Celeb chef Atul Kochhar talks food in Dubai

The Indian celeb chef behind Rang Mahal on the emirate's dining scene

Interview, General

During one of his five yearly visits to Dubai, Penelope Walsh meets superstar chef Atul Kochhar to chat Michelin stars and onion skins at Rang Mahal.

Where do you eat in Dubai?
As a ritual I go to La Petite Maison at least once a year. I recently discovered Okku, more for ambience, rather than for food though. For my Indian fix, if I want something hardcore and traditional, I head to Calicut Paragon. Part of my education as a chef was in south India, and the flavours are so pure it takes me back.

How do you rate the Indian scene in Dubai?
It’s very vibrant. Outside of India, Dubai and London stand out for Indian food. Next time, I plan to visit Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor. He’s a creative chef.

What inspired Rang Mahal’s ‘pleasure palace’ concept?
In Rajasthani tradition, every castle had a central courtyard or inner palace, called Rang Mahal, where hospitality took place. We are in the desert and Rajasthan is a desert. We wanted to entertain with food, service and music, so Rang Mahal was a good fit.

Does Rang Mahal differ from your London restaurants?
It’s a Dubai style of eating, for a different ethos and demographic. We Indians and Arabs, are impatient people, we only go to restaurants when we’re hungry and we want the food to be on the table even before we’ve ordered it. I added a cold selection, so the food comes almost instantly. The intention was always a really cool, hip, fine dining place. Or ‘fun’ dining, because I don’t like stuffiness. We call it progressive dining, rather than modern Indian dining.

What is the difference?
We use traditional recipes, with a modern ethos and techniques. We keep in mind what we can get locally, and seasonally. Starting in Rang Mahal and I hope to replicate this in all my restaurants, I’m training my staff to be a zero- waste kitchen. Everything is discarded in a biodegradable dumping ground, or is used in the restaurant. For example, onions skins give a beautiful colour to stocks and gravys. I’m ecologically aware and I want to enthuse that in my chefs, so as they grow and run their own kitchens, they take away something from me.

How did you feel to receive your first Michelin star?
I didn’t believe it. A journalist phoned and I said, you’ve got to be kidding, I’ve got three bags of onions to peel, let’s joke some other day. He phoned back and said that Vineet [Bhatia] and I had both been awarded Michelin stars that year [2001].

Will Michelin come to Dubai?
I hope so, I definitely see room for it. I was asked if Michelin has not come to Dubai because Arabic cuisine is not seen in that light yet. I’m not sure. I didn’t get a Michelin star sitting in India. But they give stars in America, and America has no cuisine. If they are looking for good cuisine and good chefs, consistently producing high quality, Dubai certainly is a place to look.

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