Michelin Star Chef Atul Kochhar has long cemented his name on the global cuisine map, celebrating Indian flavours with each dish. The British-based Indian-born restaurateur brings contemporary creations to the table—be it at Hawkyns in Amersham, England; Indian Essence in Kent; or even SAGA: Cuisines of India in Gurugram, India. His favourite dish, however, remains steeped in traditions. By Bayar Jain
T+L India: What do you miss most about India—in terms of food, and otherwise?
Chef Atul Kochhar: Of course, my family. But in terms of food, I miss everything: the smell, taste, sight, street food, and two of my favourites, chole bhature and pani puri—I miss those incredibly! Whenever I am back, I am going to binge on these two [dishes] for the first few days, post which I will eat whatever is available.
T+L India: What were the challenges you faced while setting up base in the UK as an Indian chef?
Chef Atul Kochhar: When I arrived here, the first and foremost challenge was to understand what people like and what they don’t like, the ingredients available, and the seasonality of the vegetables and meat. It took me almost three years in the country to understand this cycle and start cooking the way I wanted. But once I understood the country’s agricultural cycle, I haven’t looked back since. I absolutely adore every season in the UK.
T+L India: Over the years, how has the global palate evolved in terms of Indian cuisine?
Chef Atul Kochhar: It’s been a humongous change over a period of time. It has taken a long time for us to push Indian cuisine onto the world podium, but I think we all have managed to do that. People across the world are sitting up and taking notice of Indian cuisine. Hence, some of the leading restaurants in the leading cities of the world are Indian restaurants. I think it’s going to become bigger, better and more global.
T+L India: Tell us about your most memorable gastronomic adventure in India.
Chef Atul Kochhar: When I was a student in Chennai, there was a restaurant called Punaswami. I think that was one quirky restaurant that was doing dishes like pigeon curry or rabbit curry. I don’t think many restaurants in India do that! It served Chettinad cuisine so it was quite spicy and hot, but very unique. I’m still mesmerised by it. Whenever I visit Chennai, I would love to go back to that place to enjoy their food.
T+L India: What’s your take on the current culinary scene in India—and its future?
Chef Atul Kochhar: In the last three decades since I left India, India has progressed so much. There was no culinary scene, so to speak, when I left. All the culinary skills were within hotel boundaries, but now there are standalone restaurants that can stand on their own feet and take on the world. When I look back and think about the way India is progressing, I think it’s one heck of a gastronomic destination. As Indians, we are [now] realising that every city or region has its own hotspots. There’s a lot to explore in India and I can’t wait to see that dream come true.
T+L India: Any particular places that you’d like to visit when you come to India next?
Chef Atul Kochhar: South India has always been close to my heart, and the more I explore it, the hungrier I get to learn more about it. Whenever I am back next time, I aim to explore South India a bit more. I have explored Karnataka very little and that’s one place where I want to get back and learn more and more about.
T+L India: Indian dishes you wish the world knew more about?
Chef Atul Kochhar: One Indian delicacy that has always mesmerised me is kadhi. Believe it or not, we Indians eat kadhi in every part of the country by making different versions of it. It’s a universal dish, like khichdi. If we can expose this amazing dish to the world, it will be fantastic. I’ve done my bit, but I think there’s so much more to explore.
T+L India: Define India in a sentence.
Chef Atul Kochhar: Mystical, wonderful, beautiful, flavoursome, gorgeous…I can go on!
T+L India: Please recommend five Indian restaurants to our readers.
Chef Atul Kochhar: These are not in any order, as I like all of them: Adaa at Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad; Bukhara at ITC Maurya, New Delhi; The Bombay Canteen (Mumbai); Hakkasan Mumbai; and, of course, SAGA: Cuisines of India, Gurgaon.
T+L India: Your favourite regional cuisine in India?
Chef Atul Kochhar: My favourite regional cuisine in India would be South Indian. Of course, I love my own cuisine, Punjabi, but I absolutely adore South Indian food, too. I’m partial towards food from Kerala.