Posted on: May 6, 2024 Posted by: Comments: 0

Our interview with Atul Kochhar, an Indian-born UK-based chef who has changed the way people perceive and experience Indian food. Atul has been at the forefront of the Indian culinary industry for over 30 years and is recognized on an international scale now.

The Fashiongton Post: Being an Indian chef living and working in the UK and being surrounded by the variety of world cuisines, how do you define the cuisine’s direction that you specialize in?

Atul Kochhar: In very broad terms, the cuisine I specialize in is Indian, encompassing influences from each of India’s states, as showcased at my various restaurants in London, Buckinghamshire, Kent and India. But having said that, it’s clear that the broad variety of world cuisines now so readily available in the UK do have a huge influence on both dishes and ingredients, so crossovers are a definite product of that, regardless of whether we always notice. It’s that cultural crossover that has forged the way we cook and eat, which is constantly evolving at should definitely be celebrated!

F.P.: What makes Indian cuisine stand out?

A.K.: Indian food has been popular in the UK for a very long time now, from Queen Victoria, to the curry house boom of the 1970s, up to modern day. Over that time, Indian cuisine has come a long way. Once especially renowned for its spiciness – which posed a huge difference to traditional British food at the time – Indian cuisine is now celebrated for its varying flavours, aromas and cooking techniques. Each of the states have differing dishes and cooking styles, which is now more represented in the UK, thanks to availability of more ingredients, more chefs moving the UK, and a general willingness from the British public to try new things. It’s a very exciting time to run a group of Indian restaurants.

F.P.: Is there a culinary tradition or technique from a culture other than your own that has deeply influenced your cooking style?

A.K.: Wok-cooking is something that influences me. Although most commonly associated with China, woks are extremely versatile and the many ways in which they can be used for cooking makes life a lot easier in the kitchen. It also goes back to cultural crossovers, with Chinese food having had influences on Indian food over the years and vice versa, with many stir-fried dishes now popular in India, China and far beyond.

F.P.: How do you maintain a sense of balance and harmony in your dishes, both in terms of flavors and presentation?

A.K.: When cooking, balance is everything. It’s something that’s instilled at culinary school as a very basic foundation of cooking. Of course, if you can really push the boundaries of flavors and balance and really pull it off, then great, but if executed badly, it really affects the dish. Some of the worst dishes I’ve tasted have been due to a poor balance of flavors rather than bad cooking. At my restaurants, all of the dishes are rigorously tested, with flavor, texture and balance before they’re even considered for the menu.

F.P.: What’s the most memorable meal in any other restaurant that you’ve ever had as a diner, and how has it influenced your perspective on gastronomy?

A.K.: My best meal was “Eleven Madison Park” restaurant in NYC.  It was a 17-course meal, each and every bite had a story to tell. For the first time in my career as a chef I was truly witnessing passion for food, service and ambiance – that was in total sync.  It really inspired me to do so much more with my own businesses.

F.P.: Does it often happen when visitors ask a chef to come out from the kitchen to their table if they loved (or did not) the food they’ve just ate?

A.K.: When celebrity chefs were first becoming a big thing in the UK, these requests would be very common, but nowadays they are significantly less so. Attitudes to eating out have certainly changed over the past 20 years, and even more so since the COVID pandemic. Of course, people still enjoy eating out and make it a big part of their lives, but most people are now happy to enjoy their food in peace. Having said that, people do request to speak with the chef, especially during special occasions, but it’s becoming less and less common, and it’s almost always to praise the cooking rather than to complain.

F.P.: Should a good dish cost extremely high or can an inexpensive dish be good enough? Does the price matter on a psychological level for the clients?

A.K.: Fundamentally, price shouldn’t matter when it comes to determining whether a dish is good or not. The key factors to consider are the cooking and the ingredients. It’s much better to have well-prepared, inexpensive ingredients than poorly-prepared expensive ingredients. Besides, less-expensive ingredients such as lesser-loved cuts of meat are far more forgiving. Having said that, when people visit a fine dining restaurant, most are much more likely to order something extravagant, something they wouldn’t usually eat at home – lobster, fillet steak, venison, etc. These dishes are, of course, at a more expensive scale, simply because the ingredients are much more expensive to source. The dishes aren’t purely expensive for the sake of it. Some of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten in India have cost a fraction of what they would in the UK, but due to the economy, constantly rising prices, staff and energy costs, it’s just not possible to match that in the UK. I try to make my restaurants as accessible as possible, while serving the highest level of Indian cuisine using exceptional produce, and I feel it’s all that matters. Perhaps, the cost of a dish does have a psychological effect, but ultimately it shouldn’t matter.

F.P.: Your piece of advice to young chefs and culinary or fashion inspired readers of The Fashiongton Post?

A.K.: It may sound a little cliché, but my best advice is to just keep going. Follow your dreams. Both industries are very tough to crack into at this stage, and to become successful. But through sheer grit and determination, the hard work will eventually pay off.

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