Getting to know Atul Kochhar

The two-time Michelin-starred chef opens new fine dining restaurant in Dubai

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When it comes to food in Dubai we’re spoilt for choice, and until the end of October food lovers being treated to a unique, one-of-a-kind menu, mixing the best of British with traditional Indian cuisine. Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar has used his years of experience for a mouth-watering ten-course ‘Britain Meets India’ menu at Rang Mahal in the five-star JW Marriot Marquis hotel. While he’s spent his life cooking food, he admits he’s a man with little appetite and doesn’t mind ordering the odd Dominos.

Indian food and Indian cuisine is of a really high standard in Dubai, what separates your menu from what’s already available?

I’ve believed for a long time that the best Indian food, outside of India itself, is in the UK. I went away from India and cooked for British people, who already knew about their curries but not in the modern form. I was in the UK at a time when new flavours were being embraced in British cuisine, so I became part of that movement in the mid-90s. To be able to learn and cook food in a new place, while still applying Indian traditions makes this new British-Indian menu more of a niche, so I’m trying to bring that here. I wouldn’t say I do anything new, but I give Indian food a European twist I guess you could say. I’m not making it just look pretty; we’re making it look damn good as well, something which hasn’t always happened with Indian food. I was trained traditionally, so I know how flavours are extracted but before, we never gave so much importance to the cooking, and the quality of meat and fish for instance. Now I care about deeply about the quality of the meat and fish we use.

Do you have a favourite dish on the menu?

That’s such a tough question, it’s like asking which of my children is my favourite! I like cooking seafood, that’s my real passion. I like to pick up whatever seafood I can from the market that’s fresh that day. My usual choice is mullet, preferably red because the flavours are massively different from the grey. Red works with lighter flavours. I’ll also try and pick up fresh prawns, scallops and fantastic muscles, all the seafood I can get hold of basically. I make a quick sauce before pan-frying the seafood and the flavours are tremendous. It’s simple, but a very spectacular dish.

It’s a whopping ten-course menu, does anyone really need that much food?

Ha-ha! Well it was nine courses but I added one. You see, we Indians love going out and eating out, but lentils and bread is something we just have to have, so I added that to the menu, just before the desert, which has made it ten courses.

What do Brits think of it?

They love it! The idea of the long courses isn’t so that you stuff yourself up. It’s more so you get a taste of a wide variety of textures, colours and flavours.  The portions are tiny. When a new dish comes out of the kitchen, the idea is that you’re not full; rather, you’re still hungry. One way I put my menu together is by getting chefs to prepare the plate and then I put a bucket on top of a weighing machine and put the food in there to see how many grams it is. It’s a good way of seeing if the guest is going to be too full when they eat that particular course. Another way of doing it is to sit down and eat it yourself, which of course I’ve done. Funnily enough, I wouldn’t say I’ve got a very big appetite! I actually eat very little so I feel very good eating this menu. A human can eat 1800 grams of food a day, no more, so I break it down that way. A meal shouldn’t be more than 700 grams really. It’s all monitored very closely. When I go to French restaurants they always bring out lots of bread and butter and by the time the main course comes you’re full. On my menu, it’s a lot smaller portions.

That’s interesting that you’ve a small appetite, have you never heard the expression, ‘never trust a thin chef?’

I have yes, but believe in living a healthy life, because I want to live a long time. My hero (fellow Michelin starred chef) Santi Santamaria collapsed in the kitchen a few years ago, when he was only in his 50s. He was an amazing, amazing chef; he was like a God to me. I saw that and just thought I don’t want it to happen to me. You don’t want to die because of eating and drinking.

What sort of atmosphere do you create in your kitchen?

I’m not Gordon Ramsey it’s safe to say. My kitchens are very calm and happy, I’m a relaxed guy and I like my chefs to smile while they’re working. They should feel happy to come to work and fulfilled when they leave after a day’s work. I’ve always believed that happy people give you more productivity.

Do you not get stressed in the kitchen if things get a bit hectic?

Let’s see, what can stress me out? If something goes wrong, like a plate falls on the floor when it’s ready to be served, I could get angry and scream and shout but what’s the point? The food still has to be made again. I’ll go out and apologise on behalf of the chef, come back and tell him he owes me one, and that’s it. I don’t get mad about things like that. I used to scream and shout but I felt very unhealthy and the turnover in the kitchen was very high so I began to lower my voice. Time teaches you a lot. If you can do things with a smile, what’s the point of doing the same thing by shouting?

What are the three ingredients that are always in your kitchen?

Ginger, lime and green cardamom. I love them all.

Complete this sentence for us… Classic Indian cooking is to me…

Classic Indian cooking is to me… a huge inspiration. I look back at what people were cooking thousands of years and I’m in awe of it. Things have changed in my time, I’ve got technology on my side now and we have fantastic flavours, which we can use with modern equipment so it’s an amazing time to be a chef.

Are you a big desert man?

I am, of course. When it comes to Indian deserts I take my inspiration from the UK, as those are the best in the world. The French could learn a lot from British deserts I think, I like to keep them fun, and my deserts are very playful.

You’re a Michelin starred chef but can you ever not be bothered to cook and just order a pizza?

Ha-ha, well I eat my wife’s food; she’s a fantastic cook. Every now and again I’ll order a pizza because my kids push me into it mainly. I remember once, while eating from my menu in my restaurant, my son said to me, “Dad, it’s nice to eat here but when are we going to have a proper meal like KFC?” I was so embarrassed I didn’t know where to look! Thankfully, he’s changed with age and now he’s ok with eating my food.

What advice would you give to any young chefs?

These days, young chefs are making the mistake of wanting to become famous really quickly. They use Twitter and Instagram and think they’re famous without actually achieving anything. Fame, awards and money all come with time, so I would say you’ve got to be truthful to yourself. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and keep learning more.

Finally, as a Michelin starred chef, when you go out to eat are you always critiquing the food you eat?

It depends on the mood I’m in to be honest. Some of the time I’ll be critical of what I’m eating and other days I just can’t be bothered and I just want to eat what’s in front of me. The main thing is I just want to have good food and enjoy what I’m eating, that’s all.

Fine Dining

Is fine dining as relevant today as it ever was with our busy lives?

You know, the food world has become overly complicated, we have all sorts of dining these days but one thing that’s always going to remain is that people will always want to sit down and eat a meal, without doing anything else to distract them. You want a good social environment, so I don’t think fine dining will ever go out of fashion. I think we’ll become less critical of it. At the end of the day, good food, good service and a good environment will always matter, in my view. My definition of fine dining changes as I get older however, and if you asked my son his definition of fine dining it would probably be different to mine, so everyone’s idea of fine dining varies.

Do you think people are more educated about fine dining and food in general now?

Definitely, and in all aspects, from how it’s cooked to how it’s sourced, we know a lot more about food these days. People are hugely into it, I think social media is helping big time too. I think it’s fun that people are into food so much now.

There seems to be a bit of a healthy eating boom at the moment, what’s that down to?

I think it’s a global trend actually. I was in India recently and people are now being very careful about what they eat and they want to know where the food is from and where it’s sourced. 

Will fine dining survive with people’s changing eating patterns?

Fine dining will always be there, no matter what. It’ll never go out of fashion but it might evolve with people’s needs and wants. When I say fine dining, I mean people who have good knowledge of what they’re serving and it’s in a pleasant environment.

Do you have a favourite fine dining restaurant?

Yes it’s called Eleven Madison Park in New York. The chef is called Daniel Humm, he’s like a God when it comes to cooking. He has a great understanding of where food comes from and how to treat it. In fact, it’s a shame I’m too old to be his commis chef, otherwise I’d have sucked up to learn more from him.