Atul Kochhar: I Didn’t Cook To Win The Michelin Star
Winter evenings in small town India would be gloomy. But, not in the quiet lanes of Jamshedpur as a young boy would patiently wait for the man who sold sweet potatoes. Who knew the boy would grow up to develop a fine palate, and become a twice Michelin starred chef far away from the steel city?
It has been 22 years since Chef Atul Kocchar left his country to pursue a career in food. After successfully launching several restaurants in London and Dubai, he recently opened the doors of his first restaurant in Mumbai. Aptly called NRI – Not Really Indian, the BKC restaurant will serve ‘diaspora food’.
In a candid chat, the soft-spoken and unassuming chef talks about his inspiration, and of course, his new baby.
What brings you to India especially after a successful stint abroad?
The progressing food culture. Also, the call of the motherland! I have been visiting India since my mother lives here. Plus, over the years I have made some fantastic friends in Riyaz Amlani, Zorawar Kalra and AD Singh. They have been my food mentors along my journey, and what better way to keep the friendship alive by learning from them and doing something in my own country.
Why did you choose Mumbai to open your restaurant?
Mumbai has a special place in my heart. We did consider Delhi and Bangalore, but since I have friends in this city, I naturally went for it. Moreover, Mumbai has a huge community feel to it and is cosmopolitan. Delhi is spread out, while Mumbai is small and places are easily accessible.
Your late father seems to have been your biggest inspiration in your food journey. Tell us about him.
My father was a self-taught cook, while my grandfather was a baker. What amazed me or rather moved me was my father’s love for seasonal and local produce. If you offered him a bag of local guavas and apples brought in from Kashmir, he’d go for the former. He had a deep understanding of flavours and was adept at making his own spice mixes. He is definitely a better cook than me, and I am glad that I picked it up from him.
How did you conceptualise NRI?
It all started from a quest. I have travelled far and wide to different countries to understand their flavours, ingredients and tastes. It's interesting to see how every country has adopted something from another cuisine. I wanted to imbibe the same learning to create something new. Although I have cooked abroad for 22 years, it would have been foolish if I cooked Indian food for my own people. At the same time I wanted to have fun with food. I was discussing this with my business partner and looking for answers when it struck me – why not introduce dishes that Indians took with them when they moved to other countries? NRI was thus born. The food is ours, and yet not ours. That’s why it is ‘Not Really Indian’!
What draws you to Indian flavours?
I think the food that I ate in my childhood. Even after all these years, I come home to my family and settle for daal-chawal. It is so basic and comforting. That's the beauty of Indian flavours - they are varied yet so unique. What draws me is this never-ending quest and yearning to learn from my country.
What are your learnings from your travels?
During one of my recent trips to Mexico, I realised that its people are so much like us. They are loud, they love to eat and celebrate. It is almost another India from the other side of the world. What I learned was that working closely with the farming community could give you massive rewards in terms of access to some of the best local produce. We plan to do something similar for NRI where we’d have our own little farm and harvest our own produce. Good news is that we have already bought some land in the outskirts of Mumbai.
Getting the Michelin stars has obviously been a great experience. How have things changed for you since then?
I did not cook to win. It took quite some time to understand what it meant for us. But I owe it to my team. They have been on their toes day in and day out, believing in me and my work. It’s a huge power, but I don’t let it worry me. I get on with it by doing what I am good at and that is having diners to eat at our restaurant.
Do you have any food memory from your childhood?
Lots! I spent my childhood in Jamshedpur where during winters I would eagerly wait for a man who sold sweet potatoes on a cart. He would cut them and then sprinkle some of his own concoction of chaat masala and hand it over. I can still taste the flavours on my palate.
Any advice for home cooks?
Start your own blog as it inspires others to cook. I remember the time when I tried my hands in making a Mangalorean dish, which didn’t really work out. That’s when I chanced upon a blog, which had the same recipe. I gave it a shot again and this time it was a success. The blogger and I then connected, and we met at my Dubai restaurant. Isn’t it absolutely amazing to be able to learn from your own folks? I hope this quest never ends so that I can keep discovering new flavours.
If you were to describe your food philosophy in 3 words, what would it be?
Seasonal, local and simple.
What are your favourite Indian and international restaurants?
I am absolutely inspired by Mahesh Lunch Home. And, I recently ate the thali at Highway Gomantak, which was simply delicious. I loved digging into the flavourful curries.
Eleven Madison Park in New York has to be my favourite international restaurant.
What is your favourite ingredient?
My wife! (laughs) Ginger.
One dish that reminds you of home…
Rajma chawal made by my mother.
What would be your favourite cuisine apart from Indian?
Thai. It is natural because growing up in India you are familiar with two cuisines – Indian and Chinese. Thai comes close as the ingredients used are pretty similar to Indian food.
One thing that social media has taught you…
Words are powerful so use them carefully.