A giant leap for Atul Kochhar

11 September 2003 by
A giant leap for Atul Kochhar

Life will never be quite the same again for Atul Kochhar, following his transition from head chef to chef-proprietor. But what's the big deal? After all, he was running the food operation at Tamarind, the award-winning London restaurant at which he made his name, so taking full responsibility as a restaurateur shouldn't have been too great a leap.

But, in fact, it was. And that's because we're talking about the stress factor of sinking your savings into the source of your livelihood.

"To be honest I have never experienced such stress before, but work has never been so rewarding before either. It's a total mixture of pain and pleasure," confesses Kochhar, who moved down the road from Tamarind, in London's Mayfair, to open his own restaurant, Benares, in Berkeley Square in April.

That Kochhar should be a little stressed-out is understandable. Not only has he invested every penny of his own money - saved over nine years at Tamarind - in Benares, but he also has the interests of three business partners to consider. Their involvement in the restaurant is, he candidly confesses, "purely financial". Two are venture capitalists from the City, while the third is semi-retired and spends most of his time in Spain. "I got to know the three of them when I was at Tamarind," Kochhar explains. "They thought I owned the restaurant and asked me for some advice on which restaurant they should invest in. I told them they should invest in me." Quick off the mark, indeed.

However, he is under no illusions: his business partners want returns and are looking for growth at Benares. "So, whereas at Tamarind I really worried only about food costs, here I start worrying about the pennies at the front door of the restaurant," Kochhar says.

And there's extra pressure because the cost of refitting the Benares site (which formerly operated as the Cassia Oriental restaurant) spiralled from the projected £1m to just short of £2m. "I had thought it would take two to three years to pay back our refit costs, but I now think it'll take three to five years, depending on how we do," Kochhar says. "But it could be worse - at least we didn't spend as much on our refit as Sketch [Mourad Mazouz's Mayfair restaurant, which cost some £10m to design]."

Long-term investment
Luckily for Kochhar, although his backers are expecting results from him, they understand that their investment is not short-term and are helping him to shoulder some of the burden of running the business. "As with all new restaurants, there's a snagging list - things such as the air-conditioning system that needed resetting during the heat wave - and little things the builders have left undone. My partners are taking lots of responsibility on that side of things, so I can concentrate on the operational side."

If the financial pressures of the restaurant have been something of a baptism of fire for Kochhar, being involved in the whole show at Benares is, thankfully, proving more enjoyable than he envisaged. At Tamarind there were precise demarcation lines and Kochhar didn't get involved in anything outside the kitchen; now he's thriving on drawing up wine lists, organising seating plans and deciding service style.

"There's no ‘them and us' culture here - I'm involved in everything and I involve staff in making decisions. For example, when we do a menu change all the waiters and chefs taste all the dishes and give their opinions. The waiters' opinions are just as important as the chefs' - they have to sell the dishes, after all."

Above all, Kochhar is enjoying his new-found culinary freedom at Benares. One of Tamarind's unique features is that it specialises in northern Indian food, and Kochhar always operated within that remit. But now he's his own boss, he can explore the other flavours of India, too.

His own background is pan-Indian. He was born in east India to a family originally from the north, was educated in south India and then worked in the south-west part of the country, also travelling a great deal in the west. Moreover, over the past decade he has also visited the subcontinent at least two to three times a year on culinary research trips. "There is so much to learn in my country, I'm always amazed every time I go."

On each trip he eats in five-star hotel restaurants, roadside caf‚s and private homes. "It's easy to chat to people in India and get an invitation to their house - I'm a master at it. And I learn so much from home cooking."

One of Kochhar's current obsessions is the cooking he has seen in India's Coorg region - a cool, verdant, mountainous area in the south-west of Karnataka, the state directly above Kerala. "Their food is unique and I have a deep respect for it," he says. What has particularly tickled his taste-buds is an unbelievably tasty pork curry the Coorg people traditionally cook - a dish that he's now adapting around chicken because some members of his brigade cannot cook with pork, on religious grounds.

"The meat is marinated overnight in a special Coorg vinegar - made from sour berries that are not found anywhere else in India - and then cooked very slowly in a paste made from mango, curry leaves, ginger, coriander and a little spinach. The result is amazing and I'm excited about it because no one else in the UK is cooking this."

Further inspiration will, no doubt, come from Kochhar's next research visit to India, in December. "I'm going to Orissa - a little-known state in the east of India, where the food is spectacular," he confides.

Kochhar admits that part of his drive to do these research trips and constantly update his menu with new dishes is to stay ahead of the competition. He believes that Indian food in this country has never been so good, nor has there ever been so much rivalry between Indian chefs who have immigrated here - all to the benefit of the consumer.

"I've seen lots of Indian chefs working in the UK quoted as saying they don't compare themselves just to other Indian chefs here but to all the best chefs and I think that's complete nonsense. Why should I compare myself to Gordon Ramsay? What does he know about Indian food?

"Of course, we have to compare ourselves to other Indian chefs. I constantly look very closely at what people such as Udit Sarkhel, Kuldip Singh and Cyrus Todiwala are doing. We're great friends, but that doesn't mean I don't want to beat them!"

One person who Kochhar does not feel any rivalry with, however, is Alfred Prasad, his successor as head chef of Tamarind. "Alfred is my baby," he says, "I got him in a year-and-a-half before I left and trained him in the Tamarind format."

But he's concerned that "99.9 per cent of the Tamarind menu" is still his creation. "I keep telling Alfred to change it because sooner or later people will realise it's not his creative skills behind it." Strange, perhaps, that he should care so much about his former workplace? "Of course I care about Tamarind - the owners are still my friends and I'm sentimental about it because I made my name there. I want it to continue to do well and in order to do so, it needs to evolve."

Not that Kochhar will be losing any sleep over it - he is far too busy focusing on Benares and the future. His goal is to build on covers - currently 40-50 at lunch and 100-140 at dinner - and to win an outstanding reputation among diners. "My aim is to make Benares the most happening restaurant in London and to make it profitable. Accolades are not driving me or my cooking - it's bringing people in here and making them happy that counts."

Culinary history

Atul Kochhar's interest in food has its roots in his family. His father ran a contract and event catering business in India and, as a child, Kochhar used to help him. "I learnt a great deal through my father, though he wanted me to go on to become a doctor or an engineer."

Instead, Kochhar got a prestigious chef apprenticeship with the Oberoi group of hotels in India, working in Orissa and later in New Delhi. "Getting a job as a chef with Oberoi in India is like working for the Roux Brothers in the UK - it's the most incredible training. In many ways it was like being in the army - a really hard slog - but I feel very grateful for everything I learnt with the company. Oberoi has been a very good mother to me."

Kochhar rose through the ranks to become a senior sous chef of the fine-dining restaurant of the Oberoi New Delhi before being headhunted to come to the UK as head chef of Tamarind, which opened in November 1994.

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