How does Atul Kochhar, the British based Indian chef, restauranteur and television personality ensure his venues are bringing the taste of India to the world? We have your answer in this exclusive interview with the man himself during his visit to the Dubai venue, Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar.
With an outward approach towards his cooking, Chef Atul Kochhar says when trying to make a dish, a creative chef will look at what ingredients he has first and then try to create something with what is on hand rather than thinking of a concept and implementing it. This is also the approach that he has instilled in his team across the globe, or as he calls them, his brigade, including the culinary experts at Rang Mahal, JW Marriott Marquis.
“Our approach is in the ingredient,” Kochhar says.
“We do not see Indian food from the spices and what traditions brings with it, we learn from it but are more ingredient focused. For example the Patagonian fish, we saw the character and the meat and then decide what spices would go with it instead of just saying I want a Lucknowi fish. This approach has been our strength, you can give us any ingredient and we will match the flaovours to go with,” he adds.
Rang Mahal is known for its Indian cuisine, however the flavours within different parts of India are very diverse, which results in a lot of venues categorising themselves from a specific part of the country. However, at Rang Mahal, Chef Atul wanted to keep all doors open under the umbrella of Indian cuisine.
“Restaurants who specialise in Indian cuisine are generally very focused on a specific region and type of cooking. India is such an integrated country, I hae never thought of Indian cooking as Punjabi, Bengali, South Indian or the likes. I think we can learn from everything and don’t want to shy away from using a South Indian spice with a North Indian technique,” Chef Atul explains.
“We are very flexible that way, I want to create a unified Indian food experience at Rang Mahal.”
Before the fine-dining restaurant opened, Chef Atul met with all the suppliers to see how the menu will shape up.
“I used to come here every other month to see the progress before we opened and one of those trips I sat with our chefs and all the suppliers to work through an exhaustive list of ingredients to see what we can or cannot get here. Fortunately, we get almost everything available here through a host of suppliers although not a lot is grown locally,” he says.
50-60% of the menu at Rang Mahal is driven by the team in Dubai with Chef Atul looking after 40% of the menu.
“However, the menu is constantly changing. People sometimes as how many times a year I change my menu and I say every day, because you learn something new every day and you would rather not part it for some time and go back to It later. You want to perfect it, see if it works and apply it as quickly as possible,” he adds.
“We also have a forum of chefs for all my restaurants and they throw ideas there all the time. We also have a team in London that picks up these ideas, works with the chefs on it and throws I back to the floor to test it with people. I consider myself blessed to be working with a lot of creative chefs,” he adds.
Changes in the menu also means that the team has to be ready for feedback of either kind, appreciation or criticism according to the restauranteur.
“One out of 10 guests will always come and say that they want something the old way. People are different with their choices and we have to accept it, we accept criticism graciously and go back to the board, if it is supremely bad then we dump the idea without telling anyone but change is important. If we do not change we will become static and vanish,” he says.
The UAE market in particular is a big fan of Indian food with the local population building a connection with the country, Chef Atul says.
“One of the reasons which Indian food is very popular in the UAE is because the locals have always been close to the Indian culture with marriages, some of them speak fluent Hindi and some having lived, studied of invested in India. Dubai is seen as an extension of the Indian and Pakistani community which is a great strength in my opinion. The Indian food scene in Dubai and London is at oar and if anything Dubai has a slight advantage going forward as it is close to the country itself,” he explains.
However, the growing market does come with its own set of challenges, but none that Dubai cannot combat, the Indian chef says.
“As a business man I have to look at the next two to three years and in all honesty I do worry about it, how big the population is, how many people lie here, how many will be in and out to sustain the business. My horizon is always up to five years ahead and from what I can see there is pure growth ahead. There are challenges to be faced and people worry about the run up to the Dubai Expo 2020 but there is a lot to come beyond that too.”
To keep things interesting at Rang Mahal and as a way to keep up with old friends, Chef Atul also introduced the Battle of the Chefs at the restaurant which sees renowned chefs visit the venue and battle it out their cooking skills with Chef Atul himself where the guests are the judges.
The latest version of Battle of the Chefs featured UK celebrity Chef Nigel Haworth.
“There are so many chefs across the globe. Over the years they have become very good friends and mentors and to be able to cook with them time and time again is great,” Chef Atul says.
“We are all busy in our own lives, so I wanted to create an event or buzz around Rang Mahal and all these friends were keen to come down and be with us for a while. It is quite an experience for our guests and they always enjoy it.”