Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to get a Michelin Star for Indian food: the new term flexitarian is applicable to cuisines of India
Can you give a little bit of background outlining your substantial career? Where are you from, what’s your experience and how did you end up here etc?
“I was born and bred in East India, my father had a catering business, my grandfather was a baker. When it came to choosing a career instead of choosing medical school where I was destined I chose to head out to hotel management school. I went to South India to understand my country better before I did anything else. That was a turning point, I was startled to discover that we don’t have a cuisine of India we have cuisines of India. I started looking at Indian food very differently. I had no intention of becoming an Indian chef at this point, I just became curious, there was so much more to learn about my own country.
Then in 1994 I was headhunted to come to London to open a restaurant called Tamarind. I stayed there for nine years, in 2001 I became the first Indian chef to get a Michelin Star for Indian food. I then left a year later to set up a restaurant called Benares and went on to gain another Michelin Star in 2006. I moved on and set up another company and opened a restaurant called Kanishkar. Another site will be opening next year in March in Westminster, London. In addition I have four other restaurants, two in Marlow, one in Amersham, both in Buckinghamshire and one in Petts Wood, Kent”.
Focusing on vegetarian food for a moment could you tell me what drives your enthusiasm for meat free cooking?
“I’ve always been keen on vegetarian food from India, the new term flexitarian is applicable to India. They don’t eat meat everyday maybe only once a week or even only once a month. Vegetarian food is a mainstay there, when I’m cooking at home the meal is based around the dahl, I then choose which vegetables to go with the type of dhal I’m cooking. Depending on which part of the country you are in the type of starch is chosen, rice or bread. The entire world is embracing vegetarianism now, and I think it’s the right move too. Rearing meat to eat puts a lot more pressure on the land, to grow the food to feed the meat. It’s pretty complex, I’m not saying meat should not be eaten, but it should be eaten with care and understanding about what it does to our bodies. A lot of complications we have today in terms of diseases which we don’t understand are inflicted by ourselves. We are responsible for it; I think if we moderate it and try to be more vegetarian I do believe there is a sensible answer in there to have a much healthier life”.
You were born and trained in India and have worked in various countries around the globe, how do you rate the produce available in UK and Europe and do you ever compromise your cooking because of it?
“I rate the UK producers quite highly along with Europe I think it’s a very superior quality and I’ve never had to compromise. The ingredients are top notch, top quality, I find it bizarre that some of the young chefs come to the UK to train with me, see how I’m cooking here and then take the techniques back to India. I consider myself quite fortunate to be in a country where the produce is that good”.
With your considerable international experience, has location affected your style of cooking vegetarian food? Do you think there’s a difference in appetites in British home counties, Chennai or Mayfair for example?
“Location wise in the UK I don’t see a massive change in the mix of the menu. There is a move towards vegetarianism in this country. In other countries it is different, when I travel to America and cook there they are catching up. Before you would never see a vegetarian menu provided in a restaurant in America but now it’s starting and they have pride in it., which is a great thing, people have choice”.
As lockdown eases and the hospitality sector prepares to reopen in the UK how will you approach this across your restaurants? Did you retain your quota of staff over the last three months and what will be your initial offering to the public?
“We have rejigged things as we don’t know how the world will return to eating out. We have to be overly cautious, maintaining social distance, following guidelines and the medical advice we have been given. We have to adhere to all of them. Reducing the numbers of covers is one thing, but also as I have to work with a reduced number of staff so I have adjusted my menus. They are a lot smaller so we can deal with that, but at the same time it’s paramount to keep guests and staff absolutely safe. We are trying to do our best”.
What has been the response from your customers regarding the lockdown period? I know you were running a takeaway option, was this popular and will it continue after things have eased?
“The customer response was pretty good and people were happy with the food. I didn’t offer at first and began six weeks after lockdown began offering takeaway from a couple of my restaurants. People were really pleased to eat something different. I think takeaway will remain part of our sales because we will not be able to do the number of covers we were doing before, and to meet out our overheads. I think we will need to look for revenue elsewhere. I’m really hoping that takeaway will sustain after we reopen”.
You have a strong presence on TV in UK having appeared on numerous shows cooking, presenting and judging, is this something you enjoy and would you like to do more of that?
“I enjoy being on TV, it gives me a chance to share what I known with lots of people, I enjoy teaching, my mother was a teacher and my father a caterer. In the little spare time I have I also teach at the Leith’s Cookery School in London. Both these give me a chance to impart the little knowledge I have”.
Is seasonality an issue with vegetarianism or does it just require a different approach? Are there staples on your menus that never change due to popularity?
“Staples like dahl never change and maybe a couple of vegetables that are available all year round. But seasonality really kicks in when you talk about vegetarianism. Mother nature doesn’t grow everything throughout the year. Say, different varieties of potatoes gives us a chance to tell people what we are cooking and with what. Seasonality in vegetarianism is very exciting in my view”.
With your cookbooks have you consciously concentrated on seasonality and do you think that’s important?
“I constantly tell people about the seasons I purchased food, having said that the books are sold around the globe so the seasons differ, so you have to tell people where you live. A lot of things you get in summer here are winter things in India where I have a large following on social media. The world has become a smaller place”.
What is your approach to vegan and non-meat cooking?
“Initially I was quite dismissive of vegan food, but later I realised it’s not a fad it’s a diet and it’s a requirement for some people. As a chef it’s not my job to criticise, it is to accommodate and cater. I don’t see a problem, if I don’t use ghee all the vegetarian food I have becomes vegan”.
Would you ever consider opening a meat-free restaurant? Do you think the UK public is ready for it and would it be sustainable in a business sense?
“I have always contemplated this but walked away from it to be honest, but in five years from now perhaps yes. There’s a market for it but you need to be in the right location”.
Indian and Asian cooking is often vegetable based but frequently highly spiced, do you use a lot of heat to enliven plant-based dishes? How would you cater for a softer palette?
“I’ve always said that spices are a seasoning, it’s a personal choice if people want to use less chilli or ginger etc. It’s like salt and pepper really, it depends on the density of the natural ingredient, take pumpkin for example, I would adjust heat with only a few of the spices; ginger, chilli and black pepper. The rest of the spices are quite neutral and they have a flavour to impart and they don’t take away anything from the main ingredient”.
You were the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin Star, earning two at Benares in Mayfair, London, you now run several restaurants in and around the capital. Did you find being awarded the ‘star’ a burden or a challenge? Many chefs talk of the pressure associated with the award, what was your approach to the inevitable media and customer expectations?
“I have never seen that as a burden to be honest but I always felt a responsibility, if the guide has acknowledged you cook at that level it comes with credibility and becomes the norm. I also think that if my cooking takes a different direction that doesn’t gel with the guide I will be comfortable with that. Because it’s important the way I cook, I want to be happy too. I am not cooking for the guide I’m cooking for my customers. I want to be sure that is fulfilled before anything else”.
Modern Indian cuisine is here to stay, how do you think it will develop and is there ever a place for ‘fusion’ food in an Indian restaurant?
“I think that fusion food will constantly happen as long as people move around and migrate it will always happen and become the new norms. New ingredients are intriguing and we end up trying them. It’s bound to happen and will constantly evolve; Indian food is a boundaryless to be honest. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but we learn through our errors”.
Where do you see the industry heading regarding the rise of vegetarianism in the mainstream? Supermarkets offer increasingly elaborate options but are cookbooks keeping up? Are restaurants the lead or is social conscience pushing the rise in meat-free eating?
“Supermarkets have definitely paved the way followed by restaurants this movement will continue to grow as people are not eating meat every day. It is gaining strength and weight across the globe”.
How important is the health aspect of your recipes?
“For me it has always been important, becoming a chef I started with the ethos of providing nourishment for the body. So it’s incredibly important, I work with a three-light system; red, green and yellow, 70-80% are green or yellow on the menu so you can eat them whenever but the red dishes are something you wouldn’t eat every day, they are for treats of special occasions”.
And finally, please add anything you’d like to mention about new ventures, TV, books, openings etc?
“I have opened a new restaurant in Marlow offering takeaway for the next few months and I’m also writing a new book Vegetarian Curries of the World. Which will be out later this year”.