Atul Kochhar: "molecular gastronomy is dead"

The Michelin-starred celebrity chef of Dubai's Rang Mahal restaurant talks travel, oranges and why the molecular gastronomy movement is now ancient history. 

Robert Chilton November 2, 2015

To be awarded a Michelin star is an outstanding achievement in itself, but to hold that star for 10 years, well, that is nothing short of exceptional. 

And when it comes to exceptional chefs, there are few who come close to Atul Kochhar - the first ever Indian chef to win a Michelin star and the man behind not one but two restaurants (Tamarind and Benares) that have retained their stars for a decade.

Already part of the Dubai foodie scene with his popular Rang Mahal restaurant in the JW Marriott Marquis, Kochhar has recently opened Benares in Madrid and has two completely new concepts planned to open this month in Mumbai.

He managed to find some time in his globe-trotting schedule to talk to us about all things travel and why, in his opinion, the molecular gastronomy so popular with Indian chefs at the moment should be left in the past.

It's been 10 years since Michelin star. What have you learned?
I’d like to think I have a better understanding of ingredients but there is still so much to learn. I learn from younger chefs and I adore that. I don’t think I’m the boss, cooking is all about teamwork. I don’t carry that Michelin star, my team does; they sweat every day.

Do you enjoy meeting chefs and swapping ideas? 
I love talking to chefs. Some of my friends are Angela Hartnett, Jason Atherton, Marcus Wareing, Vivek Singh. They all have excelled in their fields and they all have something that I want, and that is their knowledge. Just a few words from them become a huge asset for me to use in my business.

I feel molecular gastronomy is passé, absolutely dead – put it in a coffin.

Give us an example of something you’ve learned recently.
I was talking to Manjit Singh Gill about oranges. He had travelled all over India doing lots of research about the oranges that grow there. When I grew up in India oranges were either large, small or ugly. I never bothered to understand where they came from.

He’s 20 years older than me and his knowledge of the different varieties was amazing. I didn’t know any of it. I’m opening restaurants in India so I’ll store that information away and use it if I’m cooking with oranges in the future. That information is priceless.

Do you have plans to open more restaurants soon?
I’m opening two restaurants in Mumbai in November. One is called NRI, which stands for Non Resident Indians. I’ve cooked out of India for 22 years so now I’m going back to the country I don’t want to cook Indian food again.

India has had huge migration with its food. Katsu curry powder went to Japan, Malaysia had Malay korma, chicken tikka masala went to Britain for example. I’ve collected all those recipes and made a menu out of it. It’s called NRI, but in brackets it says Not Really Indian. Before the media beat me with a stick and tell me this is not really Indian food, I’m going to tell them first.

Doing Michelin-star food is great but I don’t want to be doing that serious sort of thing every day.

And the other restaurant?
The second place is next door, and it’s a bar concept with Latin tapas, which is out of my comfort zone. I’ve been travelling in Latin America for some time and I’m always fascinated and inspired by it. I’ve been to Mexico and Brazil a few times, Peru is next on my list.

About 10 years ago I met a chef called Pedro Miguel in Australia. I had not heard of Peruvian cuisine. We cooked together and I thought, ‘My God! I’ve got to learn this.’ He was using all the spices that I was using. I hung out with him for five days and befriended him. Now he’s a big shot in Latin America, and he’s the king of Peruvian food. 

Why are you making this change in direction?
Doing Michelin-star food is great but I don’t want to be doing that serious sort of thing every day. I want to have fun with food. In the next 10 years I want to convert myself into a restaurateur, not just a chef. I want to experiment with other cuisines.

India is a market that is opening up and I think they’re ready for fantastic Italian food or a British gastropub. I think in the next 15 or 20 years a huge education will take place in India because they are travelling the world. I want to give something back to the country and give a different experience to my own people – I feel my motherland is calling.

What’s the current food trend in restaurants in India?
There’s a lot of molecular gastronomy happening at the moment. I’m not sure about it, but Indians are loving it. People are shutting down molecular restaurants and doing different things. Heston [Blumenthal] for example has opened 'Dinner' in London, which is pure food, and he has two pubs that he says he enjoys more. I feel molecular gastronomy is passé, absolutely dead – put it in a coffin.