The Spice of Life

Whether cooking in Mauritius or London, Atul Kochhar’s skill at marrying great local ingredients
with the flavours of India is what makes him unique. Here he praises spices, Madagascan lobster
and his mother’s rogan josh

Interview by Charlotte Hogarth-Jones
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The first Indian chef ever to receive a Michelin star, in 2001, Atul Kochhar is famed for bringing his country’s cuisine to the forefront of fine dining. His simple, elegant take on traditional dishes has made Benares, his original restaurant in London’s Mayfair, known across the world, and he’s had a series of equally successful ventures since. Growing up in Jamshedpur in East India, all of Kochhar’s menus focus on fresh, local ingredients, of the kind that his father used to take him to source when he was younger. His new restaurant, Simply India, at The St. Regis Mauritius Resort, serves tandoori specialities and Goan delicacies in a colonial-inspired setting.


What’s your earliest food memory?
Going to the local market with my father in India. He was a caterer, and sourcing fresh local produce was important to him. The colors and smells were so vibrant and exciting. I would always look forward to our trips together.


What is the dish your mother used to make that you still love?
Rogan josh. It’s a dish I’ve had on my menus many times, although my mother makes it best. It’s a classic Indian dish with lamb and lots of spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, plus ginger, tomato paste, crushed almonds and yoghurt. It’s something my whole family used to enjoy together around the dinner table, so it has a sense of nostalgia for me as well.


Do you have a trademark dish?
I have a couple. But one of my favorites is my chicken tikka pie with wild berry chutney. It’s made with a great light pastry shell and filled with chicken tikka. We then use seasonal wild berries to make a sweet and savory compôte.


How would you describe your cooking?
Modern Indian. It’s a combination of the recipes and cooking techniques from my upbringing, with twists I’ve picked up along the way. I also adapt traditional Indian recipes to incorporate seasonal ingredients of other countries.


Who taught you to cook?
Both my parents. I have so many memories of my mother in the kitchen, cooking and showing me how to prepare dishes. However, my father taught me everything I know about the quality of fresh local ingredients.


Which chef has had the most influence on you?
Albert Roux [the French-born co-founder of London restaurant Le Gavroche, whose first job was as cook for Nancy Astor]. His passion and skill is so admirable, and he has been a mentor to me over the years.


What are the most important three ingredients to have in your store cupboard?
Spices! My favourites are coriander, cinnamon and cloves.


What’s your favourite late-night snack?
I hate to say it, but just simple cheese on toast. After a full day of tasting, I like to give my palate a break.


Why do you think Indian food is so popular worldwide?
It’s a very diverse cuisine, and I think the complexity of the ingredients and the fresh spices make it really well liked. Indian food has gained an incredible amount of popularity in the past ten years. When I first arrived in London in 1994, things were very different.


What do you think are the global trends in restaurant cuisine?
I believe Korean food will become very popular this year because it is bursting with bold flavors, and is pretty nutritious to boot. As always though, locality and seasonality needs to remain constant over trends, which change so quickly.


How does the food at your new Simply India restaurant at The St. Regis Mauritius Resort differ from what you serve at Benares in London?
There’s more seafood on the menu because I try to source everything locally. We do a delicious starter of lasooni scallops, with garlic, cauliflower purée and piccalilli. And there’s a wonderful main course of samundri do pyaaza – squid, scallops, prawns and fish, all cooked with tangy onions.


What’s your signature dish at Simply India?
Konju moille. It’s a beautiful dish made with Madagascan lobster, cooked with coconut and curry leaf. It’s very succulent.


What local ingredients do you use at Simply India?
The Madagascan lobster is great, and we use a lot of local coconut oil and coconut milk. The variety of seafood on offer in Mauritius is incredible.


Where is your favourite restaurant in the world?
D.O.M. in São Paolo, Brazil. It serves up all manner of exciting ingredients from the Amazon rainforest, such as cambuca fruit, manioc root and tucupi juice, which are so exotic. But I love the markets in Jamshedpur in India where I grew up, because that’s where my culinary journey first started.


Do you ever dream about cooking?
Yes, I think it would be hard not to when it’s on your mind all the time.


What would you have for your last supper?
A simple vegetarian curry with fresh naan, eaten with all of my family.


Which person, living or dead, would you love to cook for?
My father.


Your address: The St. Regis Mauritius Resort