The Michelin-starred chef of Benares tells us about becoming a chocoholic, the best way to get the most out of spices, and why he is longing to visit Hong Kong.
Atul Kochhar was the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star, while he was working as head chef at Tamarind in 2001. He went on to open Benares, gaining a coveted second star in 2007. Now a familiar face on television and the author of several cookbooks, he continues to take his inspiration from the Indian dishes of his childhood, and combines this heritage with astute use of British ingredients.
What is your favourite cookbook and why?
My favourite cookbook at the moment is Quay by Peter Gilmore. He has a fresh approach to food. His approach is simple and straightforward, and he uses floral flavours and rare ingredients, as well as what he can forage. I admire that kind of food.
What ingredients do you always have to hand?
Spices, of course. Black pepper and cardamom are my favourites. They’re very common in food from Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India.
What is your favourite food shop?
Brindisa. You get the best chorizo there, and they’re one of the few places that do proper Spanish peppers.
What is your favourite food destination?
I’ve never been to Hong Kong but I’d love to go because I know it is great for food. The restaurant scene there is quite adventurous, with cosmopolitan food and the mix of luxury and affordable. I really want to eat at Chan Yan-tak‘s restaurant there – he was the first Chinese chef to be awarded three Michelin stars.
Do you have a particular food obsession at the moment?
I’ve gone crazy for chocolate and have been obsessively trying to learn more about it. I blame the food writer Sudi Piggott. She brought me organic chocolate from various parts of the world, and they sat on my desk for ages. Then I ate one, then two, then three. There was chocolate from Costa Rica, Chile and different parts of Africa. So I’ll blame any extra weight I’m carrying on that! It’s a fascinating ingredient, so I’m on a quest to learn more about it.
Are there any chefs you’re currently excited about?
The people I most admire are the Brazilian chef Alex Atala and René Redzepi from Noma. Redzepi is inspirational. He is such a perfectionist. He’ll take one ingredient and do everything possible to it – blend it, ferment it, roast it – to understand everything about it. He focuses on finding out what makes every single ingredient tick on the plate. His testing kitchen is bigger than his actual kitchen. There are not many chefs like that.
Is there anything you never cook?
I will eat anything once, but I’ll never eat or use hákarl again. It’s an Icelandic dish of fermented shark, and it’s basically rotten. Putrefaction has set in and it’s so bad.
Can you give us a cooking tip?
When people use spices one of the biggest mistakes they make is adding them in with other ingredients. Spices are oil soluble, not water soluble, so start your dish by cooking the spices first in a natural flavourless oil such as sunflower oil. Once the spices have infused their flavour into the oil, then add the next ingredients. You create a flavoured oil that will then permeate the whole dish as you cook it.
Do you grow anything yourself?
I have just moved to a house which has a 300ft garden and a beautiful greenhouse. So I’ll be busy this year growing onions, potatoes – I have a thing about potatoes – and garlic. I’d like to grow edible flowers for salads, too – flowers like viola and calendula. I want to use every inch of my land for growing food.
Read the article as it originally appeared on Flavour