One of the first Indian chefs to gain a Michelin star, Atul Kochhar has been at the forefront of Indian fine dining for more than a decade. As he celebrates the 10th anniversary of his flagship restaurant Benares, he tells Kerstin Kühn why he is more of a businessman than a chef
Atul Kochhar seems pretty relaxed. Things are good at Benares, his Michelin-starred flagship restaurant in London's Mayfair, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
"It feels great to have been in business for 10 years," he smiles. "The last four years have been tough, the economy has not been great, but to have been able to get through such rough times feels an amazing achievement."
And Kochhar has come a long way. From starting out as a kitchen porter in his father's restaurant in India to becoming one of the most celebrated Indian chefs in the world, he certainly deserves to pat himself on the back.
We meet at Benares just after lunch service and Kochhar, still in his whites, is happy to chat. Modest but self-assured, he is warm and friendly in conversation, displaying a level of honesty that shows he is confident about what he is doing. Reaching 10 years in business is a proud milestone for anyone, especially in restaurants, so how have things changed over the past decade?
"The biggest difference is that today people are so much more knowledgeable about Indian food," he says. "I know Brits who have travelled and explored India way more than I have and there is a real understanding of Indian cuisine now."
After growing up in Jamshedpur in eastern India, Kochhar, like many of his contemporaries, began his cooking career with the Oberoi group, graduating in 1993 to work as a sous chef at the company's hotel in New Delhi, before moving to renowned Hilton chef Bernard Kunig's fine-dining restaurant.
Despite his modesty, Kochhar has undeniably been at the forefront of Indian fine dining in the UK. After all, in 2001, at the age of 31, he became one of the first Indian chefs - along with Vineet Bhatia at Rasoi - to be awarded a Michelin star. "It was a great feeling," he says. "It wasn't a personal ambition or something I had ever worked towards, so I considered it a team effort and, more than anything, an achievement for my country."
Pushing boundaries However, Kochhar left Tamarind a year later after the owners declined to make him a partner in the business. After consulting on the Indian food range at Marks & Spencer, he launched Benares in Berkeley Square in May 2003. It was then that he really started to create his own style, reinventing Indian cuisine, combining it with British ingredients and pushing the boundaries with new, exciting flavour combinations and techniques.
Using ingredients such as lamb rack, John Dory, soft shell crab or scallops and mixing them with spices and curries soon changed perceptions of Indian food and won him plaudits and critical acclaim, although it was four years before he regained his Michelin star in 2007. "If I'd repeated the cuisine we were doing at Tamarind at Benares, I probably would have got the star back right away," he says. "But because I changed what I was cooking and created a new British-Indian cuisine that didn't exist before, it took a bit longer. I think I confused Michelin with what I was doing."
After regaining the star, Kochhar went on to even greater heights, expanding his business in the UK and internationally. In 2008, he opened Vatika in Hampshire and Ananda in Dublin. In 2010, he opened Sindhu on the P&O super-liner Azura, and at the end of 2012 he launched a second London restaurant with Indian Essence in Bromley, plus two international sites: Rang Mahal at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel in Dubai, and Simply India at the St Regis resort in Mauritius.
All his restaurants are slightly different, each designed for its location and audience. Kochhar says: "Whenever I open a restaurant, I do it with a business hat on. I can't go in and say 'this is me and this is how I cook - take it or leave it'. I need to design a menu that works for that area. Yes, I am a chef and I am creative, but at the end of the day I am a businessman and I want my businesses to succeed."
Fire at benares But it hasn't all been plain sailing and Kochhar has had to face a number of challenges in recent years. First there was the fire at Benares in September 2009 that forced the restaurant to close for almost four months. "The fire was one of the most difficult moments I've had to deal with," he says. "It's not something you can ever prepare yourself for."
Benares underwent a substantial refurbishment and reopened with a bigger kitchen including a new pastry area, a wine theatre and cellar, two new private dining rooms and a chef's table, in January 2010. "I was determined to get through it," says Kochhar. "Lots of people made us offers to leave the site, but that's not me. We came back bigger and stronger and, despite the bad economy, we have achieved more than before."
A second blow came in autumn 2011 when Kochhar had to shut down Vatika, his critically acclaimed restaurant at Wickham Vineyard, Hampshire. He admits it was one of the hardest career decisions he's ever had to make. "It broke my heart," he sighs, blaming the restaurant's failure on two main challenges.
"Firstly, I couldn't get the locals to support it," he explains. "Going into a vineyard to eat and drink is still a new concept in the UK and six months of the year, in the winter, it was pretty bleak.
"Secondly, economic times were hard and it was tough to make ends meet. I could have turned it into a traditional curry house, but that wasn't my aim. So I decided to shut it on a high rather than bastardise the concept."
Kochhar adds that he would like to bring Vatika back, perhaps in London, although no plans are yet in place.
And then there was Colony, a short-lived co-venture with friends and restaurateur Carlo Spetale on London's Baker Street. "Colony was a weird combination," says Kochhar. "When I look back, I think I shouldn't have done it. It happens that you're friends with someone and you want to help them. I realised very quickly that it wasn't going to work and walked out."
One thing that becomes clear while talking to Kochhar is that his assertion of being a businessman over and above being a chef could not be more accurate. He reveals how he has had to change his business model in recent years to adjust to the "peculiar economic times" to keep his head above water. "I had to downgrade my team and be realistic about the menu, what I can and cannot do, while still making it attractive to diners," he says. "Complicated plates need three people to dress them; I need plates that one person can do."
Kochhar says private dining rooms are both a restaurant's biggest asset and its biggest drain, and Benares has two of them. "Private dining used to be roaring in Mayfair. Christmas started in October and we had parties every night. But, during the tough times, it all changed and people stopped entertaining.
"So I shut the private dining rooms, shrank the team and focused on the main restaurant, which is our bread and butter. I had to become leaner and meaner, but it worked."
Immigrant workers Another issue facing not just Kochhar, but the entire ethnic restaurant community, is the government's cap on immigrant workers from outside the EU. Its proposed 'curry colleges' to encourage 'home-grown' Asian food chefs have failed to attract students and Kochhar fears that unless the government changes tack, the entire industry could be under threat.
"I can understand why the government is doing it," he says. "When immigration laws were lax, a lot of people abused it. Now things are strict and it's very, very tough on genuine businesses like us. The problem is that British people don't want to train as Asian chefs, and within the Asian community being a chef is not considered a desirable profession.
"Many Indian immigrants opened restaurants out of necessity, not passion. They want to give their kids a better life, so they want them to become doctors or lawyers, not chefs. It's a very wrong perspective and it's a huge problem. Ultimately, the government will need to change the system because otherwise this whole industry will die."
But right now, things are looking up for Kochhar, who is marking Benares' 10th anniversary with a special, nostalgic menu of the most popular dishes from the past decade. He is excited about Indian Essence, a local neighbourhood restaurant he opened with his brother-in-law in Bromley last December and hints there might be more to come.
"I have dedicated my career to my country's cuisine and pushed the boundaries to make it different and make people look at it differently," he says. "It's been self-fulfilling and although I sometimes wish I could have travelled more when I was young and learned from people like Charlie Trotter or Thomas Keller, I think I've done OK." We think so, too.
BENARES 10TH ANNIVERSARY TASTING MENU
Amuse-bouche Chicken tikka pie
Karara kekda aur lagosta Crispy soft shell crab, Atul's signature Peri-Peri lobster cocktail, baby watercress
Tandoori ratan Fennel-infused lamb chop, mustard-marinated king prawn
Pan-roasted wild sea bass, vermicelli, coconut and curry leaf sauce
Nimbu pani sorbet
Gosht rogan josh aur sunhari khasta Roasted cannon of Cornish lamb, shoulder samosa, potato and broad beans
Rose bhapa dhoi
* Priced at £78 per person, the menu is on offer at Benares until mid-September. A vegetarian menu is also available.
ATUL KOCHHAR ONâ¦
His cuisine "My food is an amalgamation of Britain and India. The biggest stamp of approval for me â¨is when Indian people dine at my restaurant and say my food can't be called Indian. It has to be British-Indian. When I first moved to the UK, I felt Indian. Now, almost 20 years on, â¨I feel a lot more British and my cuisine has to reflect that."
Opening Benares in India "I would never open a Benares in India; I wouldn't have an audience there. India is still very traditional when it comes to food and modern Indian restaurants don't do very well. Benares does well because I have access to an open-minded audience, who are ready to be adventurous."
Indian Essence in Bromley "It's a small local Indian restaurant with my mark on it. We're using Kentish farmers and suppliers and it's about serving and involving the local community. I'd love to open more."
The next generation of top Indian chefs Jitin Joshi, former head chef at Vatika, now living in Dubai
Samir Taneja, head chef at Benares
Abdul Yaseen, head chef at Cinnamon Kitchen
MEEN MOLEE - Coconut fish curry
4 small fillets of sea bass or sea bream (about 150g each)
2tbs vegetable oil
30ml coconut oil
2 medium onions, finely sliced
6 whole green chillies, slit lengthways
3 garlic cloves, sliced into fine strips
30 curry leaves
400ml coconut milk
Small bunch of coriander, chopped
2 scoops of masala mashed potatoes
Mixed cress for garnish
Mix 1tsp salt and 1tsp turmeric and gently rub into the fish fillets. Heat the coconut oil in a wide pan, then sauté the onion, chillies and garlic. Add 20 of the curry leaves and keep cooking until the onion is translucent.
Add the rest of the turmeric and salt, pour in the coconut milk and simmer very gently. Fry the rest of the curry leaves in a separate pan.
Pan-fry the fish in a non-stick pan and finish â¨with butter.
Serve on fish plates with masala mash and sauce, placing the fish on top of the mash and garnishing with mixed cress.