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Atul Kochhar: The comeback chef

  • After a stormy year of controversy, Atul Kochhar is back with a new restaurant in London’s Mayfair
  • Kanishkha, Chef Atul Kochhar’s newest restaurant will showcase flavours of North-East India

Atul Kochhar with his team at Kanishka. (instagram@chefatulkochhar)

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It was a stormy 2018 for Atul Kochhar, one of the most highly regarded Indian chefs in the UK, and this year he hopes the tide will turn with his newest offering, Kanishka. The restaurant, which opened on 18 March in London’s Mayfair, promises to be a culinary disruptor in a city which has been an early adapter as far as modern Indian fine-dining is concerned.

According to Kochhar, “London offers a wide canvas of Indian fine-dining and the biggest change in recent years has been the exploration of regional Indian food.” This time, Kochhar will focus on the lesser-known cuisines of the North-East, drawing on an entirely new palate of flavours, ingredients and cooking styles. Expect an inspired spin on classics like momos and thukpas with ingredients like Fine de Claire oysters and Kentish lamb. In keeping with the English palate, Kochhar will substitute ingredients like the bhut jolokia with a milder smoked chilli. The restaurant will also have signature dishes from other parts of India.

Kochhar has many laurels to his credit, chief among them being that he was the first Indian chef to win a Michelin star way back in 2001 for Tamarind, a restaurant that set new standards for Indian fine-dining in London. At Benaras, a Mayfair icon, Kochhar secured his position as a a global ambassador for modern Indian cooking and also won his second Michelin star. He also went on to helm restaurants across the UK, Ireland, Dubai and India.

However, the chef was mired in a social media controversy last year which cost him dearly professionally. He sent out an ill-thought-out anti-Muslim tweet to actor Priyanka Chopra for her role in an episode of Quantico where she foils a terrorist plot hatched by Hindu nationalists. Despite apologies, the incident created a backlash against him and his restaurants. His contract at his restaurant Rang Mahal at JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai was terminated and he also stepped down from his role as chef-patron at Benaras.

Nine months later, the chef is back to redeem himself. One of the obvious questions that comes up is how the cuisine of the North-East can be replicated in a fine-dining space since it relies heavily on seasonality and traditional cooking methods. Kochhar has a ready answer. “Because the states are so remote and mountainous, techniques such as salting, smoking and fermenting are necessary—these are easily replicated, it just means we have to be more organized and timely with our preparation. In terms of seasonality, I have always used fresh and seasonal British ingredients in my cooking—so we may have had to make some substitutes where, say, the protein that would be used in the North-East of India isn’t available, but the ethos remains the same,” says Kochhar.

It is somewhat ironic that the chef must return to social media to spread the word about Kanishka and there is no denying that the road is somewhat daunting. “All my life, I have always been inclusive and embraced all cultures. I am 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 apologized a number of times for last year, and regret every day that it happened. All I can do now is hope that people can see that and move on, which is the approach I am also taking with my social media—it’s a very powerful tool and my team and I have put a lot of hard work into Kanishka, which I want to share with my followers,” says Kochhar.

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