Atul Kochhar admits breaking the rules of food and wine pairing and reveals the best at Benares

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image from benaresrestaurant.com

Atul Kochhar is an Indian born chef based in Britain and is one of the most critically acclaimed for his take on modern Indian cuisine. Atul was the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star during his time at Tamarind. He then went on to create the world reknowned Benares restaurant, where he won his second star in 2007.
Atul is a regular on TV shows such as Masterchef Goes Large, Great British Menu and he is also a regular guest on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen. In 2010 launched his own series – Atul’s Spice Kitchen: Malaysia.Image from carpediemclub.wordpress.com

Atul has been speaking to us on his cooking influences, what he eats at home and how it feels to gain a coveted Michelin star.

What is your favourite dish to cook from any of the menus currently?
I still enjoy cooking the soft shell crab dish which we’re famous for at Benares. We re-invent it every few months so it stays fresh and exciting, and to be honest, I could still eat it every day.

What do you like to cook at home that you don’t make at work?
My wife tends to cook at home, and I’m very happy for her to – the kitchen is such an important artery in any family, and as she is at home more than me, this is important for family life. We have cut down on meat intake as we become more aware of its impact on the environment, so she tends to cook traditional Indian vegetarian dishes.

What sparked your interest in becoming a chef? Who in your opinion is currently cooking the best?
I grew up in a family of cooking- obsessives and was absorbed in it from such a young age, for me there was no choice other than to follow this passion. I recently ate at Alex Atala’s restaurant DOM in Brazil, and to be honest, was blown away.

What or who are your inspirations to create your menus and shape your style of cooking?
My father was and is my greatest inspiration. He taught me to master the details of Indian cookery, which has formed the backbone of my style. Without this direction I don’t think I would have got to where I am. I was very focused and driven from an early age.

How did it feel to receive your first Michelin star, and to be the first Indian chef to receive one?Image from fluidstyle.co.uk
Incredibly proud, for myself and my family but also for India that finally its cuisine had been recognized on the International stage. For me, the Michelin Guide is still very dear.

What trends do you see emerging in the food industry right now?
Thankfully I think sustainability is finally on the map, and I am relieved to see so many restaurants taking their place in history and standing up for the planet. I hope that it’s a trend which is serious and continues to grow.

With the rise in social media, how important a tool do you think it is in the food industry / for building an image?
Very important to some extent. It is great to be able to interact with clients and guests directly, and that is a new phenomenon. But, I think that it’s a tool which is being used by much more youthful, trend restaurants. We are celebrating our 10th Anniversary next year and pride ourselves on being sophisticated and a very grown-up restaurant. I sometimes think that Twitter and Facebook is for the younger amongst us.

What are your thoughts on the cult of celebrity we have seen emerging in the UK food scene? Do you think that it detracts from the purity of the art of cuisine?
I think anything that gets people in the kitchen and considering what they cook and eat is a good thing. There’s a lot of snobbery towards TV chefs, but if they are popular, I don’t see the harm in it. People who are very foodie can see through it, and cook from other shows/ books, but for the majority it’s fun to have so much accessibility.

Do you have any disaster stories throughout your career as a chef that you can share with us?Image from deliciousmagazine.co.uk
I couldn’t possibly pick one- the other disasters would feel neglected!

Do you use any particular wine in any of your dishes?
I don’t tend to cook with wine, but matching food and wine at Benares is serious business. We have more on our sommelier team than most French restaurants! Our wine list is incredible and we’re very proud of how much we’ve done in the world of wine to put Indian cuisine on the map. It’s not easy to match to wine, but when you do the results are incredible- it’s so new and exciting!

Where do you tend to buy wine for yourself at home?
I have great relationships with some suppliers so I like to buy direct from them or from the vineyards themselves. I tend to impulse buy whenever I find something I like.

Have you come across any unusual food and wine matches?
We don’t think it’s unusual but we match red wine and fish at Benares. It’s beyond brilliant how they complement each other, and we’re so proud of it we even host 'fish and red wine' events at the restaurant to share our knowledge and discovery.

If you weren’t in the food industry, where do you think you would be?
It’s impossible to consider a life without food for me!