Anirudh Arora is a former protégé of the Michelin-starred Indian chef Atul Kochhar. Following a decade as head chef at Moti Mahal, Arora has recently opened two restaurants of his own: Nirvana Kitchen in Marylebone and Hankies in Soho. Katie Pathiaki speaks to him
I started cooking in India in 1994. I then went to catering college and worked at a few restaurants in India for a couple of years. Then I came to the UK and opened Benares restaurant in Mayfair with chef Atul Kochhar.
If I wasn’t in the kitchen, I would have more hair. I’m the first chef in my family. And in my extended family! My father was in the army and he wanted me to take a military role. I lost all of my hair in the kitchen.
Working in restaurants wasn’t a mistake, it was a choice. I have always wanted to work in restaurants. I’m a chef by profession. Until Hankies opened, I was in the kitchen. Then I couldn’t wear my whites and run the restaurant at the same time, so I had to take a step back.
I miss the kitchen sometimes. Once a week, I cook at Hankies. It’s fun – we have the guests in front of us while we make the bread. Hankies is all about the bread. In India there’s a bread called ‘rumali’, which translates as ‘handkerchief’, and it is as thin as a napkin.
I go for modern presentation but classic flavours. My signature is that my dishes are classic. Everyone on Shaftesbury Avenue [where Hankies is] does modern cuisine. Nowhere else does a rumali and we base our menu on that – everything on the menu goes well with it. It’s a marriage with the bread.
As far as business goes, my partner Josh Arora is a mentor to me. When Josh and I were looking for a site for Nirvana Kitchen, we had two things in mind: we wanted it to be traditional and to be Indian.
I’m not into the white tablecloth kind of service. At Nirvana Kitchen, I like to keep it more casual and make people feel comfortable.
I have done 16 openings in my lifetime and never had a problem, but opening my own restaurant is a different story. When you’re doing it for someone else, it’s totally different. You do it to the best possible standard, but at the back of the mind, you don’t have that feeling of “what is going to happen?” But when you do your own, you’re always thinking “what if I don’t do it right?”
The biggest place I opened was a hotel in India. It only had 70 rooms but all of them were suites and had a swimming pool each. It was 157 acres and had a small wildlife sanctuary in it, as well as a small palace where we cooked barbecue food.
I’m speaking to someone about opening a restaurant in Bilbao, Spain. Why not? We went there a couple of months ago and there was one Indian restaurant. It was a basic curry house. It was packed for lunch but served things you would find in your local supermarket. There’s nowhere else, so people eat there. I definitely see an opportunity for us.
There’s no trend that doesn’t start in London. The food scene in London is unlike anywhere else. In Paris, San Sebastián and so on, there’s no diversity. They all cook the same style of food. London is crazy – people ask me who is my competition and I think everybody is, not just Indian or pan-Asian restaurants. Everybody is competition.
My motto is try, try until you succeed.
2016-present Owner, Nirvana Kitchen and Hankies, London
2005-2016 Head chef, Moti Mahal, London
2003-2005 Sous chef, Benares, London
2001-2003 Head chef, Udaimahal, Oberoi Udaivilas, Rajasthan
1999-2001 Sous chef, Kandahar, the Oberoi, Mumbai
1997-1999 Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development, Delhi