed – and he now has restaurants as far afield as Mauritius and Dubai.

But it’s the customer, rather than the approval of the guidebooks, that keeps him striving. “Michelin is an accolade which comes once a year – but there are one hundred and fifty people who come and eat at Benares every night and they’re the test for me. They would tell me immediately if things were not right, so I take pride in meeting and talking to people in the dining room.”

Whilst always inspired by the flavours of his motherland, Kochhar is clear that it was only when he began to internalise his new surroundings that he truly found his cooking voice. “I had to start seeing myself as a British chef rather than an Indian chef. I embraced the society, the culture, the agriculture and the seasons of this country and I wanted to use everything that was available to me, rather than flying things around the globe – and that marked a huge turning point in my cooking style.”

As for British Indian cuisine, he’s clearly proud to be considered a founding father of this culinary movement. “I think we have come a long way – so far in fact that people in India are looking at us for inspiration and that’s a big compliment. I get lots of chefs writing to me – or trying to reach out and learn things from me – and it’s an amazing feeling; it’s a country which I left, my old motherland. I came to cook here as an economic migrant and I’ve made this country my home. Now I am inspiring people living abroad – that’s an amazing thing.”

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