Atul Kochhar, former chef-patron of Benares, has weathered last year’s Twitterstorm to open Kanishka, an Indian restaurant in Mayfair that draws its influence from the little-known dishes from north-east India’s seven sister states. He talks to Vincent Wood
Even before last year, when a tweet caused Atul Kochhar to part ways with Mayfair restaurant Benares, the greatest turning point in the chef’s life came from being berated.
Prior to arriving in London, Kochhar, who is regarded as one of the most successful Indian chefs working in the UK, travelled extensively throughout his birth country, from his home city of Jamshedpur to his training ground of Chennai in the south, and then on to New Delhi, more than 1,000 miles away. He arrived in the UK in 1994, to serve as the head chef at Tamarind in Mayfair, to a country where Indian cuisine was generally the preserve of the curry house – cheap, cheerful and diluted. As a result, he had to compromise by offering dishes for less than £10, while he aimed for his menu at Tamarind to focus on the refined, authentic cuisine of his homeland. That changed when his father, a self-trained chef who ran a small catering business, came for dinner.
“I cooked him a three-course meal,” Kochhar says, “I could see that he was not happy. He said ‘let’s go for a walk’ – that was always his way of telling me off. We went three rounds of Hyde Park and Kensington Park. His view was that I’m from a Punjabi family, I lived in east India and that he purposely sent me to south India so that I could understand the cultures of our country and mix them together to create a fantastic cuisine. Now I had come to the UK and I was sitting on the fence, still borrowing things from India and not using anything from here. I looked at my menu and I was ashamed of what he was saying.”
Kochhar’s response was to go back to training, this time under the mentorship of Albert Roux. He visited the French master’s kitchen on his days off and picked up new skills and new suppliers. His food adapted to the culinary culture around him and he formed an appreciation of what his brand of fine dining could be. Two years later, in 2001, he became the first Indian chef to win a Michelin star – technically one of two in that year’s guide alongside Vineet Bhatia, although Kochhar jokes he should get the title, given that his first name puts him ahead alphabetically.
“Since then, I’ve never forgotten, I have always used the ingredients from what we have here rather than taking everything from India,” he says.
Some 18 years later shaming once again nudged the chef’s fate onto a different path – although this time a much more public one. In June last year an episode of the US TV series Quantico aired, starring Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra. The episode depicted a group of Hindu nationalists who attempted to frame Pakistanis for a terror plot, and it kicked up outrage among some people across India and its diaspora, stirring up emotions around race and conflict, faith and terrorism. Chopra was accused online of insulting and betraying her nation, while one film critic said she should have her passport cancelled. Another voice
joining in the condemnation was Kochhar.
Chopra had apologised on Twitter, saying: “I’m extremely saddened and sorry that some sentiments have been hurt”. Kochhar responded with: “It’s sad to see that you have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorised by Islam over 2,000 years. Shame on you.”
He deleted the tweet the next day and apologised, saying there was “no justification” for his comment, that it was a “major error made in the heat of the moment”. He said he was not Islamophobic and that he deeply regretted his comments, but the damage was done. He was let go from his deal with the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai, a move attributed directly to the tweet. Soon after, the chef parted ways with Mayfair’s Benares, which Kochhar had launched as chef-patron in 2003.
“I just wanted to shut off. I just didn’t want to meet anybody, and I wanted to be with my family,” he says. “They were suffering because of me, so I just wanted to take them away.”
The chef ended up travelling to India with his family, including his two teenage children, staying in a mostly empty hotel in the middle of Goa’s monsoon season. During that time he read a lot about Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton, whose mental health hit a low point when he had his own taste of online outrage.
“I learned from him that if you want to feel bad, people will make you feel bad. So it’s you who has to pull yourself out – nobody’s going to come and help you. So I did that. I said, you know what, I’m here for myself, I’m not going to get down in this.” Today, while he accepts fault in the matter, he doesn’t want to dwell on it. “I’ve gained my strength back; I’ve come back very positive and said I really have done nothing wrong. Yeah, it was a mistake and mistakes happen. I’ve said sorry several times and if people are not listening, then they’re deaf to it and I’ll move on.”
Out of the ashes of the online furore came something new. Kochhar began looking outside the boundaries he had been cooking within for 20 years to find a fresh start – and Kanishka is just that. Newly opened on Maddox Street in Mayfair, it draws on the culinary traditions of north-east India’s seven sister states. The cold, mountainous region is almost annexed from the mainland, and its food has more in common with neighbouring Tibet than the subcontinent when it comes to terroir and tradition. While still distinctly Indian, dishes include dumplings and noodles more readily associated with east Asia. Not only is it a departure for a British audience, but it’s a break from Kochhar’s past to cook food that is closer, both geographically and conceptually, to Nepal than New Delhi.
“I looked at my own cooking record, at what I had done, and I cooked very traditional Punjabi food when I was at Tamarind and moved on to very modern Indian food. I didn’t want to just repeat that. I could have easily, with my eyes closed, but I wanted to challenge myself. If you’re not going to push the boundaries, then what are you doing? I was looking for inspiration and started talking to people back home, and then I stumbled upon this idea, that not much has been done about these states of India. So I thought, OK, let’s go and explore.”
The result jars with any preconceived notion of the Indian food the UK has come to know, itself strongly influenced by Punjabi and Mughal cuisine, as well as the Anglo-Indian cuisine of the British Raj. Instead, there is thupka, a subtle Tibetan noodle soup with a light broth; and momo, dumplings that are similar to Japanese gyoza or Chinese jiaozi but with inherently Indian spicing and served in bamboo steamer baskets.
“The joy I have at the moment is I’ve got so many things to learn,” says Kochhar. “I’m making mistakes. I send the pictures of my dishes to my friends in India and I get either a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Luckily, there have been more thumbs up.” It’s a continuation of a trend of which Kochhar has been at the forefront – introducing refined regional cuisines from across India’s diverse culinary offering, giving the UK a taste of the likes of Kolkata, Chennai, Kerala and Gujarat. As he says: “Twenty years ago, who would have thought Dishoom would happen?”
However, cooking in a north-eastern style in which few in the UK are trained is a challenge, particularly with an ongoing skills shortage across the industry. Many of those who are working at Kanishka have previously worked with Kochhar and his business partner, managing director Tina English, formerly commercial director of the Cinnamon Club.
The chef says: “It’s easier to find investment than to find chefs or staff. People are ready with money, but you’re not taking it because you know you can’t find the staff. It’s that desperate at the moment. It’s not just me: I know a lot of two-Michelin-starred chefs who should have at least six to eight guys in the kitchen if they have a 40-seat restaurant, but they’re working with three or four. It’s that bad.”
Kanishka had a longer than average soft opening period of two weeks, officially launching on 11 March after the team had adjusted and the final renovations were finished. With room for errors allowed for, the dynamic is relaxed and jokey between the partners and their staff, who have named the two topiary elephants that guard the front door Atul and Tina.
Kochhar says: “I’ve always opened restaurants pretty much instantly – ‘oh we’re done, open, start taking money, we need the money now’. But here we’ve said OK, we will make mistakes, but we’ll make them during the soft launch. I am really enjoying it. We are smiling in the kitchen and having fun, and if somebody makes a mistake, they’re the joker of the day.”
The 130-cover site was previously operated by wine bar and kitchen 28°-50°. A fair proportion of the £1.5m investment has gone into transforming the previous industrial style of the site to reflect the cuisine now on offer. In the basement, dappled pink walls mingle with a leafy foliage ceiling, while upstairs the room is a blend of vibrant blues and mirrors, designed by Fabled Studios. English says: “We decided it was going to be just a small makeover and then, of course, we got in and decided to change every wall and every floor and every ceiling.”
But is this the start of something bigger? English brings experience of expansion with Cinnamon Club, while Kochhar has previously flirted with new sites in previous roles. It is a door they leave open – but the move is not one they want to make too soon, and a chain is certainly out of the question.
“I always say restaurants are like children,” says Kochhar. “You don’t call them by the same name. This will have its own character, and if we do another one, it will have a different name and it will have its own character. We are ambitious, but we want to walk before we can run.”
He similarly brushes off the idea of once again being featured in the Michelin guide, saying: “I want to cook because I enjoy cooking and I want to cook for my guests.”
In some respects it is a mountain already scaled, and in others the impact of his first star is more than any later one could achieve. His influence is already concreted into the landscape of Indian fine dining.
“I think more chefs will get that accolade, no doubt about it,” he says. “And I can very happily say that I can go to any Indian Michelin-starred kitchen now and there will be people there who have trained with me. Either they’re running the kitchen or they’re working in it. So it’s a massive pride thing for me. I helped achieve that.”
Kanishka’s à la carte
• Kurkure soft shell crab, apple and peanut jhal muri, passion fruit chutney
• Gangtok momos with organic vegetables, free-range chicken or Kentish lamb. Served with tomato and chilli chutney, fermented vegetable chutney
• Sagolir manxo: cumin and black pepper goat chop curry
• Dad’s murg makhani: tandoor-cooked chicken tikka in San Marzano tomato and fenugreek gravy
• Tandoori phool aur badam: tandoor-roasted baby cauliflower, almond korma
• Peanut butter chikki parfait: silky peanut butter pavé, salted caramel chikki, caramelised banana, 24-carat gold leaf
• Tandoori fruit custard, pistachio bhoora: tandoor-roasted seasonal fruits, kashmiri zaffron custard, pista crumb
Tasting menu: £69 per person; lunch: two courses, £24; three courses, £29
On My Million Pound Menu
Atul Kochhar brings several decades of experience as a chef and businessman to BBC Two’s My Million Pound Menu, having worked as head chef at Tamarind in 1994 up until 2003, when he became chef-proprietor at Benares.
He continues to operate three more sites: Indian Essence in Bromley, Kent (which opened in 2012), and two restaurants in Buckinghamshire: Sindhu in Marlow (opened 2014), and Hawkyns in Amersham (2017). However, as much as the show is about money, he sees his role as one of mentorship.
“I want to help other people achieve their dreams,” he says. “So from the current series [Indian burger concept] Baba G’s is the one I picked up and I’m quite motivated by them. They’re very driven. They don’t need much from me – maybe a little bit of money and motivation to improve the product. Jamie Barber [fellow investor and chief executive of burger chain Haché] has also joined the gang, and he wants to be part of it. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll have a site for them.”