Twice Michelin-Starred Chef Atul Kochhar On Staying Close “To Home And Heritage”
Image Credit: Image credit: Instagram @chefatulkochhar

He is one of the first two Indian-born chefs to be awarded a Michelin Star in the year 2001, the chef par excellence won his second Michelin star in the year 2007. You may also remember him from his countless television appearances in shows like Saturday Kitchen, Masterchef Goes Large, Great British Menu, BBC2's Million Pound Menu etc. Chef Atul Kochhar is not only a global culinary icon, but he has also made Indian cuisine, a cuisine to reckon with worldwide, a tag that he is too humble to accept. “It was always there, I just did my part’ he says while reminding us of the beautiful multiplicity of Indian cuisine.  Born in Jamshedpur, the chef had a rather modest yet cosmopolitan upbringing, something that he is thankful for till today. From cooking mutton curries for family picnics to earning coveted International honours, Chef Atul Kocchar’s journey is the stuff of legends. Even more fascinating is his undying love for Indian food, the chef came to India to host a lovely lunch at his new restaurant, Saga, Gurgaon. In his words, the restaurant celebrates life and culture of India, the beautiful flavours, aroma, spices and magnificent dishes. Located in golf course road, the fine-dine restaurant has a breath-taking alfresco seating accentuated by state-of-the-art decor seeped in romance. We caught up with the chef for a candid chat. Excerpts...

Butter chicken ball at the SAGA, Gurgaon

Q. Tell us something about your venture SAGA

When I met Vishal Anand, we were kind of pondering that what we want to do as our restaurant and I was very keen to keep my foot nicely firmed up in India as well, especially after closing restaurants in Mumbai, I just wanted, not to go away from India I just wanted to stay with my home and heritage. When I met Vishal, I think it was a dream come true in terms of partnership because I needed a man who had a clear vision and was a real restaurateur. When we were conceptualising it, we thought of three things that people want and that was good food, drinks and entertainment. And I couldn’t find anyone better than Vishal who would organise that entertainment in terms of music. And I think our core of Saga is entirely about, entertainment, food and drinks and of course, ambience.  

SAGA, Gurgaon

Q. You have put Indian food on the world map, how excited are you to come back to India?

Well, I would love to take that credit (laughs), but I guess it was always there. I just happened to play my role. When I was called upon to do my style of food and whatever little I did, I consider myself lucky. And also being in the right place at the right time, that just worked out absolutely fine. I was trying to change the image, take Indian food out of the shackles of heavy-duty curries and... all the images that we had gathered over many years. And it isn’t just food, it happens with design, music. Time to time a new generation comes and shakes things up. And I guess, after me, many more youngsters would take the baton and run with it and they will shake it again, there will be a new version of it and people will love that too.

Q. You were the first Indian chef to receive the Michelin star honour, there have been few after you. Do you feel an added sense of responsibility, or do you feel relieved?

I absolutely love it when more and more Indian chefs qualify to get the star, because it means that our cuisine gets more recognition than it got before. There have been several chefs after me, some of them have come from my kitchens and some from other kitchens, but I think whatever role you are given, it comes with responsibility. Because if your work was recognised, to take forward is definitely a responsibility, you can’t just go crazy thinking ‘I am the new trendsetter’, no you are not. You just happened to be part of the trend, that’s how you should see it. India has got humungous culture, to understand that and to portray that to the rest of the world is an important task. When I left India there was only ‘Indian cuisine’ and when I came back to India we are talking about cuisines of India and that fills my heart with lot of love, affection and pride, because we are stepping into the right direction.  

Q. How would you compare Britain’s love for Indian food 20 years back versus now.

Twenty years ago, Indian food was still quite big, you know. I will never take this away from my Bangladeshi brothers who had made Indian food so famous worldwide, at least in the UK. They brought the revolution, they brought British to come and eat Indian food and love it. We are latecomers to the party to be honest. We joined the party and said, okay, you guys have done an amazing job, let’s turn it on its head and see if we can bring something new to the table. And we obviously started trending in the new a new way of cooking. We brushed our shoulders with French and Italian chefs. Some of us had seen the world as well, and when we were put in the right place at the right time, we could work and change the image of the food. I am very honoured and grateful for the opportunities to be honest. And now Indian food is given same love as Italian and French food in most parts of the world. In my view, it is the cuisine that is trending most at the moment. It is quite likely to become humungous in few more years to come.  

Q. What does your comfort food look like?

You know, I have been married for good 20 plus years now. The comfort food is whatever the wife cooks, you just shake your head and say, ‘Darling it’s really beautiful, I love it’. Never citicise, you want a good sleep and good food everyday. That’s the secret of a good marriage too. But jokes apart, my wife is quite good an I am blessed that my mother-in-law lives with us, and nobody can beat ‘maa ka khana’.

Q. You are from Jamshedpur, are there any local recipes you feel deserve more fame.

So, my background is my family is Punjabi, they migrated during the Partition. My grandfather who is a baker, he was summoned by the British because of World War II to east India and he set up his bakery there. My parents met in Jamshedpur and got married. And the whole side of the family that came from Pakistan, due to partition they’d lost everything. I was born in free India, and whatever I have seen in Jamshedpur is a melange of cultures. It is an industrial town, people like Tatas have revolutionised not only the industries but lifestyle of people inhabiting in the city. I grew up living next to Bengalis and Odias, people from Chennai, Kerala. So my world was very cosmpolitan, and I think that had a huge impact on my upbringing and also the way I see food, because I imagined entire India to be like that till I went to Chennai and realise India is not like that. India is quite different. If you come from one culture to other, you have to learn the new norms there. So speaking of the influence of Bihari food in Jamshedpur, it is great, it is a very humble, everyday food. One particular dish that I make every year in my house is Bihari mutton. So, on the first of January with my father, uncles and cousins, we used to go to huge picnics on Dimna lake, we would carry pots and pans and mutton, and in a makeshift setting will cook for the whole family. I fondly remember the dish as Bihari mutton curry. I think that deserves a lot more recognition in my opinion, and lately, I have seen Bihari food trending a lot and it fills my heart with pride. Litti Chokha, Khichdi, you name it. Whenever Chhath comes all the prasad that comes with it, especially the Thekua. I really am very proud of my Bihari upbringing.  

Q. If you could name an Indian dish that is severely overrated

I don’t think that is severely overrated, if anything I think Indian food is quite underrated. Indian food is very well poised and placed to handle the nutrition problem of the world, we just haven't scratched the surface of it properly and we just need to go back and understand, if we have sustained such a large population for so long that still keeps growing, there got to be something right happening with the food. The staples, the lentils, the vegetables that we eat, the whole world has been carnivore for a long time and now they are tending towards veganism and following our diet pattern. I think spices have had a large impact on our livelihood and health as well, which is quite underestimated. The only thing is we need to understand the importance of moderation, we often indulge and forget about practicing moderation and that is where we go wrong.  

Q. Do you often cook at home for your family, are they always expecting something elaborate?

I do cook one meal every day for my family and that is breakfast so I am the designated breakfast cook, the reason being my kids. They go to school very early in the morning and I come back home very late and I don’t get time with them. So ever since they were little and started their school, I used to wake up and make breakfast for them, so that is the ‘Kids and Daddy’ time. I cook anything that my wife has prepped for me sometimes, sometimes she leaves notes like ‘we have eggs and toast only for today’. But I know my kids would scorn the very idea of eggs and toast, so I have to push the boundaries and make it a bit better, like I would make soya eggs for them, for example, or would create something they have not tried before. If I repeat something then my son, who is a huge critic, would say ‘I think your crown is falling Dad, you are lacking creativity. He is a little, naught rascal. But I always look forward to it, because that is a great time to interact with them. Now that they are teenagers, they take keen interest in how my work is going, how is the business, everything. I don’t know whether they’ll come into the business or not, but at least they are getting a sense of it.

Q. Did you also cook a lot during the lockdown, any food trend that resonated with you?

I cooked a lot during the lockdown. I retired my wife and told her that I will take over. One thing that resonated with me was how important is it to eat healthy food. And I think we ate more vegetarian food than anything else so much so that we got inspired, we have a beautiful, fairly large patch in our house where we grow our own vegetables. So, we were sowing onions, garlic, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, raspberries, and strawberries and it was incredible to get the crop and get cooking with it. I remember had put 6 or 8 seedlings of runner beans, and we got so many runner beans out of it that we got sick of eating it. But it was so much fun to go to the garden, pick your vegetables and cook with it.

Q. Any Indian chefs that you admire the most?

When it comes to Indian chefs there are loads of them. I won't be what I am without them holding my hand, to be honest, and some of them we lost. One whom I looked up to a lot was chef Jerome Gomes, he was like a father figure to me. He screamed and shouted a lot at me but also taught me so much about the craft, I am going to miss him terribly. We lost him last year sadly and that was a big loss to the industry. Another chef I admire is chef Sanjay Malkhani, he was my executive chef when I worked at Oberoi, New Delhi, great guy, amazing human, great entertainer and a fantastic cook. He has very intricate knowledge of food and I learned a lot from him. Another master crafter was chef Inder Dhawan who was my first executive chef. I can still feel his eyes burning behind my back (laughs). When he used to look at me from his office, I knew exactly that I am doing something wrong. He taught me a lot but, and there are many. Chef Manjeet Singh Gill, another hero, he still keeps inspiring me with so much of exciting work he is doing. And also, in the new breed of chefs, I would say chef Kunal Kapoor, who is a great chef. Chef Ashish Bhasin, who is an amazing chef, friend and great inspiration, I think the list is very long.