Chef Atul Kochhar: “Jugaad Helps Me Wherever I Am In The World”
UK-based celebrity chef Atul Kochhar opened NRI, a restaurant that serves the food of the Indian diaspora, in Bandra Kurla Complex, in February. The very next month, he launched Peruvian bar Lima right next door. In London, where he has been living for more than two decades, Kochhar has helmed two Michelin-awarded eateries, Tamarind and Benares, the latter of which he currently heads. We interviewed the chef on our podcast The Paodcast earlier this month when he was in the city to launch a new menu at NRI. On the show, along with our Monthly Specials columnist Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, we spoke to him about his restaurants here and his reasons for picking Mumbai over Delhi for his first two India establishments. You can listen to the episode on audio content streaming service Saavn and read the transcript of the interview below:
Roshni: You’ve opened restaurants across the world at several locations, most recently in Mumbai and Madrid. What were the unique challenges of opening a restaurant in Mumbai?
Before I answer that, I need to know: you guys are all pao, what am I? Vada?
Pronoti: You could be a modern Indian vada because that’s your thing.
And you can change it according to the flavours you need. Very clever paos you are. Back to your question, challenges are depending on people, place. The demographics you have in front of you. The challenges in Mumbai, people challenges were minimal. I think the talent is humungous in this country. Finding people was not very difficult. I’ve seen my compatriots, my peers in the industry moan about the talent. I only want to say [to them], come to London, come to Madrid, then you’ll realise what the challenges are. This is nothing. You have a wealth of people, we just need to know how to use them.
Pronoti: By people, do you mean people you employ in the kitchen?
I think everywhere, on all the sections. All the parts of the restaurant industry, right from the top starting from admin going down to accounting, going down to bookkeeping, service and kitchen. The talent is there, how you nurture them that is the main challenge. That is part of my challenge, not their challenge. I think, working in Europe and working in different countries, I have learnt there is nothing called perfection. You have to work with things. You have to make things work for yourself. That way, that word in India what we call ‘jugaad’, that really comes alive. That helps me everywhere, wherever I am in the world.
The challenges here are on a different level, on supply chain. It’s a massive challenge. I’m struggling with it, I’m battling with it, but I haven’t given up. We started with looking at the markets, what we can get. Then we also befriended a farm who are growing things for us. We also acquired eight acres of our own farm land. At the moment, it’s only vegetables. It’s in Ganeshpuri. I haven’t gone on to keep animals at the moment but who knows.
Amit: You emphasise local produce.
It’s not out of any fashion or (because) that’s the trend that I’m doing that. Because purely, when you buy local stuff, you have to do so little. Because you work with nature, work with seasons. The flavours are already there. All you have to do as a culinary person is modify it. And that’s all I do.
Amit: We hear all the time from restaurateurs here how there’s so much red tape involved. Administratively it’s a huge challenge. Was that something you faced? Was there a big gap between the decision to come here and open these restaurants and actually launching?
The way I run my business, I never get bogged down by the admin rubbish. I hire a team for that and I let them handle it. It’s their problem. I’m a creative person. If I get involved in that, it will be too much for me to handle so I try not to do that. There’s a cost to it so be it. I get on with what I want to do, what I’m best at. I’m not good at dealing with administrators. Can you imagine me acquiring 68 or 70 different licences in Mumbai? I’ll go crazy. I’ll get somebody to do it. It gets done.
Pronoti: That’s a fine example of jugaad.
Well, you know what, even in London if I had to open a restaurant – actually I’m going to open in January and this time, I’m going a different way, (with) a British restaurant – I have to go through the licensing issues, but there’s a team for it.
Amit: When had you decided you were going to open in India?
I have lived abroad for 23 years now. I come back to the motherland every year, two-three times a year because my parents live here. My mom still lives here. It never occurred to me that I will ever open a restaurant here and just out of the blue, my dad passed away and I thought ‘Damn, what am I going to do? Dad isn’t there. Mum comes to London often. I need to come to India.’ I had to find a reason to stay associated with it. My own culinary skill came in handy and my business partner was keen to do something in India. We started looking around. (During the) last three years, we came back and studied the market and looked at different things and were very excited to see how the food industry had developed. Looking at someone like Riyaaz Amlani who is a hero of mine; Mr. (Jiggs) Kalra; also the Olive group. They’re inspirational. They’re home-grown brands. They didn’t go abroad and bring a package over and unfurl it and say, ‘Come on guys, come eat with us’. They developed piece by piece. And that’s what I wanted to do. So I didn’t bring Benares. I could have easily done that. I wanted to grow something, which belongs to India and has come out of India. Hence NRI.
Pronoti: Was Bombay your first choice? Because you’re not from Bombay.
Actually, it’s very difficult for anybody to say where I’m from. Punjabi family, born in Bihar, studied in Chennai, worked in Delhi, worked part of my life in Bombay. I myself don’t know where I’m from. Hence I left India. Becoming an NRI was a better choice. Yes, I wasn’t here for a substantial part of my life. But I’ve been coming to Mumbai for a very long time. And Mumbai has always intrigued me because it’s more cosmopolitan, more (of a) foodie city, the going-out culture is more vibrant.
Pronoti: It’s interesting you say that because we often compare Bombay and Delhi and the consensus is that the quality and variety of food in Delhi is far better.
‘Don’t you know who I am?’ That’s not there in Bombay. And that’s a big thing for me. To start somewhere where people are not pretentious. I’m not saying Delhi people are pretentious but…
Amit: It’s okay, you can say that. We don’t mind Delhi bashing.
Delhi bashing is good. I love it. Having lived in Delhi, I can do Delhi bashing. No, but honestly, that arrogance isn’t there, which I absolutely adored about Mumbaikars. I have always loved dealing with people from Mumbai. Whenever I have done anything in Mumbai, it was hugely appreciated. So it became a first choice. Also in terms of real estate, I compared like for like and I had to put on my businessman hat and Mumbai real estate in terms of commercial properties was a lot better value than Delhi. Delhi was somewhere in cuckoo land. So I said, okay I’ll let that go. Let them sweat a bit and once I’ve made the brand, they would be inviting me to come.
Roshni: How did you select BKC?
Location, location, location. Everybody talked about Juhu and south Bombay. I did my tours and I thought, okay the trick is not in what has happened so far, the trick is in finding what’s going to happen next and where it’s going to happen. And I saw BKC was the place. Everything is moving towards BKC. Okay, I’ll punt on that. I’ll put my money on BKC. That was the only reason. I’m actually quite happy I’ve done that because I can see most of the financial world is moving that way, some of the housing is also coming up there, which is great. But I wanted to be in the business district, that was my choice.
Roshni: How’s that working out? What do your customers say about coming to BKC for a meal?
I think they’re loving it to be honest. Quite surprisingly, I thought Sunday would be a pretty dull day, people wouldn’t be around; we’re packed on Sunday.
Pronoti: Why did you decide to open Lima, a Peruvian restaurant in Bombay?
I’ve been touring Latin America for quite some time now, mainly for holiday purposes and also I absolutely fell in love with Brazil. When I saw Mexico, I thought, wow this is home away from home. You know they actually use the same ingredients that we do. They use chillies, they use cumin, they use tomatoes, they use garlic, they use coriander, you name it they have the whole jingbang. It’s just (that) the sequence is very different. The way I would add coriander, they would add it very differently. The way I would make my chutney, they would make their mole very differently. So all those things made me think that actually, these are the same ingredients we use day in, day out in our country. We can’t be so far away. If we put them right, it will work. That was the main thought. And then when I was introduced to Peruvian food, I thought: Wow!
The biggest example of cuisine being celebrated well in the world and I have witnessed it myself is British cuisine. I know if you just look at English cuisine it’s damn boring but British cuisine is very rich. It has got essence from Asia Africa, China, India, you name it. Hence British cuisine has taken over from French and American. Because it embodies everything. And I thought, the next one is Peruvian. If you look at it, they have so many influences, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, their own indigenous cuisine and it’s vibrant. They’re happy to absorb more if they want it. And that will become the cuisine for tomorrow. So I said, let’s work with it today. Hence we opened. We call it a Latin American restaurant with Peruvian as a huge emphasis but we haven’t forgotten Mexican, Brazilian and Argentinian, they’re a core part of our menu.
Pronoti: The ceviche is essentially raw fish. Was that something you were concerned about? How people would take to raw fish?
In India, we have the inhibition of (eating) raw fish. Culturally we haven’t done that. So it’s a massive challenge. But it’s also part of the education (process). Look at (how) a big number of Indians are going abroad and they are experimenting and eating at different places. One of the most celebrated Peruvian restaurants in London is called Coya and 70 or 80 per cent of the clients are Indian. In the months of May and June, you’ve got to win a lottery to get a table there. These folks are eating all sorts of raw fish. So I thought, we can’t be far away from it and if I stick to local and if my produce is right – get the prime stuff on my menu – then I think we’ll be okay. I think that’s what we have done and nobody has ever come and complained. Actually ceviche is one of the best-selling items on the menu. People are loving it.
It’s also (about) educating people as time goes by. We have always associated cooking with heat. But there’s cooking without heat also. Cooking is also curing. Cooking is also through salting. Cooking is also through acid. And in this case, the moment you put tiger milk, which is essentially lime juice and some flavours, meat actually starts getting cooked immediately. And something like fish, which is really very soft protein gets cooked within three minutes. So it’s actually cooked.
Roshni: Latin American food is very meat-centric. You’ve managed to put a lot of vegetarian food for Bombay on Lima’s menu.
Latin American food is a lot around meat but they eat a lot of vegetables. So I had to focus more on vegetables and chicken and fish rather than red meat. As it is, the world is becoming a healthier place, we’re thinking more consciously about what we eat, what we put in our guts. They are in Latin America also. All the famous chefs from there, if you follow them, they have more vegetarian, chicken and fish on the menu. We strongly talk about in the world chef’s forums that the plates will be full of vegetables soon and the meat will be the garnish. If you don’t want it, we’ll take the garnish away but you’ll still have your vegetables.
Amit: You’re in town to launch a new menu for NRI. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
The way we want to go about doing it, the essence is also the way you feel, it’s also the weather in Mumbai at the time. It’s monsoon and as an Indian, what do you love when it’s monsoon? I run for pakodas and samosas. My thoughts were let’s have things that are deep-fried. They’re dirty I know that but I love it! Who doesn’t love it? I’ll do my yoga in the morning but give me my deep-fried pakodas. We’ve gone for curry puffs, some chicken pakodas, something very simplistic but we have brought flavours from Malayasia, South Africa, the Caribbean.
Pronoti: One of the items on NRI’s menu is the bunny chow and interestingly the bunny chow has made its way into several restaurants in the city.
In a lot of ways, it’s (like) the vada pao story. You can make any flavour of vada you want. Bunny chow is essentially a bread casing and people could put anything they fancy. We started with very technical ones, what South Africa would do, they had a bean curry. There are many stories around bunny chow. A lot of people say it was because there was a bania who was cooking it that’s why it became a bania chow and it was served by a Chinese guy. We started with beans, (went) on to chicken, we also had pork in between and also goat curry. Slowly we’re experimenting and for the season, we’re putting shakalaka. It’s more of spicy version with peppers and if I make a slightly more desi version of it, then it’s slightly going more towards kadhai chicken. It’s peppery, it’s hot, it’s spicy. The bread actually becomes a lot more leaner, slightly crispier. You fancy eating that when there’s rain happening outside and you don’t feel like stepping out and you want to stay indoors with a nice cup of masala chai.
Roshni: Are you going to be changing the menu often?
It happens all the time. My menus are always small and we change them very often. Because I believe in keeping up with the seasons. I believe in keeping up with people’s thoughts. I believe in keeping up with what mother nature gives us. It gets boring otherwise. I can’t have 250 dishes on the menu like many others and not change it for three years. I’d rather keep 20 dishes on the menu and change it many times.
NRI and Lima, Maker Maxity, North Avenue 2, in the same complex as California Pizza Kitchen and Le Pain Quotidian, Bandra-Kurla Complex, Bandra (East). Tel: 022 3000 5040. NRI: Open daily, from 11am to 11pm. Lima: Open daily, from 6pm to 12.30am. Get directions here.