The Michelin-starred head chef of top Indian restaurant Benares chats to me about how local ingredients influence his cooking, and gives a demo in honour of his father’s culinary heritage
“There is no such thing as Indian food,” says Atul Kochhar, head chef of Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Benares, to an assembled crowd waiting for his cookery demonstration at London’s Asia House.
An odd statement, perhaps, coming from one of the UK’s foremost Indian chefs, and yet it says more about his cooking than perhaps anything else he could say. Having trained at the famous Indian Oberoi hotels, he came to the UK from Delhi in 1994, winning his first Michelin star for restaurant Tamarind in 2001, and another for Benares in 2007. He has made a name for himself on television and in print, and still manages – unlike some ‘celebrity’ chefs – to put in some serious hours in his various successful kitchens.
But while his is irrefutably what we in Britain would see as ‘Indian’ food, Kochhar’s approach is actually mixed, taking influences from the UK and the rest of the world in full appreciation of how far Indian cooking has come.
“Wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve eaten curries, and have seen how differently it has evolved since it left India,” he explains. “The different forms and shapes; Africa, parts of Asia…Britain. I discovered different versions of Indian curries in America as well, that was a funny thing!”
This, in fact, is the subject of his new book, Atul’s Curries of the World. Published just two months ago, it is a celebration of curries from around the globe – a whirlwind tour of a dish which ostensibly came from the sub-continent, but now belongs to everyone everywhere ‒ in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Britain or South Africa ‒ often having changed beyond recognition.
“That’s a very interesting story. If you look at Malaysia, the curries have taken local ingredients on – lemongrass, lime leaf… When you migrate to a country, you do it wholeheartedly or you don’t,” says Kochhar, relating this to his own open-minded approach to using local ingredients. “You can’t sit on the fence and say ‘No, I’m from India.’ Follow your own tradition, but use the produce of the country. Food is the biggest form of integration,” he adds.
He uses one of his own restaurants, Indian Essence, in Bromley, Kent, as an example for his own cooking. “I basically use classics, what people like, using local produce in Kent. I’m surrounded by farms and I use local products ‒ the new season turnip and the baby carrots and the broad beans or the watercress ‒ it’s really helping me.”And yet, for his Asia House demonstration, Kochhar has chosen to pay homage to his roots. Cooking Lahori Murgh (Chicken from Lahore, Pakistan), he explains that his father’s family came from what is now Pakistan, at a time pre-Partition when it was still just another part of the Indian Punjab.
“Pakistan has always been a great place for me,” he tells me. “And Lahore has always been a gastronomic centre. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Pakistan, but my family came from that part of the Punjab.
“This book is more memories of journeys. I learnt my cooking from my father, and he was born in Pakistan. This curry is in homage to him. Food has always been the common thing that takes you back.”
Kochhar spends a long time explaining this philosophy to the audience, taking pains to ask us to consider how non-homogenous – and yet so varied ‒ Indian food is, as his executive chef from Benares (here to assist) gently stirs a huge pot of rice in the background. Unsurprisingly for someone who has made a successful TV career for himself, Kochhar is as good-natured and adept in front of an audience as he is behind a stove.
As soon as the onions go into the pan, wafting their incredible aroma into the air, it feels exciting. Here is a famous chef, with a book, TV and multiple-restaurant career, cooking chicken curry for this one small audience, on this random Saturday. Why would he choose to do a demonstration at this kind of low-key event, I ask him, with such a successful, starry and varied a career as his?
“Asia House is a famous cultural centre,” he tells me, before the demo begins. “I’m an Asian. I think it’s important. I’ll meet new exciting people here, and there’s always the hope that I might be able to bring my restaurant to a whole new group of people.”And he is completely at ease, explaining the three ways to cook Indian onions (from clear for kormas, golden brown for masalas, to dark for rogan josh-type dishes) and how important oil temperature is, making jokes about how much spice to add and refuting the recommended amounts in his book as rubbish. “Watch carefully,” he says in mock-seriousness, as he bungs in a random-looking amount of brightly-coloured powder, once, twice, three times. “Book publishers always say you need a measure,” he says, “But spices should always be like seasoning – you use the spices according to your own personal taste.
“Don’t follow the recipe blindly – use my book as mere guidance. People should do their own thing; food is a personal impression.”
And he moves on to take audience questions, adding tomatoes, chicken and – oh, quite a lot – of green chilli. The smell of perfectly-balanced flavours fills the room.
As the mixture bubbles away, a debate begins about the merits of ginger garlic paste, which Kochhar says can be used in this dish. If you want to, homemade is best, he says, and should be added after the onions are ready.
Talking of onions, Kochhar is clear that they can really make a difference. One day, he explains, his wife – Deepti ‒ made a dish and it tasted so good, he asked what was different (“She’s a great cook, don’t get me wrong!” he jokes). She was using Indian onions, he realised, which are stronger, pinker, and have less sugar. “They were selling them in Tesco and cheaper than the others, so I bought them,” Kochhar remembers her saying. “Good answer,” he nods.
But despite all this talk, no-one could forget about the curry being cooked right now, slowly simmering away in the silver pan.And when it’s served, it’s delicious. Even the small portion metered out (so that everyone can have a bit) is enough to tell. From such familiar, un-showy ingredients, it’s fantastic: fragrant and delicate, the chicken is succulent and perfectly dressed, with just the right amount of spice and garnish to crush warmly in the mouth, and just enough sauce to cover the flawlessly-cooked rice (an amazing feat in such a makeshift kitchen setting – we’re using camping stoves, here).
So simple. From the beginning, Kochhar has handled the room, the audience, the pan, and the plate with relaxed poise. As he takes questions from the crowd, stands around as book after book is handed to him to sign, discusses question after question with people who insist on telling him just how their Indian mother made it, and smiles good-naturedly again and again as people ask for their photo to be taken with him, he quietly radiates the the calm look of a man at peace with his cooking, and, as befits his open-minded approach, at peace with a world that offers up such inspiration.
“These are rich, big, bold flavours,” he says. “I’m not holding back. This is classic and I want to keep it like that.”At the end of the demo, I ask Kochhar’s executive chef what he is like as a boss. “Tough, like all bosses are, but he allows me to be creative,” he says, telling me that despite training at Oberoi (like Kochhar), before meeting the chef, he hadn’t really worked with Indian food. “I told him I wanted to learn how to work with spices, so he offered me a chance at Benares,” he explains. He’s been there ever since.
Kochhar may believe that there’s no such thing as Indian food. And yet, if he is anything to go by, I’d say there definitely is such a thing as an Indian chef – and a brilliant, down-to-earth one at that.