One of the first Indian chefs to earn a Michelin star and put modern Indian food on the world culinary map, the London-based Atul Kochhar talks about his culinary journey and SAGA – Cuisines of India, his latest outing in his home country.
Celebrity chef Atul Kochhar began his career with Oberoi Hotels, then moved to the UK where he bagged Michelin stars and popularised Indian food. Kochhar got his first Michelin star in 2001 while working at Tamarind. He got a second one for his own restaurant Benares in 2007. Perhaps his most famous dish is chicken tikka masala pie, which he serves with a wild berry compote. However, the butter chicken ball that he has introduced at SAGA – Cuisines of India, his collaboration with Vishal Anand of Moonshine Food Ventures in Gurugram, could well become his new signature dish. Kochhar spoke to Traveldine about what he is trying to do with the food at SAGA, a restaurant that opened in the throes of the pandemic but seems to have weathered it well.
Is this the first restaurant you’ve opened remotely? And welcome back to India.
Before this I’ve done many openings remotely. I’ve had restaurants in Mauritius, Maldives, Dubai…A few years ago, I had two restaurants in Mumbai as well, NRI (Not Really Indian) and Lima. They were next to each other. I asked a Peruvian chef, a friend of mine, to give me a hand. But Peruvian was a bit ahead of its time, even for Mumbai, and the location wasn’t great. They were still doing well but then demonetisation happened. As a new restaurant it was difficult to sustain ourselves. Whatever happens across the globe, restaurants usually are the first to bear the brunt for it.
What would you say is your food philosophy?
I always like to work with whatever is available in that area. In England, I work with English vegetables and ingredients. There is no point me craving for something that’s not there naturally. Take something like aubergine. The way baingan kabharta tastes here in India, it will never taste like that in the UK. The produce, the sunshine, the soil, the water table, all are different. I would say that 80 percent of the flavour of anything we eat is actually the flavour of the water. Minerals in the water dictate the flavour, whether it be vegetable or meat.
I’ll give you an example. I cooked in Switzerland a long time ago with Chef Albert Roux in his hotel. I suddenly realised that my seafood — which we took from the UK because we wanted to cook cod and turbot there; the sauce we made locally — tasted a lot nicer there than it ever did in England! First we couldn’t figure it out. Then we realised it was the water, which was amazing. Swiss water is beautiful. It comes from the glaciers and just tastes amazing. Even in the UK, the water in Scotland is very different compared to Southern England where I live. It’s the same with India. Whatever we cook in Delhi will not taste the same in Mumbai or Chennai because the water flavour would change.
How many restaurants do you have in the UK currently? What brought you back to India?
I’ve got eight restaurants currently, five outside London and three in London. My philosophy about working in the UK is that no restaurant should be more than an hour’s drive from home. I want to go back home every night. I’ve decided not to work abroad anymore. India, of course, is an exception because I come here all the time, four-five times a year sometimes. Mum lives here, as do my sisters. I’m the only one from my family who lives in the UK. So that’s one reason I want to do more in India if possible.
What is the food concept at SAGA all about?
When Vishal Anand told me the name of the restaurant is SAGA, I said we have to think what we are doing and every food we pick will have a hook somewhere. Why are we eating that? It’ll have a story, something behind it. So we started researching. In the menu we’ve put out, every recipe has a story. Most of the time we asked our development chefs to go and talk to the cooks and see where their stories were emanating from.
Take Dal Muradabadi. It comes from Muradabad and there’s a reason why we do it. Some of them are very old classics, everyday names, but we had never delved into knowing why they are there. So that’s why we thought, while it’s a constant, ongoing process, we can start with a call on what we want to do and then keep exploring more, because there will be so many more stories. If the story entices us, we can find the ingredients locally and cook with them.
Do you have any favourites on the menu?
It’s like asking which child is a favourite one among five! [laughs] Otherwise, Dal Muradabadi has always been my favourite. The tempering is done from the top and its simplicity appeals to me.
In terms of lamb, which we are experimenting with at the moment, there is the Champaran Gosht from Bihar. We haven’t put it on the menu yet. It’s all about slow cooking the meat and potatoes and vegetables together. It’s very rustic. We’re not planning to put it on a plate — we’ll serve it in the handi itself. So that one dish is very close to my heart and I love it.
I’ll just talk about these two at the moment.
Are there plans to change the menu at SAGA seasonally?
Not in its entirety for sure. We would change maybe 15-20 percent and keep tweaking it. I was telling Tanvi [SAGA’s executive chef, Tanvi Goswami] that this is the first time I could manage to come since the restaurant has opened, so there’s a lot of work to be done with the team. I want to train them into understanding that India is quite a seasonal market, in terms of ingredients. You get the right tomatoes in winter, for instance, but those tomatoes will not come back in summer.
Cauliflower is still a winter thing. I want to teach them to cook what is available in the market. We will always portray what we could do but things which are not available we will not do.
Would you say the food at SAGA is home style?
Inspiration is home style, of course. I used to love eating the raw cauliflower pieces whenever my Mum was cutting cauliflower at home. In our scallops with textures of cauliflower, the sauce is gobhi ki sabzi like Mum would make at home. We pureed it and added a little yoghurt for liquidity. One of the gobhis was pickled, a typical Bengali pickle which I was inspired by. One was a tandoori broccoli. In the UK you get a purple cauliflower, but since we don’t get it here, I’ve used broccoli.
How did you manage to draw influences from all over India for the menu at SAGA?
What we have done at the moment is a group of chefs brought the stories on the table and we tried and kept the ones which worked. Going forward, just to run a professional outfit, I think we would have to lean on a lot of local knowledge. Social media is great to connect to people these days, so we’ll connect with them and have a chat, or a Zoom or video call. And if it appeals to us, then travel and learn.
Has the customer changed over the years?
Customers are hugely knowledgeable now. If I’m doing something from Indore, for example, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to beat an Indori who would always know better than me. I need to be humble and learn from them. So that’s my view about it. I would like to cook as authentic as possible. Wherever the credit is due I think you should give it. I think learning from locals will be the biggest thing for us. At the moment there are a couple of dishes on the menu which are from Garhwal. There are a few Garhwali chefs, so we’re learning from them rather than telling them how it is done.