Indian-born Atul Kochhar, a graduate of the great culinary institution that is the Oberoi (the very same hotel that Vineet Bhatia trained at) is the man who has been credited with revolutionising Indian cuisine with dishes such as chicken tikka pie and his famous spicy take on John Dory. It’s quite some claim considering the country’s rich culinary heritage. Atul made a name for himself at Tamarind restaurant in Mayfair, London, where he won his first Michelin Star, before becoming a household name with appearance on MasterChef Goes Large and The Great British Menu.
Like many Michelin-star chefs, Atul is based in London; unlike many Michelin-star chefs, he was a regular Dubai visitor long before he took a professional interest in the place. ‘I’ve been visiting Dubai over the past 12 years,’ he explains to Time Out. ‘For the first five or six years I was coming for personal reasons, because I have so many friends here. It’s only the past few years that I’ve taken a professional interest. People kept insisting I should do something and I always said no because this is a place I come to enjoy myself. But I eventually gave in.’
By ‘giving in’ Atul means that he is opening a restaurant under his own name later this year at the forthcoming JW Marriott – JW Marquis – which will open on Sheikh Zayed Road. It’ll be called Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, which will at last give Dubaians a chance to sample his unique Indian cuisine.This said, Atul has had heavy involvement in Zafran in Mirdif City Centre and Marina Mall; two restaurants that provide a taste of what’s to come.
‘Like the UK, Dubai is a great home of Indian food,’ continues Atul. ‘People in the UAE are very used to having Indian food in their homes, because since time immemorial they have had Indian cooks in their homes so they have grown up eating Indian food. Also, there’s a huge sub-continental population here and there [is also a huge number] of British expats – and the British love Indian food.’
Despite Atul’s long affiliation with Dubai, this is only his first time at Taste, and while he admits he doesn’t know a great deal about the festival, he says that he’s basing his expectations on his past experiences at Taste of London.
‘London is where it all started and I’m hoping it’ll be pretty much like that. Basically, it’ll be a great place for me to meet and greet my peers who I haven’t seen for a while. We’ll be in the same enclosure where we can chat, get a bite to eat and showcase what we’re doing [to the public]. I hear that Chef Gary Rhodes will be there, along with some of my compatriots from the UK, which will be great, and there’ll be some local chefs from Dubai who I know but haven’t seen for a while, so I’ll be able to catch up with them too.’
Aside from shooting the breeze with his chums, Atul will be showcasing his dishes at the Philips Chef’s Theatre and hosting a training kitchen at the Miele Cookery Class.
Luckily for us, Atul has vast experience cooking in front of the camera and live audiences, something that he finds more liberating than intimidating. ‘I quite enjoy these kind of gigs,’ he says with a smile. ‘You’re in a neutral environment and you get to know your diners better. In our job we hardly get time to meet them.’
When asked if all big-name chefs are natural exhibitionists, he chuckles: ‘I think when a person has taken up cheffing and is serious about it, it’s not really about showmanship; it’s about being able to share your passion. For me, it’s about understanding food, its ingredients, the concepts concerned and being able to share this with a crowd.’
Never has Indian food been more relevant than it is now. Atul believes that for the first time, Indian chefs have woken up to the fact that the cuisine is globally recognised and appreciated and they are now cooking innovative dishes incorporating ingredients from the country where they are based, whether it’s the UK, USA, or the UAE. ‘The results are spectacular,’ he says, ‘because then you get fresh, fusion-style food with Indian spices – this is what’s putting a new sparkle in Indian food worldwide.’At that, we ask him about the last exotic meal he prepared for himself. ‘Oh dear,’ he says with a bashful smile, ‘Um, a cheese sandwich, I think.’
See Atul cook something a little more exotic than a cheese sandwich at Philips Chef’s Theatre, Sat 3pm-3.30pm; and Miele Cookery School, 3pm-3.40pm, Sat 9pm-9.40pm.
Click here for 7 chefs to see at Taste of Dubai
Click here for Taste of Dubai: 10 to try