Meet the chef: Atul Kochhar talks menus, curries and Michelin
In 2001, two men in London became the very first Indian chefs whose restaurants were each crowned with a Michelin star at exactly the same time. According to Atul Kochhar, “I tease Vineet [Bhatia] because alphabetically I come first!”
Having won his first Michelin for Tamarind at the age of 31, Kochhar moved on to open his own restaurant Benares, which scooped the much-coveted star in 2007. He now has seven restaurants in the UK, Ireland, Mauritius, a couple of P&O cruise ships and his latest opening, Rang Mahal at the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai where he’s developing the seasonal menu.
“When we opened Rang Mahal earlier this year it was a spring/ summer menu and now is the time to look at the winter vegetables coming into the market from India; the proximity from here is a huge benefit to operating in this region. I am also looking at incorporating some quirky dishes with game.”
What about sourcing produce from the UAE now that the harvesting season will recommence? “We work very closely with the Dar Al Fateh farm here who grow a lot of produce for us, but we have to share that with the executive chef of the hotel who uses local for the other restaurants. It’s great that we can at least kick start the process of sourcing local. On the menu we have a recipe called farmer’s special, so whatever we get from the farm that day we cook that.”
Aside from the Dubai and Mauritius openings this year, Kochhar has been busy promoting his second cookbook dedicated to 200 curries from around the world. From Great Britain (given balti and chicken tikka masala are wholeheartedly British creations) to Singapore, from Thailand to North America, and from Cambodia to the Caribbean, the recipes are indexed by ingredient.
“I always try local curries wherever I travel making copious notes, so my publisher suggested writing the book. Some countries like Tanzania I haven’t been to, so I researched through the web, cookbooks and reached out to some of the well-known chefs in those countries. I tested various recipes and also tried to find the historical links. I love the way food has travelled and taken different shapes through the spice trade. With Sudanese food, cardamom, black pepper and clove work together in a strong way, perking up a curry in a way you would not expect.”
Curries aside, Kochhar is a chef well versed to working under the beady eyes and refined palates of Michelin inspectors. Not only is there tremendous pressure to retain the star, but perhaps also to gain another in either Benares, or a first in some of his other restaurants should Michelin enter those markets. So could Dubai be ready for Michelin?
“I think it is. It has the right mix of cuisines, the level of cooking standards has improved so much. So many expats are here. People have cooked for big names in Europe, America, Australia. You are spoilt for choice with produce in this place so you can pretty much get anything you want. I think they should come sooner or later.”
Michelin please take note. In the meantime, Kochhar is in no rush, preferring to grow his empire organically.
“I opened a restaurant in Mauritius at the St Regis at the same time as Dubai, which wasn’t the intention; they were meant to have been a year apart. I want these two places to have a breather first before looking at something new. Maybe Abu Dhabi in the future but I want to get this one right first.”
Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar is located at the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, Sheikh Zayed road, Business Bay. T; +971 4 4143000. Open daily for dinner only. Atul’s Curries of the World cookbook is available from the Kinokuniya bookstore in Dubai Mall for AED 130.
Note – the original version of my interview was published in The National – Arts & Life, along with Atul’s recipe for Gulf shrimps ‘limbu rubiyan’.