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Spice Of Life

26.08.21

Julia Millen spoke to pioneering Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Atul Kochhar, about his unique approach to creating delectable dishes for discerning diners

What ignited your passion for cooking?

I was born into a foodie family; my father had a catering business and my grandfather was a baker. When my peers were heading off to medical and engineering school; I was drawn to culinary concepts - passionate about what and how to buy and in which season to do so. At the time, this was an unusual career choice for a young man.

However, if you hone in on something specific, you find like-minded people very quickly; so I connected, networked and figured out where I needed go for formal training, then I put a case forward to my parents. They’ve always been very supportive of me and my siblings and although they were a little surprised, they were fine with it. I never looked back– once I joined a hotel school, I knew I would be trained in all aspects of hospitality, however, my focus was always the kitchen and that’s where I excelled.

 

How have your dishes changed the way people experience Indian cuisine in the UK?

I always believe when cuisines migrate from their home country, they get adopted and adapted according to the tastes of the people in the new host country.

So when Indian cuisine came to the UK, it was always through the eyes of the British people. Over a period of time, we have concocted British, Indian cooking, which although classified as Indian food, it’s a British perspective on Indian cuisine.

Since moving to the UK, I’ve seen dishes evolve based on ingredients that are readily available and devised a unique way of developing Indian dishes, using foods that people are familiar with.

For example, Kingfisher pomfret is hard to come by in the UK, whereas salmon and oysters are available in abundance, so I work out my spices, weigh them and see what works with these ingredients, then create my menus.

Basically, I’ve developed a way of cooking, by looking at what I have in my basket, rather than what ingredients I can import from India.

I’ve found it’s easier to tell a British person I have salmon on the menu, rather than saying I’m making a fish curry that originates from a remote village in Kerala using a variety of spices. They’ll be mesmerised by it, but they won’t get what I’m trying to cook. If I say I’m making salmon with a Keralan curry sauce – they’ll get that. It’s always the main ingredients that people are interested in eating and what comes with it is a bonus.

 

What’s the most common misconception about Indian food?

That it’s hot and spicy. It’s full of flavour and hot is just one of the flavours, which you can always moderate according to your taste. Most of the spices used are actually not picante– its only black pepper and red chilli that make food hot. By using a small amount or none at all, you will still get the fragrant flavour of spices such as star anise, fennel, cumin and coriander. I understand why the term spicy food has been applied, but for me it’s more aromatic.

 

Tell us more about the flavours of the region of North East India’s Seven Sister State

Geographically this area is tucked slightly away from the rest of India. Even as an Indian, I didn’t think much about it until I visited, then I thought: ‘Oh my Goodness’, I’ve missed out on a goldmine here. It’s also connected to China, Tibet, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and of course, these countries have very pronounced cuisines of their own, so if you’re a neighbour, you’re bound to be influenced by the range of flavours, therefore in this part of Northern India, you commonly find soups, dumplings, roasts and curries, as well as fermented and smoked fare, which India is not really known for. Discovering how diverse my own country’s food is, was a learning curve.

I believe Indian food should actually be referred to as ‘cuisines of India.’ In much the same way as European dishes are categorised by the countries they derive from - French, Italian, Spanish or German; Indian fare should be viewed in a similar way. In the UK, I use fermenting and smoking techniques, which are also popular in British gastronomy, when preparing my dishes. I’ve refined this process over a period of time, and I believe it often enhances the meal.

 

How has your style of cooking evolved over the years?

I think it’s somewhat led by trends and the ingredients that people in the UK enjoy – it’s like any other industry, such as fashion or music. Restaurants evolve and I’ve made sure that I’ve kept my finger on the pulse. I’ve always worked in fine dining, which is where I feel most comfortable. I’ve exploited my talent and kitchen style to remain current and ensure that I’m preparing dishes that people feel reflect contemporary gastronomic trends.

Tell us about the 33% rule

The rule refers to three main factors that affect an individual’s dining experience. The food, ambience and service – if any of the elements are lacking, it dilutes the entire experience.

As a chef and restaurateur - I get involved in the granular detail of the venue and selection of music, down to what colour plates to use and individual details such as the position of individual table settings and I think to myself: ‘how much light is the table by the window getting and what can we do to improve upon this?’ – I think all things need to be considered and pondered upon and you have to come up with the right solution. If you fail, and even a single customer has poor experience, its heart breaking because we’ve put our heart and soul into getting everything just so. Our aim is to get it 100% right; not even 99.9%, however I realise, at the end of the day, we’re all human.

 

Where’s your favourite restaurant in London and why?

Pollen Street Social and for bit of a selfish reason - I can go and eat there whenever I want. I love the food, Jason Atherton is a personal friend, a great support, a fantastic mentor, great teacher and like a brother. I’ve always enjoyed cooking next to him and I’ve learned a lot through him as well. He’s a master at his work – a great chef.

 

What’s next for you in your culinary journey?

I don’t like to plan too much in advance, I’ll continue with what I have on my plate. My philosophy has always been that today’s a good day but tomorrow will be better. When I heard Sir Tom Moore talk about his approach to life, I thought wow. My sentiments exactly.

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