Folding samosas and frying aloo chops at his father’s canteen intrigued Atul Kochhar enough to consider exploring the world of food. Growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Jamshedpur accentuated his taste buds and his interaction with various cultures added to the landscape of his palate. “We had people from all corners of India, Kashmir, Maharashtra, Bengal, Orissa, Kerala. And when you are in that surrounding, eating everything, I began relating to all kinds of taste and the Punjabi in me became a part of a larger culture,” tremendous inspiration to have earned him two Michelin stars in the present day.
After having studied hotel management, he went on to work at The Oberoi where he was discovered by the owner of Tamarind (London) and before he knew it, he was on his way to carve a place for himself in the culinary world. “All your life you taste several things and your mind records all the experiences. The ability to recall it when it is required again is what separates you from the others. When I came to the UK and I was working with chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Locatelli, they were the friends I made and I realised that every food has its journey and wherever we go we take our culture with us and plant it in our new surrounding and interact and then grow and that was my turn to plant and gather all that knowledge. I had to plant the seed in my new surroundings. It was a big experiment and I think that’s what paid off.”
Atul was one of the first chefs to take Indian cuisine and give it a whole new avatar. He fused British produce with traditional Indian dishes and made it ‘British-Indian Cuisine’. Even though sourcing authentic ingredients in the UK was extremely challenging, he improvised and created food that not only celebrated Indian culture but appealed to a wider audience. “My father told me you were born into a Punjabi family brought up in East India and studied in South India so you understand cultures way better than many others. Recall your experiences and adapt it to the flavours available.And that’s when I propelled the cuisine to a different level.”
In the next six months, Atul will be opening two new restaurants with diverse premises, set in equally opposite locations. Masalchi, in Wembley Park, London, celebrates street food and the world of chaat. “Location is always the key. It’s the star of everything. It dictates what you should be doing. Maslachi’s location for me was extremely important. I wanted it to be in an area where I had our community around so I contemplated SouthHall and Wembley. I ended up at Wembley Park, which is slightly younger and very well connected. There is a football stadium on one side and Wembley Arena on the other side. And I looked at the arenas schedule, which goes back to around two hundred and thirty events a year and half of them are from Indian artists so my mind was made up. Between football days and arena days three hundred days are taken care of. I just have to look into sixty five days of business. So, I took the location knowingly where I was going.” With Masalchi he has added casual dining to his repertoire, “India is full of different kinds of street food. Chaat became a generic name for it. I am exploring chaat from regions all over India. Right from Kashmir, Rampur, Calcutta, Mumbai, Lucknow. You will always go back to aloo tikki, shakarkandi chaat but what you make out of it and how you push the boundary create more oomph around it would be the part of our cooking techniques and merging of cultures. So, the menu is designed purely keeping in mind how swiftly we can bring the food to the table. On the menu we have til wale tandoori aloo, lahori chaap, Punjabi chola and kulcha. So the plan is to go very traditional in the beginning, once we catch them then we’ll up the taste and slowly bring in the British ingredients.”
While Masalchi is quick and casual, Mathura, a one hundred and eighty seater restaurant in Westminster London, is his most ambitious project. “Within my portfolio of restaurants, I have two companies. One is called Kanishka Holdings and another one is called AK restaurants. So, this one is from Kanishka Holdings. In my restaurant Kanishka, we do the seven sisters’ cuisine and King Kanishka’s capital was Mathura. So, I researched which countries were best friends with India back then - Persia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, part of China. Looking at the surrounding countries we decided to have 60% food from the India sub continent and 40% from these neighbouring countries. So, we have dishes inspired from China from Persia, Burma, Vietnam.”
The pandemic might have paused these new openings however he did not let that time go to for a waste and cooked free food for the community and NHS and before he knew it there was a staggering demand. It became a take away business and was awarded the best take away in England. “The pandemic taught me to adapt and adopt and that’s exactly what we did.”
Atul’s journey so far has been absolutely thrilling as a pioneer in the global culinary world; a celebrated chef, a successful restaurateur, an author of various cookbooks, a TV presenter, Atul wishes daily that the day had forty eight hours instead of twenty four. His food is continually changing and reshaping itself. A lot of his culinary creations are taken from his reality, experiences he has had growing up, travelling and interacting with different people. “I feel you do the complete circle and the point stops at home.” And that’s exactly what he has been doing since he began cooking – celebrating Indian culture and bringing back forgotten foods.
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Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra