It’s always a pleasure to chat with Atul Kochhar. Not just because he is a two-time Michelin starred culinary genius who has taken Indian cuisine to a global level, but because a conversation with the telegenic and extremely articulate chef is also always a delightful gastronomic journey, replete with exchange of interesting anecdotes, history and travel tales. I have always enjoyed meeting him and it was no different during his recent trip to Dubai where we had a chatathon, hours before the fifth edition of his popular ‘Battle of the Chefs’ series that saw him spar with fellow chef Nigel Haworth.
The face-off saw the duo cook up a five-course meal (leaving diners to decide the winner) at Rang Mahal, his restaurant at the JW Marriott Marquis that has completed seven years in an ultra-competitive food space. Certainly no mean feat considering Dubai’s ever evolving foodscape! Kochhar knows a thing or two about making a success of a venture but the business aspect aside, what is fascinating about him is his unending curiosity and passion to discover and present food in a new light. Excerpts from a fun chat…
In a food face-off, is there a template to decide a winner? Isn’t taste subjective?
You have to see the technique, the way it’s cooked, and the culture and ethos it’s coming from. Every chef has his or her own story, so to be able to put yourself in his or her shoes is very hard. You have no option but to take it (the dish) at face value – its look, taste, texture and so on. I feel, serving a meal is like going to a theatre. The performance is staged, the artiste performs in an ambiance he has created with music, lights, smoke etc, the idea being to transport us into a world he or she has set for us. Cooking is similar; to be able to come with just pots and pans and then cook up a meal is a daunting task!
You have been part of many reality shows (Masterchef, Great British Menu etc) how tough are they to judge and how much of it is real?
Most of them are real! When I got into it initially, I wanted to go into a corner and scream! The pressure was immense as they give timelines, deadlines and structure. They don’t tell you how to behave, but there is a lot of pressure.
In Indian reality shows, we often see contestants come up with sob stories. Do you get swayed by emotions when you judge a contest?
They are humans too and sometimes sob stories do work. But yes, in Indian reality shows, everyone is crying, they are great for TRPs! There are real struggle stories too though I get bored of them. You are there to perform, so show me what you have got! I simply go by the moment and cut the rest; I am pretty unattached. As they say in England, “may the best man win on the day”.
How, in your opinion, has the food scene evolved in Dubai?
The competition here is intense – be it in hotels, design or architecture. I also feel there is humongous talent in the city. Ten years ago, if you had asked me this, I would say ‘Dubai? Maybe not!’ But now I feel Dubai is great, every chef is trying to gain a foothold here. I feel privileged that I have been attached to a proper restaurant for the past seven years. However, the question always looms – ‘where do you go next? This city amazes me as it constantly resets its challenges and shifts goal posts.
Being a very heterogeneous society, is Dubai more challenging for a chef?
Dubai is very diverse. I used to feel that about London but London can be divided into European vs Non-European. However, Dubai is different, the world comes here. You have Asians, South American, Europeans, Africans… and everyone comes with a different ethos, so it’s impossible to generalise what they want. The challenges are many – what do you come up with? Do you cater to the larger section of society? Do you create a multi-cuisine restaurant? Where do we serve the food/cuisine in the right way? So I think, going forward, you must come up with a Dubai culture – knowing what people of Dubai want and generate a cuisine based on that knowledge. Basically, the old mantra remains – take care of your customers, look after their needs and they will take care of you. It’s a mantra that has always worked for me. Never dismiss anyone, there is a big roti-daal crowd there who will see you through the tough times. Never dismiss them. Always give good service and they will come back to you.
You have popularised Indian cuisine all over the world but is there any part of our culinary heritage that you feel deserves more exposure?
We have varied cuisines that deserve a shout out but now I feel Indian food is getting unified. There is always a part of me that will crave for regional food – be it Kannada cuisine or Tamil or Bengali food but for the new generation these boundaries are blurred. They just look at it as ‘Indian food’. But personally, if I have to talk about a cuisine, it would be North Eastern food. They are little known and there is so much to do with them!
The North Eastern states are also near the border of countries like China and Burma so they have a beautiful mix. Once I met a lady from Nagaland and got to know so much about the region and its cuisine, I promised myself to go there and learn more!
So do you see yourself including, say, a Naga dish in any of your menu?
Absolutely! The (aforementioned) lady, told me about a chicken dish cooked in bamboo. A wild leaf which is part ginger and part turmeric, is used in it. They take boneless chicken, add salt, wrap it with the leaf, shove it into a bamboo shoot, add water/stock and kind of layer it to barbecue. The pieces are rolled over slowly and taken out. Sometimes they also add rice in it, so the rice gets cooked along with the chicken. It’s very simple but amazing with the flavour of the ginger and turmeric coming through the leaf.
You work with a lot of young chefs. What’s the main difference in the approach of the millennials to food and cooking?
Millennials today have what I didn’t – people to look up to. I only looked at India when I was young, they look at the world. I thought it would be great to train in Kerala or Kolkata but they want to go to Spain, Milan or New York to train. A lot of them work with me now. They are also the Instagram generation; they take more pictures than they cook! And I say that as a compliment. Their recall is quicker because all they have to do, for reference, is to go to Instagram and pull out an image. I used to painstakingly make notes or memorise (laughs). Millennials are lucky because they have technology on their side.
Talking of Instagram, how essential is it to design a menu keeping Instagram in mind?
It’s a huge trend coming into the food industry; people want to look at good things, want to know what’s in it, how it’s created and so on. I think Instagram has proved to be fashion of the food industry.
Another trend that has still not died in Dubai at least, is that of molecular gastronomy. Your take?
Are you going to seriously ask me that (laughs)?
Yes! Is it well and truly over?
I think the last nail in the coffin has been driven and anyone who is doing it, is living in the past. I did train in the technique but realised I don’t need it. We are already pumping in enough fertilizers to grow our food, do we need more chemicals before we give it to diners?
Let’s talk about your travels now. Did you pick anything interesting food-wise from your recent travels?
Oh yes! On a trip to Spain recently, I went to a tapas bar in Madrid run by two young ladies. They make about 12 dishes a day and there are only about 18-20 seats but the queue has to be seen to be believed! I went there when it was pouring but saw people patiently wait for their chance. I had to myself wait for 45 minutes but it was worth it. The flavours were incredible, she was using ingredients that are rarely used in cooking these days. Basically, it was a recreation of food that had been forgotten. For instance, I tried this dish of wild boar that was amazing, unlike anything I had tasted before! And imagine, she was a home cook, she wasn’t trained anywhere. So you see, you don’t need to be a chef all the time to make great food.
I read in one of your interviews that you enjoy these hole in the wall places, the famous Calicut Paragon in Dubai being one of them. How do you analyse the success of these eateries?
I love Calicut Paragon! I think, such places are a fix, you need it from time to time. It’s like going back home to mum and dad! It’s not just the food but the ambiance, smell and feel of these places that take us back. It doesn’t matter whether they are fancy or not, whether they have air conditioning or not but you enjoy them. Places like Calicut Paragon transport me to Kerala and those flavours I have been craving since I was a student; I relive those experiences.
So are you a traditionalist or a modernist when it comes to cooking?
I am a good mix of traditionalist and modernist. I used to look at myself as a modernist but as time goes by, as my children grow older and I see myself repeating those very words that dad used to tell me, I feel I am moving towards tradition (laughs). When it comes to cooking though, I think I uphold traditional values very strongly. At the same time, I step into modernism and keep an eye on the latest trends and what’s driving them. It comes with a huge responsibility. You have to carry tradition faithfully and hand it over to the next generation. At the same time, you have to get them ready for the next big development.