Michelin Star chef Atul Kochhar brings in the flavours of British cuisine to Bloomsbury’s café in Lulu Mall

Despite the din of loud music and the footfalls of movie goers headed for the nearby multiplex, the Bloomsbury’s café at Lulu mall is an oasis of calm.

The dark panelled interiors and warm lighting are a contrast to the airy artisan bakery that accompanies it and also bears the Bloomsbury name. Seated in a corner of the café, Chef Atul Kochhar looks at his team hard at work in the kitchen and says with a hint of pride, “I’m here as a chef mentor for Bloomsbury’s café, which aims to be a British café that celebrates over 400 years of British association with India. So you will have things like fish and chips, and burgers and pizza, but some local touches as well. The kitchen staff is one hundred percent Malayali, and they’re shaping up really well.”

The Michelin-starred chef is a well known face to those with a love for food, with multiple restaurants to his name in London and being a familiar face on television.

Born into a family that ran a catering business in Jamshedpur, Atul was presented with the choice of studying medicine or hotel management. “I picked hotel management because I felt there are far too many doctors in India anyway, do they need another one? My family was also quite supportive but I said from day one that when I finish my studies I will set out to do my own thing and not join the family business,” he says.

Atul studied at the Institute of Hotel Management in Chennai, and went on to attend the Oberoi School of Hotel Management. He worked for the group for a few years before he left for London in 1994. “I had no idea I’d spend the rest of my life there. The first three years I wanted to explore, and I helped open a restaurant called Tamarind, where I earned my first Michelin Star. Then I went on to start my own restaurant Benares, for which I got my second Star.”

A steady evolution

Atul has since interacted with some of the biggest names in the business, including Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey, and says British cuisine has evolved greatly over the years. “In the old days British cuisine used to be meat and two vegetables, but they have moved on and now they have been inspired by new flavours and use more spices and ingredients. After Indians, the British are the people who understand spices best, because of their long association with the country. So now you see Gordon Ramsey making his own garam masala to dust his monkfish before pan roasting it and Jamie Oliver trying to make the perfect dosa and sambar,” he explains.

He is also a firm believer in sourcing his ingredients locally, a habit that makes life difficult for his two restaurants aboard cruise ships, where he insists they use ingredients available at ports they stop at. It is perhaps these principles that have earned him his Michelin Stars, considered the gold standard in culinary quality. Atul grins in amusement when asked whether there is a formula to achieve a Star. “Yes there is, hard work, being truthful to yourself, and being realistic about what you can and cannot do. I think the Michelin is a sign of quality and consistency, and how you maintain it. It’s like an annual result; you move from one class to another but you have to take your exams for the next class.”

Now that he is an established force in his field, Atul pays attention to giving back. “I have helped many people over the years. Most of the staff in my hotels are second generation Indians. While the British boys who work for me take the opportunity to learn about the cuisine, for the Indians, it is also a part of their culture, so they tend to stay longer before moving on to do their own thing, which I support.” He is also actively involved in charity work, working with the Prince’s Charities founded by Prince Charles, the British Asian Trust and an organisation in Bangalore called Be! Fund, which provides young entrepreneurs with seed money.

Atul is also planning to visit India more frequently, which includes checking up on the Bloomsbury’s café now and then. “My wife and kids haven’t been to South India so I’m planning to bring them along sometime. I absolutely adore Kerala, and used to spend my holidays here when I was studying in Chennai. And India will always be my home, my mother lives in Delhi and I have a sister in Nashik too.”

While he is more interested in improving education facilities in the country, he does leave with a parting remark to think about. “I want to do more for Indian cuisine, because it has so much to offer the world but is a mishmash at the moment. I’d like to take the help of veterans who have been in this field and bring them together to preserve our culinary heritage for future generations. If we don’t do that, we run the risk of losing our heritage.”

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