A chef, restaurateur, and television personality ― Atul Kochhar, a man of many hats, was in the limelight for all the right reasons... until recently.
The London-based celebrity chef courted controversy for criticising Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra over an episode of her American show Quantico that purportedly portrayed Hindu nationalists as terrorists – many Indians were outraged, as was Kochhar.
While Kochhar apologised for his controversial tweet, Dubai-based JW Marriott Marquis Hotel fired him, triggering a wave of backlash against the hotel chain. Angry Indians took to Twitter, saying that they will be boycotting the ‘anti-free speech’ restaurant chain for sacking the Kochhar.
There is no justification for my tweet, a major error made in the heat of the moment on Sunday. I fully recognise my inaccuracies that Islam was founded around 1,400 years ago and I sincerely apologise. I am not Islamophobic, I deeply regret my comments that have offended many.— Atul Kochhar (@atulkochhar) June 11, 2018
Prior to this controversy, what was Kochhar known for and why is he a big deal in the Indian chef fraternity?
When Cricket Doesn’t Work Out, Move to Cooking
Born in Jamshedpur in 1969, the then 20-year-old Kochhar began his career as a chef at The Oberoi group of Hotels in New Delhi. However, Kochhar’s heart was set on being a cricketer.
"I wanted to be a cricketer but that didn’t happen unfortunately. Growing up in a household where there were six of us – five sisters and a younger brother – food was always around us." - Atul Kochhar to NDTV
He received a formal training from the Institute of Hotel Management in Chennai before starting his cooking journey.
It was during his five-year stint in the Oberoi that he graduated to the rank of five-star chef, and worked as a Sous Chef. In 1994, he moved to fine dining under the supervision of renowned Hilton chef Bernard Kunig, where he reportedly worked on building his body of work.
Indian Cooking Gets Michelin Star For First Time
Kochhar then moved to London and opened ‘Tamarind’ in 2001, an Indian cuisine restaurant and then flagship ‘Benares’ in 2003.
He received his first Michelin star in 2001 ― becoming the first ever Indian to receive that honour. He won his second star six years later in 2007.
"When I came to London, I tried to embrace Britain’s heritage, I absorbed myself in its history and culture, but I still look back to my motherland for inspiration. I never expected to be able to achieve the star with Indian food as Michelin was so traditional in the past, but it’s really opened its heart to Indian food now and appreciates the complexities and efforts that go into excellent Indian cooking." - Atul Kochhar to Deccan ChronicleMore to Indian Food Than Curry
Kochhar has been described as a true ambassador of Indian epicurean history, with most of his restaurants being structured on Indian cuisine.
“People in the UK mostly associate Indian food with curry houses, and for some reason the curries just got hotter and hotter for the UK audience, and less traditional. They are starting to realise that there’s more to Indian food than heat, and it’s an exciting time for Indian chefs who can now test the boundaries with their guests.”
The menu in Benares, for example, reportedly includes minted wild sea bass, spiced quail, mustard marinated king prawn and lamb cutlet or the asparagus poriyal.
Chef on Screen
“I travel across the world, eat at as many places as I can and make sure that my menu, team and style respond to trends, changes in produce, and constantly evolve,” tells Kochhar in an interview to the newspapers.
This motto of Kochhar is probably what drives his various television shows, including Masterchef Goes Large, Great British Menu and MasterChef India, which reportedly increased his popularity.
A regular guest on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, Kochhar launched his own series, Atul’s Spice Kitchen, in the year 2010.
Kochhar has also authored 30 Minute Curries, Atul’s Curries of the World, Benaras, Simple Indian and Fish, Indian Style among many other titles and his recipes have reportedly been published in many magazines.
So there you have it – the foundations of Kochhar’s fame and erstwhile respectability, before he was unceremoniously sacked for offensive public comments in relation to a Hollywood TV show.
(With inputs from NDTV, Deccan Chronicle)
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