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Chef Talk: Atul Kochhar: Making connections in creative cuisine

One of Dubai’s finest dining restaurants must surely be Rang Mahal at The JW Marriott Marquis. Stamped with the expert touch of two Michelin-starred chef Atul Khochhar, the opulence of the Indian dining experience is a foil to Kochhar’s humility.

We met on the eve of an epic ‘Battle of the Chefs’, held in the restaurant, between MasterChef India Season 5 winner Kirti Bhoutika, and first runner-up Ashima Arora.

Quietly spoken, Chef Kochhar considered himself to be the ‘black sheep’ of the family, taking up the culinary trade, while his siblings pursued higher academic qualifications and perhaps more ‘learned’ professions. I’m quick to pull him up on this, suggesting that – certainly in this era – chefs are extremely intelligent, keen to learn and definitely highly skilled.

Shrugging it off, he says he was embraced by the family and friends once he achieved fame and his first coveted Michelin star. But he’s far from a grumpy old man. He’s relaxed, chatty, and seems like someone who has achieved great things, and knows it. Rightly so.

The women taking part in the Battle of the Chefs under his watchful eye are young, keen and excited to be in Dubai. But what does he think of them – especially as one of the judges of the MasterChef India final? “They both look at food in their own way. I had the pleasure of judging their food. They come with their own backgrounds – and food is about that – how you were brought up, what you have seen, what you have eaten, and where you have been. They both flaunt it to their own benefit, and they are very good at it.”

Chef Atul with MasterChef India winner, Kirti Bhoutika, left and first runner-up Ashima Arora, right.

Chef Atul with MasterChef India winner, Kirti Bhoutika, right and first runner-up Ashima Arora, left.

He admitted it was a tough job judging in the finals, but a pleasure to go from a spectator to an active participant.

“They were both very good, [in the final], it was just by a little whisker that Kirti won, it was so tight,” he said.

Pressure cooker

We can hardly imagine the pressure of cooking in the MasterChef kitchen; the normal stress of rapid cooking with the addition of a massive audience and a huge cash prize dangling before your eyes.

But what advice does he offer on handling pressure in the kitchen? None, actually! With typical humility, he said: “I look at it this way, what can I learn from them? [the winners] I reverse the game here. They are the younger generation, they are the ones who are going to be known soon, they are the ones who will be leading the world, so for my generation, I thinks it’s almost, you want whatever I have, I want to pour it out and give it to them, so they are equipped for tomorrow.

“But I also want to seek what I can learn from them. At that young age, [early 20s] I don’t think I had as much sense as they have! It’s really heart-warming to see the younger generation so well-equipped, so well-informed, and they exactly know where they are heading to, it is very very good.”

A wall painting at Atul's Rang Mahal restaurant

A wall painting at Atul’s Rang Mahal restaurant

Thinking back to his younger years, Chef Kochhar recounts one of his most stressful experiences, one many of us can relate to. A visit from his father.

“I’m going back now 20 years, I was cooking at Tamarind, [his first Head Chef position in London, 2001] and my father decided to show up without telling me he was coming to England. He then came to eat at my restaurant, and he was a foodie; to cook for him was always tough.

Hell of a ride

“I thought ‘I’m in for a hell of a ride now’… and I surely was. I had just been in the UK for two and a half years, when he arrived. He ate the food. He had a very distinct jawbone, especially when he was angry. I could see that jawbone moving very fiercely – and when I saw this as a child, I knew I was about to get a whacking!

“After his lunch, he said ‘let’s go for a walk’, and we went off to Hyde Park. You know how big Hyde Park is? We did three rounds of the park that day – there was a lot of telling off.

“He said: ‘You learnt from me, you went to a very prestigious school in Chennai, and you gained your diploma in Hotel Management – what the hell you have been learning, and what’s that on the plate? What have you been doing?’ I said: ‘Dad, I get massive accolades from all the English journalists, they are falling over it, going crazy”, and he said: ‘Well they are easy to please.’

What was Chef Kochhar’s father’s problem? The Chef continues: “He wasn’t pleased at all. He said you have pumpkin on the menu, seedless white pumpkin which you don’t get in this part of the world; you have okra on your menu..why do you have all that on the menu? I said, ‘because I am doing Indian food!’ He said, ‘Yes, you are doing Indian food, but Indian food is always relative, it always connects, where is your connection?”

And the Chef humbly admits his father was right. Up until that point, Kochhar admits that he felt he was a good cook, telling himself the spices will do the magic, and not overly worrying about the ingredients.

“So my eyes were opened by that talk with my father. I was told off in a big manner! He promised he would be back in a year, and he expected my menu to be better. He didn’t come back unfortunately – or luckily for me…”

The chastising from his father, Kochhar admits, opened his eyes to a new way of cooking, and closer attention to local] ingredients. “I had to open my eyes to what was happening around me, and that’s only when I started looking around.”

We are sailing

So that’s when the menu – and his cooking style changed?

“It changed me, and it changed the menu,” he freely admits… “I understood the country well, and I went on small boats out to the North Sea, sometimes for three or four day’s fishing, throwing up many times on the way! It was really an experience, a big part of my life, but I learnt a lot, about ingredients, and about the types of fish available in the UK.”

So, at Tamarind the new philosophy became incorporating local ingredients with a sort of “Indian know-how” thrown in?

“Exactly. I’ll never forget feeling as excited as a child when that fishing boat docked, at just the sight of land. It was a funny feeling, but a great feeling. I also worked at different farms in Kent, learning different techniques – how to plant, what to do, how to tend, how to prune. I never thought as a Chef I needed to know that, but the more I got into it, the more I loved it. I understood the seasons, how it all worked. And the menu started changing, suddenly. I realised I am more passionate about what we are growing, what we are hunting, what we are cutting, what we are sewing and what we are reaping. All those things became clear, and the menu became a lot more sensible to me. And before I could realize, I became a Michelin Star, I wasn’t expecting it at all.”

Again, his father brought the ascending chef crashing back to earth.

Atul Kocchar - still smiling

Atul Kocchar – still smiling

“When the first Michelin star was awarded, I told my Dad. He said ‘What’s that?’ and I had to explain what a Michelin star meant. He said: ‘I vaguely know this name, is it the company that makes the tyres? Forget about it Atul, and get on with your food, why does a tyre company fuss about food?’ Great advice!”

Perhaps Kochhar senior was ahead of his time, especially given the recent news of top French chef Sébastien Bras asking to be stripped of his venue’s stars, citing too much pressure.

And yet still, the excitement and interest generated globally by the MasterChef TV cookery contest stands as testament to how many of us dream of achieving Kochhar-like cult status in the kitchen.

But, if I won MasterChef, would Atul let me in his kitchen? “Oh definitely, definitely,” he said, without a pause for thought. “For a long time, I have always directly or indirectly championed this. They are very talented. Entering the MasterChef brings your passion out. One UK winner, Dhruv Baker, was a software engineer who now runs his own gastro-pub, presents TV shows and works closely with the Waitrose supermarket chain.”

While MasterChef might be life-changing for some, Atul also admits there’s nothing wrong with those winners who simply get back on with their lives the same as before the contest. But they remain good chefs. So what makes a good chef, in his eyes?

Passion and integrity

“For me, understanding the ingredients, passion and integrity. I think that’s what I look for, and the way I hire chefs in my kitchen. I always ask myself ‘do they have passion for food or not?’. If they don’t, then I don’t waste my time. If they have passion for food, I can change them. I can mould them. Techniques, methods and processes can be taught, but if you don’t have passion for it, nothing can be done.”

It’s that passion, he says, which keeps all good chefs going (even despite an undermining parent).

“It’s a burning passion, you are always onto something new, you never sleep, constantly evolve, that is what food is all about. One of the reasons I came to this industry, was because I wanted to be happy in what I was doing. My family is full of academics. I’m the only one who took my father’s path, he had a small catering business.”

He has also seen Indian cuisine gain more respect – certainly in the UK – over the years. “When I went there [the UK] in 1994, definitely Indian cuisine was a Friday night food after several pints. Now, things have definitely changed, and people look at it in a different light. It’s a gourmet food, people go out for an experience, they come for seven, nine or even 12 courses, tasting meals. This simply wasn’t there before. It used to be ‘forget about the ‘starter’, just throw the curry in, and make it really hot!’”

Backstreet Boy

While his career has had a strong focus on serving upmarket Indian cuisine, when he visits his fine dining restaurant in Dubai, he always makes time to visit some more homely joints in the backstreets of Karama and Satwa. His favourite place here is Calicut Paragon. “I’m also a sucker for South Indian food so I love to hunt out new places here,” he admits.

Again, hinting at his humility, while he is the owner of multiple fine dining outlets spanning the globe, has a Michelin star and has multiple TV shows, appearances and books under his belt, like us all, sometimes you just want some good, home-style food served without fuss.

He also admits to having become something more of a restaurateur/entrepreneur, with his latest ventures including outlets on cruise ships and an exciting new fusion concept for London.

“As times goes by, I am slowly changing in my ethos. I don’t work in the kitchen as much. What has happened is “hands on” in the kitchen has become very difficult for me. Whenever I have tried going back into the kitchens – it’s not that I can’t cook, but I’m not as good as the young line cooks, so I’m politely told by the chefs – Saturday we are OK for staff, we don’t need you!

Too hot to handle

“They don’t want me to come into the kitchen, it’s really that bad! But I’m a realist, and I realise that I slow down the process. If I pick up the pan, three tables would be screaming for their food in ten minutes, so, I know, I had better take my hat off and watch!”

Yet while he might not be sweating over the pass, he is extremely busy, and feels things will only get busier.

“I am constantly around my kitchens. We engage in new menus. Apart from Indian restaurants, I have Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants, and I’m engaged in a concept for a Chinese restaurant as well. At the moment, there is a lot of research going into a new launch in Mumbai, where we will do world food – small plates. The work is on full swing for that. It is indeed going to go crazy from here on!”

He recently visited Saudi Arabia, and is looking to open a new venture there within the next year. “They are massive foodies, and it’s a very interesting market, a very interesting region,” he said.

Next time you’re heading for Friday lunch in Karama, keep your eyes peeled for Kochhar – he’ll be the guy praising the dosa.

You can try Chef Kochhar’s food at Rang Mahal by calling 04 414 3000 or emailing jwmmrr@marriott.com.

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