April 19, 2009
Mild and wonderful
Indian cooking is not all hot and spicy, says chef Atul Kochhar
By Fiona Low
Unlike celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who is known for swearing at his kitchen staff, Atul Kochhar is mild in demeanour.
The Indian chef, who has been featured in numerous TV shows such as the British Broadcasting Corporation's Great British Menu, has a firm no-shouting policy in his kitchen.
'I don't believe in belittling any human being and I don't think it should be any different in a professional environment,' says the 38-year-old.
Born in Jamshedpur, India, he enrolled in medical school at 19 because his father wanted him to become a doctor. But he dropped out just six weeks later, after realising it was not for him.
His father owned a catering business and Kochhar was introduced to the food and beverage industry early on.
'I became addicted to the kitchen side of the business and decided that catering was my destiny,' he says.
He began training and working at the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi and eventually moved to London in 1994 as head chef of Tamarind, an Indian restaurant in Mayfair. The first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star when he was with Tamarind in 2001, he opened his own restaurant, Benares, in 2003, serving up contemporary Indian cuisine.
Today, he has three Michelin stars and two more restaurants - Ananda in Dublin, Ireland, and Vatika in Wickham, England. Ananda is similar to his first restaurant and Vatika serves British food.
He is here for the World Gourmet Summit, and will conduct a culinary workshop at Miele Kitchen on Tuesday.
Who is your greatest inspiration?
My father. His inventiveness with ingredients and spices was always nothing short of magical. Learning from his methods, preparations and execution of products was spellbinding for me.
What was the first dish you cooked?
I cooked an omelette when I was eight or nine years old and it wasn't that bad.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt as a chef?
While being creative and innovative is good, learning the two sides of a balance sheet is also very important, as you have to understand how to make a venture viable. It is this knowledge that can make or break a business.
What is your cooking philosophy?
I believe in using simple, local ingredients paired with great techniques. This combination produces food that is always good.
In your opinion, what is the best thing about Indian food?
That it is great fusion food. It has been influenced and enriched by so many cultures and cuisines from all over the world because of trade and colonialism.
What is the biggest misconception about it?
That there is an excessive use of red chilli in Indian cooking. India was introduced to red chilli only a few hundred years ago by the Portuguese and we use it for flavour, not for spiciness.
What is your guilty food indulgence?
Don't tell anyone, but I like eating at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I have a five year-old daughter and a two-year-old son, so it is easy to get tempted.
What is always in your fridge?
Fruits, because my family and I love them. My favourite is mango.
What was the most memorable meal you have had?
The one I had with chef Albert Roux at his restaurant, Le Gavroche, in London. I will always remember it because I was eating with a legend. I had scallops for starters, roasted baby chicken with five spices for mains and tarte tatin, which is an upside-down apple tart, for dessert.
What is your signature dish?
Pan-roasted John Dory with oven-roasted tomatoes. The fillet is marinated in a thick herb paste and then pan-fried and finished in the oven. Tomatoes are roasted with ginger and sesame seeds and then served with a seasonal salad.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
Daal curry with roti - which is a lentil stew eaten with flat Indian bread - because it reminds me of my childhood with my father. Things were not so good then, but we were positive and full of hope. Eating daal and roti used to inspire me and my family to strive for a better future.