Every ingredient has always been an extension of life for two time Michelin starred Britain-based chef Atul Kochhar. Beginning his journey with food as the son of a caterer in Delhi and the grandson of a baker whose tiny bread-filled chulha at a prisoner of war camp in Jamshedpur during the British era gave him a peek at culinary tradition, he decided to change his style of storytelling through food to voice the only thing constant in the world — change. As he stands today, he has created a vast delectable trail with his karchi and masala magic.
The young Atul learnt under the aegis of the Oberoi School, only to become adept at adding richness to food. As the first chef from India to be awarded two Michelin stars, with Benares and Tamarind in London, he wears his crown humbly, just doing his karma as he believes he should. “It is among my most cherished memories. It was a tremendous milestone, which was wholly on account of team work. I cannot take the crown alone, it belongs to the whole team, their beliefs and their hard work,” says Kochhar.
The first to create modern Indian cuisine with reinterpreted migratory influences, his flavours are now set to take over Mumbai with two new restaurants: Not Really Indian and Lima. Opening in his home country was always within his scheme of things, but it is only now that he is returning to his roots. Why? For Atul, India was that sacred space he kept for himself, almost selfishly, to connect with his ailing father, his family and his roots.
“The thought had been simmering in my mind. To be honest, every time I was given an opportunity, I never felt that it was necessary — I was being selfish as India was home, and was about spending time with my father, who was not too well at the time. When he passed away, it left a void within me. It took time for me to recover. Soon after, we started planning for NRI and Lima. I felt that I could now expand to my motherland,” says the dedicated chef.
Talking about his father, Atul transforms for a moment into that bright-eyed boy of many years ago, who followed his dreams, saying, “I truly cherish the learning I got from my father. In those days, food transportation was deplorable, so my father started using local produce. I didn’t understand it then and his finickiness irked me — but now, it has become a part of some of the world’s best chefs. My father was so ahead of his time.”
Today, as he busies himself in establishing Lima, a Latin-American style tapas bar, and NRI with the knowledge he has gained over the years from different people and cuisines, Kochhar, 46, is getting ready to give India a taste of his culinary creativity. For Atul, travelling enthuses him. He smiles, “You can’t take the chef away from food! So, my travels are about meeting different chefs, exploring cuisines and cooking. For Lima, I travelled to South America — Peru, Brazil and Mexico. Lima has a very creative tapas-inspired menu.”
For NRI, Benares spreads its wings to whence it sprung, almost like destiny. “NRI, in its essence, is about Indians living abroad. It is very diasporic, incorporating the element of migrating cultures and their cuisine. I have interacted with many people and gained so much perspective — for instance from Malay Indos, or Tamils from Sri Lanka, or from Australians and their Indian inspired dishes. I also found an encyclopaedia of influences, like the Malabar paranthas, malai korma or Popli murgh from Sri Lanka, the jeera chicken from Kenya, the Caribbean goat curry which is inherently Indian, with influences of local flavours and ingredients,” he says.
His altercations with ingredients that define and then defy cuisine are also wholesome within his experimentation, which is the chef’s signature style. The father of two also takes to the stove on weekends with his son and daughter, who are quickly learning the Kochhar family tradition. “My son and daughter love cooking too, so I take a break and teach them. Otherwise Deepti, my wife, does the cooking at home on weekdays. My daughter is 11 and into baking, and my son is nine and is now making pasta!” He adds that he regards his wife as the strength behind his progress.
The food whiz is also a philanthropist at heart. He shares, “I have a huge passion for children. I have been a part of the Prince’s Trust that supports disadvantaged kids. I have held fund-raising dinners for Prince Charles too. He loves his mutton, and is a huge fan of simple local flavours.” Atul also works with Save the Children and has been working in Banaras for the revival of Banarasi silk by micro-funding women and the trade.
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