Atul Kochhar: 10 years at the top

Britain now boasts five Michelin-starred Indian restaurants. Chef Atul Kochhar, holder of one of those stars, is at the forefront of Indian fine dining in the UK. Sunita Passi reports on how the chef is firing people’s appetite for quality curry

Given the UK’s rich and complex history with the subcontinent and its food, it’s perhaps only natural that the country should now be the pioneer when it comes to Indian fine dining, boasting a wealth of refined Indian cuisine presided over by five Michelin-starred chefs. One of them is Atul Kochhar, and today he is known for creating great recipes, from fish curry to potato cakes, simple enough to cook at home.

Kochhar was born in Jamshedpur, eastern India, in 1969. His father, a catering manager, wanted his son to study engineering. But Kochhar, seeing cooking as his ticket to travelling the world, left for Delhi to work in the kitchens of the Oberoi Hotel. A year after he had worked his way up to sous-chef, he left for London. Within a week, he landed the job as head chef at Tamarind in Mayfair, one of Britain’s best Indian restaurants.

In 2001, Kochhar’s modern Indian cooking won the restaurant a Michelin star and made a name for the precocious 32-year-old chef. Within a year, he had left to set up his own restaurant, Benares.

The Anglo-Indian food of the Raj – kedgeree and mulligatawny soup, which merged British ingredients with Indian spices – or the homogenous neon sauces of curry houses were once the norm, dumbed down for the British palate. Kochhar now gives us light, modern, sophisticated dishes that pay homage to Indian culinary tradition while taking the concept of tasting menus to a new level.

“In the last 10 years there has been a huge transformation in the Indian restaurant sector,” he says. “At Benares we are constantly reworking our tasting menu and improving it by listening to our guests and also taking inspiration from my travels.

“The menu is based on five courses that incorporate the signature dishes from our à la carte menu. However, I also take into consideration spices or flavours that I have tried while travelling to India. Dishes on the menu can also be classic dishes that we’ve reworked to have more of a modern Indian direction, such as our Mulligatawny soup.”

Kochhar highlights the importance of having a clear identity for the restaurant, sharing ideas and most importantly enjoying what he does. “The ambience at Benares is really dependant on which menu a guest chooses, whether it’s a private dining menu for parties or our set menu for lunch or an early evening dinner,” he says. “However, I believe the menu style is best showcased during dinner service where a guest can take their time during the dining experience. At Benares this is made apparent with our contemporary design and the pond that guests see as they walk up the stairs. It reflects aspects of the city of Benares and sets the ambience for the meal.”

One of the most welcome developments at Benares this year has been the signature dishes on the à la carte menu, adding a new spin on traditional dishes, “We have always had our à la carte menu which tends to be the most popular, but we also have other menus to appeal to guests who don’t want a fine dining style dinner”, says Kochhar. “For example we have our Bar Menu, including some fantastic small dishes that can be mixed and matched – perfect to have with friends over cocktails.”

Kochhar’s style of cooking over the last 10 years has been a fine example of modern Indian cuisine – breaking down perceptions and continuing to be an evolving and exciting area. While other chefs may look upon the success of this flagship as a springboard to replicate other Benares-style venues, Kochhar confirms he is happy to focus on the one venue for now, with consultancy projects keeping his creativity flowing.

“At the moment I am not looking to branch out with Benares,” he says. “The brand is very solid and I would not want to disrupt that. However, I am working as chef consultant on other exciting projects. Just last year we opened Rang Mahal in Dubai and Simple India in Mauritius. I am still working on and enjoying Sindhu on the Carnival Cruise Ships and an exciting new restaurant project called East on the P&O ship, Ventura.”

With his regular slots on UK TV showing him preparing modern Indian cuisine with a flair that makes the most complicated dishes look easy to prepare, regular fans of his restaurant could be forgiven for thinking that the dishes require little more than the ability to stir together a few chopped onions with some spices. But Kochhar’s unassuming style disguises a real commitment to the importance of gaining a Michelin star and raising the bar of Indian cooking.

“Receiving and maintaining the Michelin star gives a lot of drive and focus to the team, both the kitchen and front of house. It makes us work harder; once a star is achieved it gives everyone more passion to complete their job to the best of their ability.”

In conclusion, Kochhar explains how he motivates his team, who – naturally – are in it for the long haul. “So far we haven’t needed to hire a food consultant,” he says. “Although our staff take part in regular training, we haven’t needed a consultant to direct us differently yet. We have always had extremely skilled chefs at Benares; for such things as working with a Tandoor you have to be, or you wouldn’t be working with us.”

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