I couldn’t produce my favourite dishes without my Tandoor oven

By Divya Sudarsanan

London-based chef and two-time Michelin winner for 'Tamarind' (where he worked), and his very own 'Benares', Atul Kochhar likes the simple things in life - a glass of milk and cheese sandwiches.   

His foray into the culinary world was quite simply his passion. Kochhar says, “My family had high hopes that I would become a doctor, and I very nearly did, but my passion for food had always overwhelmed any desires to go to medical school. I can’t say that my family was thrilled when I enrolled at Hospitality College, but they now realise that it’s my real passion and that I really did have to follow my goals. “

Calling himself a chef and primarily a family man, he says, “My roots have made me into the man I am today, and although there’s a great distance between my Indian hometown, and my London family home, I care passionately about the traditions and culture that made me who I am. I own a Michelin starred restaurant, Benares, in Mayfair, and I cook there daily. It’s the most exciting place to be and my creativity can run wild. I love it!”

Kochhar attributes his inspirations to his family. He says, “My father and mother were both excellent cooks, but it was my father who passed on a love of ingredients to me. His knowledge of seasonality was second to none and he taught me to conquer the basics and learn Indian cooking through and through before I go on to try my hand at my own creations. It was the best foundation and I am lucky to have received that education so young. I now am lucky enough to travel the world with my work and I never cease to be inspired by the colours and smells and flavours in Asia, they continue to astound me."

With great power comes great responsibility, and so it is with food. “Food is about enjoyment, but with this also comes responsibility and it’s more important than ever that we don’t over-fish our seas, and ruin our crops. It’s important that the future generations don’t inherit a world where good food and ingredients are a thing of the past. Food is one of the easiest ways that we can all contribute to a better environment,” he says, adding that the perception of food, too, has changed over the years. “Absolutely, and for the better; People are now much more educated in how to cook, and they can now buy Indian spices and ingredients freely where that previously was impossible. When I got the first Michelin star awarded to an Indian Chef, I think people realised it was serious food, and people now take notice. “

He considers his signature dishes to be the soft shell crab and the lamb at Benares as it allows him to “present my personality on a plate,” whilst admitting that he still gets requests for the John Dory take on the British Fish and Chips  - a dish that he won the Great British Menu with.

Kochhar’s discipline in the kitchen is about respect. "I am proud that my chefs all share this with me. It’s not a shouty kitchen, and we work hard to remain a team. We are a well-oiled machine at Benares, and guests who sit at the Chef Table and overlook the kitchen often ask how we all remain so cool headed, especially in the heat of the Tandoor oven!”

Kitchen anecdotes are a dime-a-dozen, as any chef will tell you, but Kochhar finds it difficult to “Pick just one; there have been some pretty big ones over the years! You’ll make me blush,” he quips.

Recounting the many memorable encounters he’s had, he says, “It’s hard to pick one, but you feel an astounding sense of pride when strangers choose to celebrate life’s greatest moments in your restaurant,” adding that he “never tires of watching guests enjoy Benares over anniversary, birthday and even wedding celebrations."

"It’s a busy year ahead at Benares", Kochhar says, “2012 sees the launch of our Chef Season where I’ve invited my favourite chefs in the world to create amazing dishes for the Benares Bar. We’ve had Anna Hansen and Richard Corrigan so far, and David Thompson, Ken Hom, Nigel Haworth and many more are to come. It’s a really exciting time for us.”

Kochhar has penned a couple of Indian cookbooks, too, called Indian Essence and Fish, Indian Style. When not working, he unwinds with his family and enjoys the small things in life “like a lunch in the garden, or teaching my children how to cook something at home. I love these moments.”