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Atul Kochhar: Prepping to keep the cruise in control

On his forthcoming trip to Antarctica, the chef will play with salads, Chettinad flavours and lots of ‘rajma’

Atul Kochhar.
Atul Kochhar. (Atul Kochhar.)

Having launched many restaurants, including Benares in the UK, Atul Kochhar has now set his sights on an adventure. Towards the end of the year, from 9-19 December, the London-based chef will be off to Antarctica on a private charter cruise organized by The Q Experiences, a Mumbai-based luxury travel company, as the on-board executive chef. With over a hundred Indians expected on the cruise—half of the total on board—he believes the 11-day experience will be a challenge.

Kochhar was in Mumbai last month to tweak the menu at one of his restaurants, Lima, and take stock of the other, NRI—Not Really Indian, both in the Bandra-Kurla Complex.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

How do you prepare for a cruise?

I have been told there are a lot of vegetarians (on board). We have to rely a lot on frozen (raw food), which is the next best thing to fresh. Vegetables will be bought on the last day before we set off. All these are logistics but you need to plan months in advance to find the ingredients.

What’s on the menu?

It’s a large cycle of two weeks. You have to cater for three meals (a day) and sometimes an Indian-inspired high tea as well. What we can’t do is use any charcoal, though roasting is allowed. There will be lots of salads, dal and vegetables, meat and fish curries. I will have a spin on things. Like, I will take chicken breast, marinate, grill it and cook it in korma sauce with nice accompanying vegetables.

We need to provide 600 calories per meal, the korma will give 300 and the rest has to be planned cleverly so you don’t feel bloated. I know that if I am not feeling full, I have not eaten. So you need enough carbs (carbohydrates) on the side.

The idea is to be creative and bring in the classics as well.

Kheema Mutter Tacos.
Kheema Mutter Tacos.

What are some of the things you are making on board?

One of them is a chicken coronation—I am almost British now, you know (he has been living in London for 23 years). Then, there’s chicken tikka masala pie. I am also planning vegetarian versions of these, so people can have fun at high tea with quirky dishes. I will have pickled venison samosa, duck give vegetarians a burst of protein, quinoa samosa.

We will have a beetroot burger mixed with quinoa. It gives the sense of a meaty burger. As you cut into the burger, this also bleeds. We made a beetroot ketchup, which is stuffed into the burger and it bursts out. From south India, we will use Chettinad flavours, like in crab cakes—it has sharp flavours of kalpasi (black stone flower, a type of fungus). We serve it with a lemon-butter sauce, which is European. Also, we are doing a Chettinad chicken, but rather than curry, I’m thinking of making it a roulade with Chettinad spice broth, cabbage foogath and lemon rice.

I have assumed 40% (of the Indian travellers) would be non-vegetarians, 60% vegetarian—cooking non-vegetarian is incredibly easy, vegetarian is the tough part. It takes more effort and you have to be more creative. No two meals will be the same and no dish will be repeated. So that’s over a hundred different preparations. If I have rajma (red kidney beans), for example, I might boil it for the next three days and use it over a week. I could make a burger (rajma and coconut), rajma masala and rajma chawal. I could spice it differently, with flavours from the north, or tweak with some flavours from the south.

White Chocolate Brownie.
White Chocolate Brownie.

How would you manage the spiciness of the food?

I will do a boring thing, which I do in my Michelin-starred restaurant (Benares) and I hope people will forgive me for that. What I do is (put out) chilli pickles, chilli paste and chilli sauce.

Will you be able to take special requests?

We are two-and-a-half chefs (him, an assistant and a helper) cooking for 100 people. There will be limitations. If it’s a dietary requirement, then definitely. “Can you make me chapatis of a certain kind?" I cannot.

Will you experiment with recipes on board?

We might have an eureka moment and create something—often, mistakes are eureka moments. We Indians are conservative with our food. I don’t think I want to try anything quirky or give them something that will ruin their experience. We are being adventurous enough to go to Antarctica.

What will be the challenges?

If things get left out, that’s a massive challenge. Or some critical ingredient we are not able to get. A lot depends on the water as well. Nobody knows how the water in that part of the world works with spices

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