Atul Kochhar was the first Indian chef ever to win a Michelin star in 2001 when he headed up the kitchens at Tamarind in Mayfair. He repeated the accolade when he became head chef at Benares in Berkeley Square and has gone on to become one of the country's foremost Indian chef-restaurateurs, with three Home Counties restaurants to his name: Hawkyns in Amersham, Indian Essence in Orpington and Sindhu in Marlow.
Summer 2018 saw Kochhar making headlines for all the wrong reasons, however, when a Twitterstorm led to his departure from Benares and also saw his contract with the Rang Mahal restaurant in Dubai terminated.
Now Kochhar is back in Mayfair with Kanishka, a new restaurant focusing on the little-known food of the Seven Sister States, which border China, Tibet and Burma in the far north-east of India. Here the chef tell us about his feelings on leaving Benares, how he has re-discovered his love of cooking and why he'd never be without his karahi.
What was the inspiration behind Kanishka?
I did Punjabi food at Tamarind and pan-Indian food at Benares so I was looking for something new to bring to London. I’d been to Sikkim many times on holiday and the cooking always struck me as very different to the food we have in the rest of India; it has more in common with Nepal and China than Bengal and Punjab. They don’t tend to use many powdered spices, they rely on salting and preserving through air-drying, and there’s a lot of beef, pork, duck and pigeon.
Did you want to do something very different to Benares with Kanishka?
I wanted to change everything that I did at Benares. For my last couple of years there I didn’t know where to take it. I read the online comments and I silently agreed with them – I thought, yeah, it has become boring.
At Benares we took Indian food to a fine-dining level for a European market. I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy it. But Indian food is meant to be sharing food. Suddenly by finding something new I have rekindled my love for what I do.
Kanishka's dining room
You left Benares after making anti-Islam comments on Twitter. Would you like to set the record straight on what happened?
I made a mistake and I put my hands up. I could have tried to explain what I said but that would have led to more fighting. I’m an inclusive person and I grew up around Muslims. I’m ashamed about what I said and I don’t feel good about it. But I’ve said sorry, I’ve moved on and I hope other people do too. Talking about religion is not my speciality. I’m a foodie guy, so judge me on that.
Were you asked to leave Benares and Rang Mahal, or did you resign?
I was asked to leave Rang Mahal. The UAE is a Muslim country and they took a lot of offence at what I said. I told the owners, I can resign or you can end my contract. We had a civilised chat about it and they’re still my friends. I look back and think that I created something very beautiful there. It was Dubai’s best restaurant of the year for many years.
My leaving Benares was a massively opportunistic move by my former partner. In your low times, you look to your friends and your business partners for help, and rather than supporting me he scavenged on me. I’m still hurting about it.
How has the Indian restaurant scene changed since you became the first Indian chef to win a Michelin star at Tamarind?
Before I won the Michelin star, Indian restaurants were curry houses and then suddenly they became restaurants. The whole image of Indian restaurants changed and then more and more players got involved. Indian food has become mainstream and vibrant and nowhere in the world comes close to Indian food in London. Indian food in India is very different, as Chinese food in China is. I think the food we have here should be called British Indian food.
Atul Kochhar's lamb chops at Kanishka
Why do you think there’s currently a boom in high-end Indian restaurants?
For the last five or so years, the Indian restaurant scene has been through a cheap and cheerful and quite tacky phase. Now diners are saying, these places might look simplistic but the bill is not simplistic; let’s pay £10 or £20 more and have fantastic service, a great ambience, a good wine list and people who look after you really well.
Why did you choose Mayfair as the location for Kanishka?
I’ve always worked in Mayfair and I feel comfortable cooking here and comfortable with the clientele. I also have three restaurants outside London which I really enjoy – Hawkyns in Amersham, Sindhu in Marlow and Indian Essence in Orpington – but London will always be my main stage.
Is there a signature dish at Kanishka?
The goat curry is my favourite. It’s done in a very simple manner and I like the rusticity of it. It is spiced with ginger, garlic, honey and turmeric – there’s no garam masala – and the real flavour of goat comes through.
Kochhar with his chef team at Kanishka
Do you have any favourite wine matches for Indian food?
I like fruitier and younger wines with Indian food. New World wines work incredibly well. I always say that every food is made for a bottle of wine, you just have to find that bottle. We have about 100 bins on the Kanishka list and we’re keen to try new things. We recently found an English sparkling wine called Breaky Bottom which went extremely well with our soft-shell crab dish.
Are you planning to open more restaurants?
I will definitely open more restaurants. It’s not the greed for me, it’s the need. Million Pound Menu, the BBC Series that I’ve been doing, has been about helping people realise their potential, and that’s always been my biggest passion. I’m helping a young couple from Million Pound Menu open their first Indian burger shop in London, called Bubble&. It’s an amazing story, the boy is from Birmingham and the girl is from London and they fell in love in India, came back and said this is what we want to do now. They have no training in Indian food but they have created something spectacular.
How do you relax?
Family. Messing around with my kids is the best way to unwind. I have a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year- old son. I’m slowly getting into gardening, too. I have green fingers but time is the issue. Whenever I put a plant in the ground I think, yes! I’ve done it – but then I don’t look after it.
The bar at Kanishka
Which are your favourite London restaurants?
I live in Isleworth so we tend to go out in west London. For casual meals, we like to go to High Road Brasserie in Chiswick. The Glasshouse in Kew is another favourite. And I’ve been going to Petersham Nurseries ever since the Skye Gyngell days. I’ve always loved the restaurant no matter who is cooking there. It’s relaxed and chilled out from the moment you enter.
Do you have a favourite food destination?
I adore Thailand. Whenever we went out as a family in India it was always for an Indian meal or a Chinese meal. Thai food arrived as I was leaving India and I realised it had both curries and noodles. It’s a fantastic two-in-one combination of Indian and Chinese food – it has the spices, the balance and the complexity.
Do you have a favourite kitchen gadget?
A karahi. It’s like a wok but slightly heavier and it has two handles. I can cook anything and everything in that.
What would you be if you weren’t a chef?
My father told me to choose my career very carefully because you wake up with that job every day of your life. My grandfather was a baker and my dad had a catering business so I got inspired looking at them. I thought, I’d love to do that and I’ve continued to do it. I love what I do passionately.