Food: Atul Kochhar on the secret of great vegetarian curries, his late father’s teaching and the short detour via medical school

The Indian star chef is back with a new cookbook – and it’s 100% vegetarian. Lauren Taylor catches up with Atul Kochhar.

Atul Kochhar wants us to say goodbye to store-bought curry paste. “You honestly don’t need the paste in the supermarket – please don’t buy it, even if it has my name on it!”

Besides, the trick to cooking a good curry from scratch, he says, is simplicity. “Don’t use very complicated recipes,” says the Indian star chef. “Complicated recipes are generally the creation of chefs like me who want to look good and use too many ingredients. On the other hand, if you ask any Indian mother or mother from the Indian subcontinent, she will tell you: just four or five ingredients.”

That’s why his new cookbook, Curry Everyday, is packed with shorter, easy-to-follow recipes and inspiration that stretches far beyond India — from Cambodia to Kenya, from Afghanistan to the Maldives — and they’re all vegetarian.

The 52-year-old only eats meat twice a week, while his deceased father had a great influence on vegetables. “I always say that I learned most of it in the kitchen from my father and a little bit from cooking school. His way of spicing things up and dealing with vegetables was quite unique. He was just a magician with flavors,” the father-of-two says.

“He was an orphan. He lost his parents at a very young age and I think he had to learn to cook at a very young age. I loved his way of cooking and I often try to copy it – mostly without success, but I try.”

Kochhar was the first Indian chef to ever win a Michelin star and is often credited with elevating Indian food to a fine dining level. He says it’s “very heartwarming to see” people in Britain embracing Indian-inspired food and making it a part of their own culture. “I believe that more and more people are now cooking and eating curry at home than ever before.”

When he immigrated to Britain in 1994, he says: “I became ‘British Indian’ with all my heart and people would ask me, ‘What’s your food?’ I am proud to say that I call my food British Indian. [It] completely different than my contemporaries in New Delhi or Mumbai. That’s me, that’s how I cook, that’s what I love.”

Before coming to the UK, Kochhar said he was “pretty naïve” about food around the world. “Growing up, the economy was that you had to shop locally. India is a very big country and frankly, transporting food from one place to another was unthinkable, so you had to rely on what was in season and available locally.”

But he says it has “opened his eyes” to UK farming. “I also realized what great products this country has to offer. We may not be great at growing tomatoes and basil, but this country is great when it comes to root vegetables.” And these are perfect for vegetarian curries, he says. “Anything from carrots to beets to parsnips, whatever, I’m experimenting with all the combinations of the different vegetables that we have in this country. I love it, I find it amazing. They also have fantastic cabbage and cauliflower.”

And when you cook in-season vegetables, “Mother Nature does 80% of the work and I only have to do 20%”.

What does his 86-year-old mother (who still lives in his hometown in India) think of his food now? “She enjoys what I cook, but I often cook dishes that she used to cook for me – and it’s a cheeky competition between mother and son. She’s still reviewing dishes, she’s like, ‘You get there, you’ll learn one day,'” he says, smiling.

His mother originally wanted him to be a doctor. “I always joke that Indian families can be pretty persuasive when it comes to their children’s education.” To placate his “strict” mother, he applied to study medicine. “Unfortunately I got the place, I was really hoping I wouldn’t get the place!” he laughs. Luckily, his parents agreed that he would be happier in culinary school.

In 2001 he received his first Michelin star at London restaurant Tamarind and went on to open his own restaurant, Benares, where he won his second star. But his career hasn’t been without controversy – he was forced to deny he was Islamophobic in 2018 after sending Priyanka Chopra a tweet about her TV show Quantico claiming Islam had “terrorized” Hindus for 2,000 years. Kochhar issued an apology the following day, acknowledging his inaccuracy, and Chopra apologized for any offense caused by the storyline, which depicted a terrorist attack by Indian Hindu nationalists. But the incident resulted in Kochhar having to part ways with Benares and the JW Marriot Marquis hotel in Dubai.

“I never had a bone like that in me,” he says now four years later, saying he was shocked “one small mistake would get you in trouble” and that it was a “very hard” time for him and been his family (He has two teenagers).

Kochhar has since opened more restaurants (he currently has eight – the newest, Riwaz, opened in February). “I know who I am and what I’m made of, and I’m going to get up and go back to work and make it happen,” says Kochhar. “My quest to open more restaurants is one answer [to those] who took 18 years of hard work away from me.”

His continued success can be attributed to expanding our perception of British Indian cuisine. “I was brave enough to push boundaries, I didn’t see any culinary boundaries, they were pretty blurry for me,” he says.

“I thought if Gordon Ramsay can do it, so can I – maybe that’s why I got a Michelin star. That helped me get the food to where it is today.”

Curry Everyday by Atul Kochhar is published by Bloomsbury Absolute and costs £26. Photography by Mike Cooper. Now available.

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