ATUL KOCHHAR is reminiscing about the day he became the first Indian chef to be awarded the gold standard for culinary expertise – a Michelin star – as Head Chef at Mayfair’s Tamarind restaurant in 2001.
“I remember as if it were yesterday… A journalist from the Evening Standard called and said: ‘You have a Michelin star’, and I said: ‘No, no, I don’t,’ and hung up. Then he called back and said: ‘No, I was trying to tell you that you’ve been awarded one’, and I started shaking, I couldn’t believe it.”
To cap it all, that evening, Gordon Ramsay came to eat at the restaurant to celebrate achieving his third Michelin star: “He was eating my food to celebrate his third star with his wife and family. He came to the kitchen to congratulate everyone and he was so chatty… He genuinely was very happy that we got the star as well.”
Six years later, Kochhar, 47, was awarded a second Michelin star for his own restaurant, Benares.
‘I’ve learnt shortcuts to put food on the table really quickly
– there’s only so much time kids can hold out’
Despite all the acclaim, however, he’s now turning his attention to slightly more simple fare in his latest book, 30 Minute Curries.
“Everybody expects me to write complicated books and I won’t deny it, I have done that. I wrote the Benares cookbook and each recipe has got six recipes in it. But I’m also a father, and when I cook at home I’m not cooking Michelin-starred food, I’m cooking everyday food.
“I’ve learnt shortcuts to put food on the table really quickly – there’s only so much time kids can hold out – so this book is to celebrate that. And also, [people say] Indian food takes forever, but it doesn’t. Anybody can do it, so I’m sharing my techniques of how you can do it very quickly. Every recipe actually comes under 25 minutes.”
His book is movingly dedicated to his son – who he calls ‘my best friend’ – 11-year-old Arjun, who inspires Kochhar to be inventive with food.
“Arjun has strong likes and dislikes. One of his pet hates is broccoli, so I keep making it in different ways. Last weekend I made chickpea burgers, so I put broccoli in there and told him if he can find it then he can get some Lego. He couldn’t trace it.
“He believes certain flavours work and certain ones don’t, so for example, I think carrot and ginger works and he says: ‘Little people don’t like ginger, it’s too stringy, too strong, there have to be better ways to use it’. So he said: ‘Why don’t you make a paste of ginger?’ You get the flavour, but you don’t get the texture. It was interesting to hear this little person talk about food.”
His daughter, Amisha, 13, is very different: “She has an incredible palate and she’s quite a good critic as well. When they both eat at Benares, my maitre d’ never asks them how the meal was because he knows he’ll get detailed feedback.”
Kochhar himself learned to cook as a child: “We were a slightly unusual Indian family – boys are normally made to look like gods and become couch potatoes but not in my house. My mum said everybody lives in the house so everybody has to help. I paired up with my oldest sister, we always cooked together.”
30 Minute Curries by Atul Kochhar is published in hardback by Absolute Press, priced £26