Chef Atul Kochhar on his newest London address, Twitter storms and more
India’s first Michelin-star chef discusses his new restaurant, Kanishka; his pick of north-east-Indian cuisines; and things he wishes he’d never said.Updated: Mar 24, 2019 12:21 IST
He’s cooked for Prince Charles, and been a regular on British TV. But for London’s Michelin-star chef Atul Kochhar, the most exciting challenge remains experimenting with local produce and giving it an Indian twist.
Born in Jamshedpur, the 49-year-old became the first Indian to receive a Michelin star when his debut restaurant Tamarind received one in 2001. He went on to open Benares at Mayfair in London, which also bagged a Michelin star, in 2007.
Then came the tweet storm last year, which began when he referred to “Hindus who have been terrorised by Islam over 2000 years”. The tweet was followed by an apology, but the damage was done. He was dismissed from the restaurant Rang Mahal at the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai and from Benares. He quit Twitter and isn’t back on it yet.
But he has returned to Mayfair, with Kanishka, set up with restaurateur Tina English as an ode to the lesser-known north-east-Indian cuisines.
On the menu are dishes like Kachela Maas or venison tartare, and Sagolir Manxo or country goat curry. He’s brought back some of his signature recipes too — the Chicken Tikka Pie, the scallops (although the latter is now Naga-inspired, spiced with smoked chilli and served with a parsnip achar. Excerpts from an interview…
This is your big comeback after the Twitter controversy of last year. Is that something you’re still trying to put behind you?
All my life, I have always been inclusive, and embraced all cultures. I’m the last person to talk about anybody or any religion per se, and especially a great religion like Islam. I have put my hands up and apologised a number of times and regret every day that it happened. I’m not that kind of person and all I can do now is hope that people can see that and move on.
Can you tell us why the cuisines of the north-east, in London?
The food of the Seven Sister states hasn’t been given the recognition it deserves, particularly in the UK. I’ve explored various regional Indian cuisines at my previous restaurants, and for Kanishka I wanted to challenge myself by exploring something new and very different to what Londoners are familiar with.
What about these cuisines interests you most?
Because the states are so remote and mountainous, techniques such as salting, smoking and fermenting are necessary. The influence of bordering countries such as Nepal, China and Bangladesh can be seen in the use of ingredients like soya, raw meat, dumplings and noodles.
Why the name Kanishka?
Named after King Kanishka, an emperor of the Kushan dynasty in the second century [CE], Kanishka is inspired by the ruler’s Buddhist values of kindness, fairness, honesty, humility and a sense of equality. Strong influences from neighbouring countries can be seen in lots of the dishes, such as the Gangtok Momos and Tibetan Guinea Fowl Thukpa.
How do you intend to marry those cooking methods with seasonal British ingredients?
I’m quite excited about the challenge of working with ingredients like three-cornered garlic, chives, asparagus, Jersey Royal potatoes, and many more. Using the north-eastern techniques like smoking and fermentation with spices and these ingredients will create combinations that haven’t previously been explored.
What’s your favourite dish on the menu, and is it true that you’re serving rice beer?
Zutho and Handia are the forms of local rice beer in this region of India, so we have a rice beer on the menu. I love the Bamboo Shoot & Mushroom Stir-Fry. The Thukpa, and the chickpea curry are also favourites.
Last year has seen a slew of openings of Indian fine-dining restaurants in London. Do you think Kanishka will stand out enough?
London is a great place for a foodie. I have cooked here since 1994. All cultures and cuisines are welcomed here with equal vigour. It’s up to the people of London how they like the whole Kanishka experience. I have a feeling that we’ll fit in well with all the restaurants around us. Our offering is quite unique and people will come to us for a very different experience.
To sign off, what is your recipe for a great meal?
A soup always makes me happy – true comfort. Thukpa from the Kanishka menu ticks all the boxes!