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Chef Interviews

The State of Indian Food in the UK: Q&A with Chef Atul Kochhar

Chef Atul Kochhar has been a tremendous force in modern Indian cuisine. He achieved his first Michelin star at the age of 31 at London’s Tamarind, and subsequently opened his own Michelin-starred restaurant -- Benares in London. And he’s a foodlebrity, to boot – he’s appeared on shows such as BBC's Great British Menu, Saturday Kitchen, Great Food Live and Market Kitchen as well as authored numerous cookbooks. Chef Kochar’s other restaurants include: Vatika in Wickham Vineyard, Hampshire, Ananda in Dublin, and a P&O Cruises-based restaurant, Sindhu. He’s also the executive chef of Colony (London).

Q: What’s changed in the London Indian food scene since you first started working there a decade ago, in terms of people’s tastes and sophistication, who’s eating it, availability of ingredients or anything else you’ve noticed?
A: Indian food has evolved tremendously over last decade. Things are getting better in tastes, its ingredients quality and availability.

Q: Where do your restaurants fit within that spectrum of Indian food lovers? Are they for the world-wise traveler who are thoroughly familiar with traditionally prepared Indian foods, or are they for complete newbies to Indian food, or another type of person?
A: My restaurants are inspired on traditions of Indian food – but they are modern. We apply knowledge into the food and not just do things because our ancestors did it too! We do bend the rules and push the boundaries. My restaurants are based in the UK and food has to be tuned to UK clientele. 

Q: This is probably an obvious question, but we’re always fascinated with how ethnic foods take root in new countries. How does the Indian food in the UK compare to, say, Indian food available in the US? Are certain regional Indian cuisines more popular than others?
A: On its migration, a cuisine takes a new shape according to its new habitat based on its local ingredients, local tastes and people’s understanding of the cuisine. UK has had 400+ years of history with Indian food – so the affinity was always there. Over last 2 decades, it has refined to newer level. Any other country is left far behind as there is no immediate connection. US is at
least 30 years behind UK for Indian food.

Q: Indian food is pretty core to British cuisine at this point. Would you agree? Has it been integrated so much so where it effectively is British, like pizza and American food?
A: Indian food is part of mainstream British Cuisine. It is as good as pie and roasted beef.

Q: I’m curious about Anglo-Indian foods, like mulligatawny. Have those all but disappeared, or do they have a role somewhere in British food as well?
A: Old classics of Anglo Indian origin will always remain and will be used in its new form and incarnations.

Q: What is the single worst British dish and why? How would you, if you haven’t already, improve it using Indian flavors?
A: I haven’t come across a dish like that – however, I tempted to introduce spices of many of British classic dishes.

Q: I read in a previous interview that you are a big fan of travel as means of food discovery and overall personal improvement. What single travel experience left you mouth agape?
A: A recent trip to Brazil was sensational. The food quality in general is just amazing. A meal at restaurant DOM with chef Alex Atala was fabulous introduction to the hidden gems of Amazonian cuisine. Later meeting chef Pedro Miguel from Peru has similar effect on me. I am attracted towards this cuisine quite a lot as there is little known about it.

Q: Speaking of travel, you recently opened a restaurant on a cruise ship. That speaks a lot to the popularity of Indian food! What’s that experience been like?
A: Opening Sindhu on Azura has been nothing less than sensational for me. Indian food was always waiting to happen on Cruise liners. I am proud and glad that I got there first.

Q: Besides Benares, where have you had a memorable meal in London?
A: Besides Benares and Deepti’s food, I have had a fantastic meal at Heston’s new restaurant “Diner” in London. Food at “Le Petite Maison” was also amazing. I hate fashion restaurants that have only buzz but no substance.

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