Atul Kochhar rose to fame in 2001, when London’s Tamarind restaurant – where he served as Head Chef – bagged a Michelin star. Two years later, he set up the super successful Benares, which earned a star in 2007 and has retained it ever since. Acclaimed eateries in Spain, Dubai and on board some P&O cruise ships are also part of his impressive portfolio. 22 years after he left Jamshedpur to improve his culinary skills, Kochhar is back in India to open two restaurants in Mumbai in quick succession.
What makes now the best time for you to launch your own restaurants in India?
To be honest, I left India very poor. I had to consolidate everything I had to become what I am today. When I went abroad, there was no thought of conquering the world with a restaurant. It was to get my basics right. Now, it makes economic sense for me to come here. Also, India has progressed in the culinary sphere, and diners are appreciating and understanding food. I’ve been contemplating a restaurant in India for four-odd years, and when the real estate opportunity presented itself in Mumbai, I took it up.
What are the two venues all about?
NRI – Not Really Indian is all about people like me, who have left India and gone abroad. It’s the food of housewives who migrated to Malaysia, Mauritius, parts of Africa or even the UK and had to adapt to local ingredients over time. Garlic and onion didn’t taste the same, and the vegetables were different, so they had to come up with modified or different dishes. Over the years, I’ve travelled a lot for food shows, TV work and on holiday. Wherever I go, I’m intrigued to understand whether there were ever any Indian roots – what we have, and what we took from them.
The other one, Lima, is about Latin America. It’s inspired by Peru, Mexico and Brazil. We’re running a fantastic bar with a smaller food menu. The dishes will include everything from ceviche to empanadas – they’ll be close to the culture, but at the same time, they’ll make sense in India. Latin food –especially Peruvian – has a lot of similarities to Indian cuisine and its use of spices.
You’re opening two restaurants almost simultaneously. What are the challenges of giving them both individual identities and perfecting all the minor details, given that you don’t spend much time in India?
It’s a challenging task, but we are confident of pulling it off. Our teams were hired almost eight to nine months in advance. Our international chefs are keen to learn on the job, listen to feedback and remain truthful to the cuisine. I’ve been very clear that I am not willing to sacrifice the essence of the cuisine.
Do you intend to follow the current norm of being local as well as seasonal?
Yes. Most of our produce will be local. We have seven acres of farm land in Ganeshpuri, and we have started growing a lot of our own stuff there. My head chef from Benares has his family there, and they’ve promised to help us grow plenty of produce. I want to source everything within India. You will also see changes on the menu as and when certain ingredients are in season, be they pumpkins or guavas.
These days, ‘modern’ is a term that loosely describes the cuisine of any chef who is making minor tweaks to classic dishes. It’s often used to describe your food too. Is that accurate?
I would say contemporary is the right word to describe my food. If I serve the same thing ten years later, it should be considered traditional. When people say that they prefer to stick to classic dishes, my argument is that if fashion and cars change with time, then why not food?
Modernisation means making food healthier, using better technology and so much more. I’m all about that. If something new is good and makes sense, I adopt it.
What does it take to earn a Michelin star and then retain it year after year?
Dedication, an eye for detail, and most importantly, a quest for innovation. You have to perform consistently every day, no matter how many customers walk in. Innovation is everything, so we must keep pushing boundaries. We have recently spent a lot of money to start our own development kitchen. It’s a place where we’ll study, say, three types of onions. We want to understand each and every thing about them – what soil and water they grow best in, how they taste when they are boiled, steamed, roasted, grilled etc. We want to take them apart and learn extensively about their properties so we can use them to create the best possible flavour combinations.
Are you looking at any Indian restaurateurs to understand the F&B industry here?
I look up to AD Singh, Riyaaz Amlani and Zorawar Kalra, who have done so much for the industry. They haven’t brought KFC to India; they’ve popularized homegrown products. My current favourite restaurant in India is AD’s SodaBottleOpenerWala. I was born and bred in Jamshedpur, and eating there invokes great nostalgia about some of the food I grew up around.