Atul Kochhar is not only one of India’s prodigal chefs, he is the Marco Polo of Indian culinary arts and the first to amass two Michelin stars. Atul’s passion for food was born in his family’s catering business where he eschewed his parents pressures to become a doctor or engineer to follow his pursuit of culinary enlightenment. His journey started at The Oberoi New Delhi’s fine dining restaurant where he quickly rose from apprentice to sous chef until he was head-hunted in 1994 to come to the UK as head chef of Tamarind. In 2001 he won his first Michelin star and in 2007 he opened Benares in Mayfair. Within three years he won his second Michelin star and went on to open other restaurants in the UK and abroad. He is also the author of several highly successful cookbooks – Indian Essence ; Fish, Indian Style and Curries of the World and appears regularly on TV shows including Masterchef, Great British Menu, BBC’s Saturday Kitchen and in 2010 he launched his own series: Atul’s Spice Kitchen: Malaysia.

The key to his success? An unquenchable drive to explore and expand traditional Indian recipes. He is in constant inspiration-seeking movement, travelling to discover the migratory paths of Indian food in Singapore, Malaysia, in East Africa and all the way down to West Africa, the Caribbean and back to the UK. He has had the privilege to cook for Prince Charles and was personally invited to meet HM The Queen during one of the President of India’s official visit. When he is not at home with his wife and their children, travelling or cooking for celebrity patrons, he works with The Prince’s Trust and stands as an ambassador to The British Asian Trust to support high impact charities in South Asia and the UK.

In an exclusive UNITY magazine Q&A Atul shares where he will be celebrating India’s festival of light – Diwali and who he has enjoyed cooking for the most.

How did you change the perceptions of Indian food in Britain?
By uniting my Indian heritage with my love of British ingredients. My formula is, and has always been simple; combining fresh seasonal produce with traditional Indian techniques creates pleasing and innovative results that my guests keep coming back for.

You are a highly acclaimed Michelin-starred chef and have won many awards. Which one do you cherish the most?
To this day, the highlight has been achieving a Michelin star for Indian food – I was the first Indian chef to be awarded one in the history of Michelin. That has been the biggest high of my life, let alone my career! I always thought that Michelin stars were for Europeans. As a result I used to appreciate and admire them from a distance. When I was first awarded a star I couldn’t believe it for days.

This year is Benares 10th Michelin anniversary – this too is an achievement I am very proud of. It is one thing to receive a star, but to maintain it for a decade takes continual dedication, hard work, and high standards; for this, I am very thankful to my brilliant and highly skilled team.

 

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India abounds in a wealth of traditions, cultures, colour and culinary diversity. You travel regularly to India to explore and research new recipes and ingredients. Which regions have inspired you the most, and why?
I travel to India at least three to four times a year for both social and professional reasons. Every time I go there the country never ceases to amaze me (for both good and bad reasons). It’s a fun place, it’s home and it’s where I feel very comfortable; it’s always inspirational. There is so much to learn from India because each and every state is a country by itself and each has its own cuisine. There are so many things to learn about the different cuisines, it just amazes me. I try not to label a city in India as being my favourite as I would find myself going there again and again. I keep my mind open and like to explore different places and pick up different influences as I go along. I don’t actually think that there is a single state in India that I haven’t visited. I’ve been to each and every state.

India’s festival of light, Diwali, is coming soon. Where will you be celebrating it?
I will be celebrating at Benares, of course! This year, we will celebrate Diwali for the full week, from 9-15th November, with beautiful floating candles, Marigold flowers, and a specially curated, eight-course tasting menu. On Diwali day, 11th November, we will also be giving away a complimentary Benares candles to every table that chooses to celebrate with us.

Which celebrity have you enjoyed cooking for the most?
I really couldn’t say, they have all been charming, and we have had quite a number frequent my restaurants over the years. Michael Bolton is a very regular guest to Benares London who visited again last week, as did Adele.

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