Master Of Spices: Atul Kocchar
With a monochrome flooring and a soft colour palette of…
With a monochrome flooring and a soft colour palette of cerulean, green and aquamarine, Kanishka restaurant radiates an upbeat vibe. India-born, British-based owner-chef Atul Kochhar’s latest offering, located in the upmarket Mayfair district of London, is packed even on a weekday, as I stroll in through its Maddox Street entrance. Waiters bustle. The collective hum of diners’ chatter rises like a crescendo to the ornate ceiling. The aroma of delicious food permeates the air. The expansive menu has a sizeable representation of dishes from India’s north-eastern states. There are nods to Nepal, China, and Bangladesh as well. Think dumplings, air-dried meat, fermented bamboo shoots, thukpa, Naga chillies, and soya and smoked dishes.
When I ask Kochhar about the inspiration behind the eatery that debuted on March 18 last year, his answer is effusive. “This kind of cuisine really excites me. I’ve always strived to create dishes that showcase the country’s distinct regional differences and influences. And Kanishka really delivers this,” the 50-year-old explains. The first Indian chef to bag a Michelin star in 2001 at Tamarind, London, Kochhar currently helms three other eateries in UK: Sindhu in Marlow, Hawkyns in Amersham, and Indian Essence in Petts Wood. Kanishka marks the culinary entrepreneur’s reappearance in London after a twitter controversy in June 2018, following one of his tweets that slammed a Bollywood biggie, and commented on Islam. It attracted a severe backlash. Kochhar quickly deleted the tweet and apologised, but he lost his position at the Rang Mahal restaurant in the JW Marriott Marquis hotel, Dubai, and Benares in London.
With Kanishka’s success, Kochhar seems to have put the episode behind him. “I don’t want to talk about the tweet. It’s in the past and I don’t dwell on the past. I have apologised and moved on,” he quips. Kanishka offered the chef a chance to start afresh. Even so, one wonders about the scope for another Indian food joint on London’s vibrant gastronomic map, that’s already crowded with several Indian fine diners. Be that as it may, Kanishka’s unique offerings such as Kachela Maas, a Sikkim-inspired venison tartare with mustard oil mayonnaise, naan crouton and onions; spiced scallops; Tibetan lobster thukpa; grilled pigeon breast with beetroot ketchup and pine nuts to name a few — have garnered great reviews in British press.
I am now ready to taste the food myself. First up is a selection of poppadums with assorted chutneys — mint, coriander, as well as a thick, blood-red syrupy chilli jam. Just as I am crunching my way through the savoury treats, arrives a sensory masterpiece — bhalla papdi chaat. An explosion of colour, flavour and texture, it comprises soft lentil dumplings, crispy papdis, sweet and sour tamarind chutney, with lashings of cool, frozen yogurt, bejewelled with pomegranate seeds. I am bowled over. As I wait for my next course, I ask Kochhar about his own favourite restaurant. “There isn’t one specific restaurant that I prefer,” he says, “I enjoy trying out new restaurants and cuisines. One restaurant that I’m interested in trying, but not yet had the chance to experience, is a pan-Asian restaurant by Peter Lloyd, of Sticky Mango in London.”
As a TV host and author of several cookbooks, Kochhar had a busy last year. He completed his second charity trip to Antarctica in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital, and was also a guest on a number of television shows including the BBC’s Million Pound Menu, Saturday Kitchen, Saturday Morning with James Martin and The Chef. He is also in the midst of planning a number of projects for 2020, including the launch of a new book, and the opening of two new restaurants. One will be owned by Kochhar, while the other will be a collaboration with his business partner following the same template as Kanishka’s. A trio of scallops now sails to the table, on a mound of parsnip puree, festooned with infinitesimally diced pineapples and mangoes. As I bite into it, my taste buds take a journey from sweet parsnip, to a smoked chilli spice, to the sea-like salinity of the puree. Moving onto the mains, the lamb biryani is a real treat. Served beautifully in a ceramic pot, slow baked and sealed with a puff pastry top, it is paired with a sweetish raita to cut through all that umami. The murg makhani — succulent chicken in a delicious velvety tomato gravy — I scoop up with thin crispy naans.
As I enjoy the food, I marvel at Kochhar’s long journey in the culinary world from a shy Jamshedpur boy in the ‘70s, to a chef of global acclaim — a quintessential tale of ambition rewarded with achievement. Strong family support was instrumental of course. “My grandfather was a baker, and my father had a small catering business, so I was surrounded by food, and grew up experimenting with it.” says Kochhar. “When my friends were scrambling to become engineers and doctors, I opted for an offbeat hotel management career and, luckily, my father supported my ambition.” Kochhar’s career kicked off in 1993 at The Oberoi New Delhi, where, as a sous chef, he worked with a team of 18. Stints at the hotel’s iconic restaurants like Kandahar, Baan Thai, and La Rochelle followed, which taught him the nitty gritty of running a fine-dining kitchen.
This experience propelled his shift to London in the late 1990s where he was hired for Tamarind, an already established Indian cuisine restaurant. Kochhar’s fresh approach to cooking Indian food, especially the use of fresh British produce, won him a huge fan following. In 2001, Kochhar became the first Indian chef to bag a Michelin star as Tamarind’s head chef. This was followed by another Michelin star for the acclaimed Benares. Despite being a hit abroad, Kochhar hasn’t quite cracked the recipe for success in India. With both his restaurants in Mumbai — NRI and Lima — that opened in 2016 downing shutters, does the entrepreneur think he has bitten off more than he could chew? “Well,” explains Kochhar, “both restaurants were well accepted for their cuisine and ambience, but the location was terribly wrong. The lack of footfalls and crazy rentals made no sense to continue that business in India.”
Unfrazzled by the bad run, Kochhar still has plans to re-enter the Indian market. “I find great pleasure working in India, and I do have an exciting activation potentially in the pipeline,” he adds. Straddling so many restaurants and facing daily challenges in London’s brutally competitive F&B industry is not a piece of cake. So how does the busy foodpreneur manage? “It can be a challenge trying to keep all the plates spinning but having the right team in place really helps. I’m surrounded by professionals who share my passion, vision and dedication, ensuring we can work through every challenge,” Kochhar says.
Spending quality time at his London home with his wife Deepti and two children, Arjun and Amisha, is a great stress buster for him. “I love cooking at home in my own kitchen, spending time in the garden tending my vegetable patch. I’m also a huge cricket fan, and although life can be busy, I do try and make time for a game, now and again,” he explains. It is time for me to wrap up my meal, with dessert. I settle for a quivering brick of peanut butter accompanied by brittle salted caramel chikki, caramelised banana, a 24-carat gold leaf and a dark chocolate sphere filled with mousse, passion fruit and salted caramel. It’s yum, the perfect denouement to a great meal.
Given his nearly 25-year-old legacy in the world of gastronomy, is Kochhar training any of his kids to be chefs? “I encourage them to follow their passions when exploring future career options. My son will hopefully follow in my steps, in the hospitality industry. Working in the culinary profession is fantastic. If you have the drive and are willing to work hard, the sky really is the limit.” Kochhar should know.