Atul Kochhar: The master of spices

Atul Kochhar transported Benaras to London and made rogan josh a global rage. The Indian born, Michelin star chef talks to BT More about his strategic climb to the top of the culinary ladder. 

Hitani Kaur        Print Edition: March 17, 2013

Atul Kochhar transported Benaras to London and made rogan josh a global rage. The Indian born, Michelin star chef talks to BT More about his strategic climb to the top of the culinary ladder.  

If I was to say I had reached the zenith of my career it implies I have nothing more to learn or improve. As a chef I believe that the biggest challenge lies in bettering yourself, your knowledge and your team. There was a point in my career when a Michelin star was not within reach and I worked hard to be considered good enough to be awarded one. Having said that, goalposts keep shifting and you need to move with the times. Just because I received a Michelin star at Benares does not imply that my work is over. In fact, when you are vested with the responsibility that comes with one of these stars you realise that you have to live up to it; sustaining standards is a big challenge and we are always working towards retaining the old and looking at the new.

Even years after working in the hospitality industry in India and the United Kingdom, I am excited by the way in which cultures, traditions and countries perceive food.  When I first arrived in London, Indian food had a uni-dimensional identity. People enjoyed Indian food as they knew it but it was extremely anglicised and people were only familiar with certain dishes that we were churned out by a handful of chefs who were tentative about surprising the unprepared British palate with too much 'Indianness'. There was also a misconstrued interpretation of how Indian food should be presented and served. When I first started cooking I was often asked for dishes such as chicken or shrimp rogan josh. Those who were unfamiliar with Indian food did not know that rogan josh could only be a lamb preparation.

Kochhar's popular rendition of lamb Rogan Josh
Kochhar's popular rendition of lamb Rogan Josh

Over the years though, things have changed. Indian food does have certain parameters and though I like to break those parameters every once in a while,
I always keep the ingredients and the influences traditional. I cook what I was taught growing up and my food reflects who I am and where I have come from.  Spices are a central ingredient in most of my dishes and I believe that they add depth and interest to a preparation. I cook modern Indian cuisine with British ingredients as well. In my early years I was heavily influenced by my family and their love of food. My mother always cooked for us and relied heavily on spices and local ingredients that I loved. However, it was my father who really inspired me to become a chef. He was a caterer and I always watched him prepare dishes and cook for large groups. I admired his food knowledge and how he knew what ingredients went together. He also taught me a lot about my food ethos today - which food you should eat throughout the year and when, based on their seasonality - this is something that I follow to this day at Benares.  

I came to London in1994 and started worked with Tamarind and won my first Michelin star in 2001 which creates kind of a security blanket and allows you to continue innovating. When I decided to go solo with my own venture, Benares, in 2003, it was challenging and took more work than I ever imagined.

Suddenly my role was no longer confined to the kitchen and I had to learn to multitask. Benares has been open for ten years now and it is a pillar for me in London.  The restaurant and our work there introduced me to a lot of interesting people and new projects.  I travel to gain experience and learn about new food techniques and ingredients, as well as research recipes.  

I think it is hard to appeal to a global palate and think it is wise to work with what you love and are good at instead. I have built my career not on traditional Indian food but rather by taking traditional Indian spices and creating modern Indian food using British ingredients. I am proud to say that I rely heavily on the use of local and sustainable British produce with fish from our coast and vegetables grown in Britain, and then I incorporate them into dishes with spices and traditional recipes.  So rather than cooking curries, I would perhaps use a British fish and subtly spice it with Indian spices and create a sauce that is reminiscent of a more traditional dish.  This appeals to a lot of people because it combines two distinct cultures and flavours. Many of my dishes on the Benares menu have as many as 35 ingredients or more! However, if there was one group of ingredients I could not part with it would be spices. They are extremely versatile and add an amazing flavour to dishes. Interestingly, they have natural health benefits and often allow you to use less salt.  I always recommend that when cooking, people only purchase spices in small quantities as they often only have a shelf life of about three months and fresh spices make all the difference when cooking.   

Nowadays Indian food and curries are more widely accepted and people are open to trying something they've never had or something that they have tried previously but with a twist.  Overall, this is an industry based on passion so you really have to love what you do. At the end of the day, we chefs are ambassadors of India and what we put on a plate overseas goes a long way in cementing how we are viewed by the international community at large.

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