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Keeping it local
Someone in the audience asks Atul Kochhar, a chef who boasts two Michelin stars: "If I eat using my hands in one of your restaurants, will you sneer at me?"
"No, as long as you pay the bill, " responds the chef-director of Benares, a fine dining restaurant in London's upscale Mayfair.
The answer indicates Kochhar's feet-firmly-on-the-ground approach to serving fine food to celebrities and multi-millionaires. "I grew up in a family of foodies. My grandfather was a baker and my dad a caterer. Going to the market with him was a huge learning experience, " he says.
Kochhar, who was born in Jamshedpur, trained in Delhi before moving to London. There he became the first Indian to receive a Michelin star at Tamarind, a fine dining Indian restaurant, in 2001. He obtained his second at Benares in 2007.
At the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, his session to promote his book, 'Atul's Curries of the World' turned into a trip down memory lane with stories of his father's influence on his cooking.
"My father often bought fruit with blemishes and I asked why, " he says. The reply was that he only bought vegetables and fruit from their region. "I found it bizarre but it mattered to him, " Kochhar says. Transport and cold storage was "not great in those days" and his father adhered to a philosophy that buying from the local community would benefit him.
Kochhar joined the Oberoi School of Management in 1990 and the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi as Sous Chef in 1993. A guest at the hotel's fine dining restaurant Bernard Kunig, invited him to go to England and open Tamarind as Head Chef, which he did in 1994. He knew very little about England, apart from what he had learnt in history books, which was not positive. The hardest part of settling in the UK was learning about the local seasonal produce. After three years, his father visited and dropped by Tamarind.
"After the meal, he suggested we walk home. It's usually a 45-minute walk but it took three hours that day, " Kochhar says.
"I had made pomfret, goat... whatever Indians had, I cooked, " he adds. But far from being proud, his father was fuming. "You have not listened to anything I taught you, " his father shouted. "You used to carry my meat and vegetables and follow me as I went shopping in the bazaars and what have you learnt?"
Kochhar explained that he had incorporated techniques learnt at the Oberoi School of Management. But his father retorted, "This is not local fish, it's frozen from the other side of the world. Why aren't you using local ingredients?"
He then took an apprenticeship on a boat to learn how fish were caught and worked on a farm to learn lambing. From then, his menu changed and he immersed himself in local seasons and ingredients. "I would just call up a butcher. So my Dad had to come to kick my backside, " he says.
A few years later he received his first Michelin star. When he told his father, his response was: That's great. I respect what you have got but don't forget it's only a tyre company. "That explains why I always have to be on my toes, " Kochhar says, grinning.
When he opened Benares in 2003, he focussed on the idea of the presentation of food being an art and not bound by cuisine. It did lead to criticism that he was making Indian food chi chi, which is only for French food. In his view any cuisine "can be made to look nice. If a plate looks nice we start to eat it through our eyes, then comes the smell and the taste, " he says.
"I find on my travels that Indian food is influenced by the local ingredients and if it's not, it's not right, " he says, adding that quite a few Indian restaurants in the UK are run by non-Indians. "The Indian food in the UK has nothing to do with India, " says the man who is a familiar face on British television.
Kochhar tests his new creations on his children. "If my children give it the thumbs up, it does well in the restaurants, " he says.
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