A Michelin-starred restaurant in London, outposts in Madrid and Mumbai, a south Indian place in Marlow and a newly opened British restaurant in Buckinghamshire – Atul Kochhar has certainly kept himself busy since moving to the UK in the 1990s. One of the pioneers of Indian fine dining, he was responsible for changing our perceptions of the cuisine and helping British diners realise how refined Indian food can be.
Born in east India but growing up in the north of the country, Atul came to appreciate food from a young age thanks to his grandfather – a baker – and his father, who owned a catering business. ‘I learnt a lot of things form a young age,’ he says. ‘Going to the market, buying the right ingredients, looking at the melons and pumpkins – it was a part of my everyday life, alongside going to school and playing cricket.’
The 1980s – when Atul was attending school – was a time of massive educational change in India, with parents encouraging their children to study hard in a bid to become a doctor or an engineer. But Atul’s passion lied in food and cooking, so he decided to sacrifice his place at a respected academy to go to hotel school instead. ‘People thought I was crazy,’ he explains. ‘Everyone was becoming a doctor, and I think India was producing more than anywhere else in the world because it was a very respected profession. Hotel management, on the other hand, wasn’t held in the same high regard. But I wanted to do something I loved, knowing I would wake up every morning and be eager to go to work.’
Atul already had a good knowledge of northern and eastern Indian cuisine, so decided to study in southern India to expand his culinary knowledge even further. ‘It was like being in a new country,’ he says. ‘The language was different, the people were different, the food was different; I had to put my learning boots on and start all over again. I loved living there.’
Three years later, Atul was just one of twelve students selected to attend one of India’s best hotel schools and was taught how to cook cuisine from all over the world such as French, Thai and Italian. But it was while he was studying French cuisine that he was asked to open an Indian restaurant in London, so he migrated to the UK in 1994 and opened Tamarind – to almost instant acclaim.
Tamarind was soon known as one of the best Indian restaurants in the world, and in 2001 it won a Michelin star – making Atul the first Michelin-starred Indian chef in the world. This spurred him on to leave Tamarind and open his own restaurant, which he did with the help of two business partners in 2002. Benares was born, and was awarded a Michelin star in 2006. ‘We’ve not looked back since,’ says Atul. ‘Everything’s gone from strength to strength since we opened – we’ve got a Benares in Madrid, a restaurant called NRI (Not Really Indian) in Mumbai, Sindhu in Marlow and Hawkyns, a British restaurant in Buckinghamshire.’
Despite all his other restaurants, it’s Benares in London that continues to set the standard of Indian cuisine worldwide. But it’s not totally Indian in the traditional sense – the reason for its success is Atul’s combination of regional Indian flavours and British ingredients. But it wasn’t always like this. ‘I came to the UK very uninformed,’ he explains. ‘I was proud of my culture and confident in what I knew but I wasn’t prepared for what I would learn when I came here. It was my father who really pointed me in the right direction – he came and visited for a few days, looked at my menu and said it could be for a restaurant anywhere in India. Why wasn’t I using my knowledge of eastern, northern and southern Indian flavours to play around with dishes, and why wasn’t I focusing on great ingredients? That’s when I started learning about meat, fish and vegetables and they eventually became central to my menus. Swede, marrows, wild mushrooms, game like hare and rabbit – they were great quality and a lot of it was cheap as chips when in season. All I needed was someone to remind me.’
Now, Atul’s food is a combination of traditional Punjabi dishes such as tandoori chicken (‘I would never want to change it’) and Indian fusion (‘I could have an east Indian ingredient on the plate that’s infused with the flavours of north and south India’). Dishes such as New Forest venison and biryani with spring mushrooms, wild garlic and chocolate curry or Curried scallops with pickled celeriac and pine nut podi are prime examples of his ability to combine British ingredients with Indian flavours, but Atul is keen to highlight the regional differences in his home country’s food. ‘Indian cuisine doesn’t exist to be honest – we have very specific regional cuisines instead,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes the tastes are like chalk and cheese; it would be like comparing Finnish cuisine with the food of southern Italy. Calling food Indian is just as vague as describing a dish as European.’
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