Think of Indian restaurants overseas and you think butter chicken, aloo gobi and rotis. At the other end of the spectrum, innovative and innately gifted chefs have sought to go beyond the food boundaries. One of them being Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to be awarded the Michelin star.
He runs the no-tables-to-spare Benares eatery in London and has just been appointed ambassador of Indian cuisine.
On a faraway island, in a kingdom called England, lives a 38-year-old father of two and husband of one. Maybe you've heard of him, maybe you haven't, but fanatic foodies most certainly have. <b1>
After all, Atul Kochhar has been dishing out award-winning fusion fare since his departure from his motherland, India, a little over a decade ago.
Jamshedpur-born, the Ben Affleck near-lookalike, is legendary for his swordfish tikka and tamarind jelly. He teaches Indian cookery at the Thames Valley University writes cookbooks and pops up on an occasional show on TV .
Although the Michelin star was awarded in 2001 to Mayfair hotel's Tamarind restaurant in London, Kochhar continues to be the face of Indian cuisine abroad.
He was head chef at Tamarind. Next, he was consultant chef with Marks and Spencer. Shortly, he was declared Restaurant Personality of the Year (in 2001) by the Best in Britain Awards. Then there was the British Curry Industry award in 2005.
But more recently, Kochhar, who now owns and runs London's high-end Indian eatery, Benares, was appointed ambassador for Indian cuisine at London's India Now cultural fest (July to September). Jharna Thakkar caught up with the chef extraordinaire, for a chat:
Where do you draw your food influences from?
Coming from the northern plains, my childhood was filled with a multi-cultural pot of food from Punjab, Bihar, the southern states and Kolkata. Jamshedpur, even then, was quite a cosmopolitan city, which drew its influences from all over India. So did I.
My parents introduced me to flavours that most kids would shun. While growing up, I didn't know that Id and Christmas weren't my festivals to celebrate. When I moved away I took that secular essence with me.
So, what's your role in the India Now festival?
It's a celebration of the myriads tastes, colours and the spirit of India. Since food obviously plays a key role in our lives, I've been appointed ambassador for Indian cuisine at the festival.
But to be honest, Indian food has been a part of the British gastronomy dating 400 years ago, when they landed in India. The culinary association has always been strongly bilateral. They gave us cake and we gave them curry .
Which is the current hit Indian flavour in London?
(Laughs) Everything Indian, actually. As more people travel and read, the demand is on for authentic flavours. Britons love vibrancy of Indian food. They say it uplifts their mood.
From New Delhi's Oberoi to becoming a brand name, has it been a slog?
(Laughs) What isn'tbut I've got here, haven't I? Right now I'm concentrating on Benares, which is utterly Indian in origin with a global presentation, keeping the British palate in perspective.
Though I cook with local ingredients, the flavour is completely Indian. I'll never compromise on that.
The first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star.. a seriously wow moment, ya or nay?
(Laughs) ‘Ya,' of course. First none of it sank in but soon I realised that the star is a gateway to the world of Indian cuisine. Certainly, it's cheap, cheerful and chatpatta but now we're also at par with other ‘award winning' cuisines.
As for the star, I may have been the first Indian chef to be get it but now there are three to four other Indian restaurants and chefs who have the stars.. that just proves we're on our way .
You got it at the age of 31..
(Laughs) I think it was all a bit premature, considering my age. Sure, I was shocked, in a good way, but I've always taken it on myself to create more flavours, not stick to the regional. I think there should be no sectioning.. like Punjabi, south Indian.. Bengali..
I'm working on launching my next restaurant in Hampshire, in a typical English vineyard estate. My goal is to break the myth that Indian food can't fuse with wine, both international and Indian.
What's your favourite Indian wine?
I love Sula's entire range.
In your opinion is fusion just confusion?
(Laughs) I do agree. But then again look at Indian food.. it's a huge fusion pot. I also think it's about pushing the boundaries of cooking and experimenting.