A man who needs little introduction, when it comes to Indian cookery, Atul Kochhar is somewhat a legend. Critically acclaimed for his take on modern Indian cuisine, Atul became the first Indian chef to be awarded a coveted Michelin star during his time at Tamarind in 2003.
With a second star under his belt, Atul has gone on to cook for the likes of Prince Charles at St James’s Palace and HM The Queen during the president of India’s visit. Now chef-patron of Benares Restaurant in Mayfair, if you haven’t been lucky enough to try his food, you are bound recognise his face from the likes of Great British Menu, Saturday Kitchen and his own series – Atul’s spice kitchen: Malaysia. It’s safe to say Atul is more than qualified to be a Hotcourses expert, so I was thrilled when he agreed to take off his apron and share his story with our readers.
Born in Jamshedpur in India, I was keen to find out where Atul’s dreams of becoming a chef came from. He explains ‘my dad ran a catering business in India and I grew up in that atmosphere. Mum has always been a great cook and I have two older sisters who both turned out to be fantastic cooks, so growing up surrounded by cooks, it was a very natural route for me to take.’
It’s no question then that Atul would go on to become something great, but it wasn’t until 1994, at the age of 25, that he would bring his skills to London. Where does this British love affair with Indian cuisine come from? Atul answers, ‘one reason for the popularity of Indian food here in the UK is obviously a long, historical association with India. Over the years British people have cooked Indian food in their homes and it has become a part of their cuisine.’
After a number of popular ventures and two Michelin stars, I ask Atul what he most enjoys cooking in his kitchen. After a short pause to reflect, he gives me one of the most mouth-watering answers I have ever heard. ‘Recently I created a new vegetarian dish for my restaurant using bottle-gourd, which is like a squash or pumpkin and is considered a ‘boring’ vegetable in India. I stuffed it with caramelised onions and halloumi cheese, nuts, rose petals and then baked it in a very light korma sauce – it’s now one of the star attractions on my menu!’ (Cue stomach rumble).
I ask Atul about his competition here in the UK and the English chefs he most admires. Unsurprisingly, Gordon Ramsay was top of his list, but Atul is quick to add, ‘the person I have revered throughout my career, and who made me want to become a professional chef, was Albert Roux.’
Finally we get on to the subject of his passion to share his knowledge, both in his teaching and through his two cookbooks. I ask Atul what it’s like to be a professional chef teaching beginners; he laughs and explains ‘some students would turn up to my class with limited or absolutely no knowledge. Being a professional, having to teach people who couldn’t tell the difference between an onion and a potato was a real challenge! But I enjoyed it, immensely.’
How to follow in his footsteps? Believe in yourself. ‘If you believe you can be a good chef, be true to that belief. Stay passionate about it, because this industry is tough and without that passion, you’ll be lost.’ With travel and experimentation lying at the heart of his job, Atul is one man who embodies the Hotcourses ethos – never stop learning.
If Atul has left you wanting to stock up your spice rack and get experimenting, take a look at the various Indian cookery classes listed on Hotcourses.