Today Indian food is earning its rightful place in gastronomical circles, alongside the traditional upmarket French, Italian and Asian restaurants, with internationally recognised celebrity chefs coming to the Middle East to share their dishes.
Joining the likes of Rajesh Bharadwaj’s Michelin-starred Junoon restaurant concept in the Shangri-La Hotel, and Michelin-starred Chef Vineet Bhatia’s restaurant at Grosvenor House, the UK’s twice Michelin starred celebrity ChefAtulKochharfirst brought his culinary talents to Zafran in Dubai’s Mirdiff City Centre in 2010, and most recently to Rang Mahal in the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel.
Furthermore, the talent ofAtulKochhar is so unique that it has changed the way people perceive and experience Indian cuisine. Taking inspiration from his native India, while continuously researching regional dishes, Atul has managed to combine his heritage with his love of British ingredients to create a unique and innovative modern Indian cuisine.
Kochhar was in Dubai last month, visiting his latest venture, which he describes as fun-dining rather fine-dining, as one of the first Indian restaurants in Dubai with a lounge area. In fact theRang Mahal, whichtranslates to Palace of Colour,is a feast for all your sensesnot only serves up delicious cuisine, but also an array of tempting Indian-inspired cocktails and mocktails at its stylish lounge area. Catering News ME dropped in to Rang Mahal for a chat with Chef Kocchar.
Can you tell me a little about yourself in terms of where you were born, your family, you upbringing and your first experiences in cuisine?
My family is from Punjab, Northern India, andI was born in Jamshedpur, East Indiawhere Igrew up with three siblings – two sisters and a brother.I grew up in a foodie family. My granddad was a baker and my dad had a catering business. My parents were both great cooks and then my sisters took over after them – who are amazing cooks as well.So, when it was my turn to show them my skills my father’s teachings came handy. I was always clinging to my dad when he was shopping for his business and also times he was cooking. So, some of the flavours he used to create with spices, I always craved them and have tried to re-create. He was a great hand when it came to making Indian breads and that’s what I also inherited.Different types of Indian breads.
Where you interested in cooking from a very early age? Who nurtured or inspired your passion?
I was into cooking from the age of 12 inspired by my father. I loved hiscooking style and his understanding of spices and ingredients.
Was your style of cooking in response to your upbringing?
Yes it is.The flavours andfood you are introduced to as a child – you remember them in your adulthood.I had an abundance of flavours thrown my way – and I guess, I absorbed them well.
What would you say makes your cooking unique?
I wouldn’t know if I have a unique cooking style but one thing I surely know that I love my ingredients.I like to bridge the cultures through my food and have done that for many years in India and in the UK and now herein Dubai.
How did your professional career begin?
I went to IHM Chennai – one of the elite collages for Hotel Management in India. I had a great time in south India. Adjusting to the Tamil accent was often fun. They have a peculiar way of speaking English and I pretty much got the mastery of that.
Tell us about that first Michelin star…
Achieving a Michelin star for Indian cuisine has been the highlight of my carrier. I have never felt so much fulfilled as I did then. It was an amazing feeling.
What is needed to receive the Michelin Star?
Dedication and innovation is what you need to get stars.
How did you achieve your second star and what did that mean to you?
I achieved another star for my second restaurant Benares . It felt so good because it was my own restaurant. I cherish this star as the most precious thing.
With several international restaurants, does your food change for the location and, if so, how?
The food needs to be adjusted for every location as the ingredients change and so does the eating habits.
What are the current trends in catering, in each of the markets you work in?
The vegetarianism is on the rise and it’s consistent in each market and that’s where I am heading to as well.
Do you have any industry bug-bears?
People with bad time keeping – suppliers, staff and peers – I hate it.
Are there any unique challenges of cooking here in the UAE?
UAE is unique in every sense. Ingredients can be challenge sometimes but the quality you get here is second to none.I love working in the UAE.
Do you incorporate any Emirati cooking styles or ingredients?
My cooking has always been close to Emirati cooking as this region has shared food and culture with India for centuries. We are quite comfortable with each other’s food and ethos. So, yes – Emirati cuisine has been an influence on my food in the UAE.
What is your proudest moment to date?
Getting a Michelin Star and being father of two lovely children.
What is your next career/life challenge and how are you working towards it?
The work/life balance is something I am always trying to juggle.I want to spend more time with my family, but the opportunities and expansion is putting lot of pressure on any personal life.
AtulKochhar’sNavratan Menu, the Hindi word for Nine Jewels, presents nine signature dishes, the Navaratnas of Rang Mahal.
Potato cake, seasoned yoghurt, tamarind chutney, grated radish Jal Jeera with Vodka & Mint
Roasted aubergine, peppers &burrata cheese, coriander, garlic &kasuri salt Chenin Blanc, False Bay – South Africa
Scottish Scallops, caramelized garlic & textures of cauliflower Viogner “Y” Series, Yalumba – Australia
Line-caught sea bass “Atul’s signature’’ turmeric & coconut curry with mustard tempered potatoes “Wild Fermented” Chardonnay, Errazuris – Chile
Gulf shrimp, green lime, fresh Indian herbs & green korma sauce ReislingDr. L, WeingutDr. Loosen – Germany
Marinated Chicken breast in Kashmiri paprika Pinot Noir, Erath – Oregon, USA
Braised Lamb fillets, farm vegetables, saffron spiced jus DindoriReserva Shiraz, Sula – India
Homemade Berry Sorbet
Delicious selection of our most intriguing desserts Paired with: The Winemaster’s Reserve Noble Late Harvest, Nederburg – South Africa
Atul was born in Jamshedpur in India and began his cooking career at The Oberoi group of hotels in India (1989-1994) where he gained a diploma in Hotel Management. In 1993 Atul graduated to the five star deluxe Oberoi hotel in New Delhi, where he worked as a Sous Chef in one of the five restaurants in the hotel supervising a staff of 18 and immediately raising the standards in the kitchen. In 1994 Atul moved to the fine dining restaurant of renowned chef Bernard Kunig, and in January 2001 at the age of 31, Atul was the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star. The following year Atul extended his profile and experience, joining Marks and Spencer’s as a consultant chef advising on their Indian food range.
For his innovation Atul receiving an Honorary Doctorate Degree from University of Southampton, recognising the work that he has contributed to the culinary industry. He has also received the Outstanding Contribution to the Curry Industry at the 2005 British Curry Awards and the TMG Cordon Bleu Award in 2010. In addition, Atul was personally invited to meet the Queen during a State visit with the President of India, along with being invited to cook for Prince Charles at St James’ Palace in April 2010.
As the very first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star, accomplished during his tenure as Head Chef at Tamarind in 2001, he then went on to open his solo venture, the highly acclaimed Benares Restaurant & Bar for which he was awarded second Michelin star in 2007.
Benares Restaurant and Bar opened in May 2003 and has since come to be regarded as one of the world’s best Indian restaurants. Benares is known for modern Indian cuisine with a delicate use of spices to create outstanding dishes. Atul has been instrumental in changing the perception of Indian food in Britain with his boldly flavoured contemporary cooking. This is strongly reflected in the menu at Benares, which demonstrates Atul’s extensive research as it incorporates dishes from all parts of India.
Atul regularly appears on television shows including Masterchef Goes Large and Great British Menu. He is also a regular guest on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen and in 2010 launched his own series: Atul’s Spice Kitchen: Malaysia.