Never before had an Indian chef won a Michelin star. And Atul Kochhar hasn’t done it just once, but twice!.
The second time around for his independent venture – Benaras. Situated just off the busy Oxford street, on Berkley square, London, lies his swanky restaurant. Walk in and you’ve instantly left the bustle of the shopping street behind – the minimalistic décor in dark wood, soft lighting and even a serene water feature sporting floating water lilies together have a calming effect.
But it’s the food with its exotic flavours that wins you over. What’s more, the chef takes sustainability very seriously. Here’s more from the Michelin man himself.
• Can you take us through your cooking career, starting with your training to being awarded a Michelin star?
I trained in India with the well-known Oberoi Group of hotels in New Delhi. I moved to London in 1994 to open Tamarind. It was here that I earned my first Michelin star in 2001. Subsequently in 2003, I set up Benaras which is my first independent venture. At Benaras we have a distinct style of cooking which I refer to as British-Indian or modern Indian cuisine. The style appealed to the customers and Benaras won me another Michelin star in 2007.
• Why the name Benaras?
Benaras or Varanasi as the city is called today has such a rich cultural history behind it. It’s a holy city, right on the bank of the Ganges with so many different flavours.
• You were the first Indian to get this coveted award. As a result, do you feel a lot of pressure when it comes to the Michelin awards?
It is a great honour to get this award. But I don’t think about it constantly or feel pressurised in anyway. I just continue to do my best and if I win another star, that’s great.
• Food sustainability seems to be a much talked about in the UK. How big is Benaras when it comes to this pressing issue?
Benaras is a part of the Sustainable Restaurants Association (SRA), which is a relatively new organization, but it’s making good progress with many more chefs coming on board. Benaras upholds sustainability very strictly and we make sure it trickles down to each and every step in the cooking process, right from ordering through to waste management.
For instance we chop and turn our menu such that any meats and vegetables that are even close to becoming rare, never figure on it.
We go through the monthly report of the Royal Marine Society which lists exactly which fish is depleting and therefore for the past four years I haven’t had any cord on the menu. It’s a fish that Britain absolutely loves, but since it’s endangered we just won’t do it.
Similar is the case for wild-salmon. However, organic salmon is most welcome.
Even in the preparation process we are becoming more conscious. For instance, pick up a cook book and you’re likely to see a recommendation to pre-heat the oven two hours in advance!
Most of us never questioned this before but as sustainability makes its way into the kitchen, we now begin to ask why? Considering how advanced science and technology is today, we do not need to pre-heat ovens.
That’s just a waste of energy. Similarly in my kitchen, we tend to take stock from time to time to see if we can do without some appliances. So if we can do away with one fridge and save energy, by all means we’ll do it.
Also, oil disposal is a very big issue. And I recommend finding a company that recycles oil rather than finding a quiet day and pouring it down the drain!.
• How can the environmentally conscious foodie find out which restaurants follow the concept of sustainability?
At the moment there is no association that gives you an official list of such restaurants. However, we are hoping that SRA will come up with one soon.
• Lastly, what is the best way to enjoy Benaras food?
I’d suggest the grazing menu. It’s been designed such that people can actually taste the flavours of the ingredients; take in the combination of the spices and the balances that we have created. You get five platters with three dishes each.
The first platter consists of cold dishes, the second of steamed ones, the third is grilled, the fourth has curries and the fifth consists of sweets.
India is too large a country with myriad cuisines and it’s not possible to give you a taste of every region, but through this menu we do manage to give you a taste of some parts of the country.
The Chef’s special: Mangsho Ghugni/ Lamb rump with chickpeas.
Mangsho means meat and generally meat for people of Hindu Bengali origin implies goat meat. This is a very traditional recipe although I have broken away from tradition and instead of using diced meat I have used lamb rump. This only changes the appearance but not the flavour of the dish.
Serves: 4, Preparation time: 20 minutes, Cooking time: 30 minutes Ingredients: 150 grams Chickpeas, soaked in water overnight, 1 Bay leaf, 1 Black cardamom, 1 Clove, 1 Tsp Salt. 100 Ml Vegetable or Mustard oil, 6 Cloves, 2 Bay leaves, 3 Black cardamom 200 grams Onions (sliced), 15 grams Ginger-garlic paste, 1 Tsp Coriander powder 1 Tsp Red chilli powder, 1 Tsp Cumin powder, 1 Tsp Salt, 200 grams Tomatoes (chopped), 4 Lamb leg steaks (100 grams X 4), 2 Tbsp Coriander leaves (chopped), ½ Tsp Garam masala (Bengali).
To finish: 2 tbsp of mixed spices – coriander seeds, cumin seeds, sesame seeds, black pepper 1 tbsp dijon mustard, Mixed cress for garnish.
Method: Soak chickpeas in water and salt overnight. Drain the water and start with fresh water and spices and boil the chickpeas until cooked.
Set aside until required.
In a separate pan heat oil and sauté cloves, bay leaf & black cardamom. Add sliced onions and sauté till translucent, add ginger-garlic paste and cook well. Add dried powdered spices, tomatoes and lamb steaks and add enough water to cover the mixture, cook till lamb is tender.
Add chickpeas and simmer until lamb is ¾ cooked.
Separate the rump from the chickpeas.
Brush the rump with Dijon mustard paste and roll it over crackled-pounded spices. Roast in medium hot oven for 5-6 minutes and remove.
Place chickpeas and sit rump on top garnished with mixed cress. Serve hot with some rice or bread.