Atul Kochhar leans over the table and, subconsciously, I think, lowers his voice. State secrets of the culinary kind are about to be revealed.
“She doesn’t like garlic,” he half-whispers. “You’re instructed not to put any in her food.”
So, this is his most prestigious diner ever: Queen Elizabeth II.
The famously unfussy British monarch asks, it seems – like Homer, Cleopatra and Count Dracula – for the distinctive ingredient to be left out of her food. And similar, perhaps, to many English great grandmas, adds Atul, she’s not too keen on anything too spicy either.
He reveals this nugget as we talk at his restaurant, Rang Mahal, in the JW Marriott Marquis hotel in Dubai’s Business Bay.
The Indian-born, British-based chef – who was in the UAE for the Dubai Food Festival – is one of a select band of restaurateurs to cook for the queen.
He did so at a spectacular state dinner, held at Windsor Castle, for the then president of India, Pratibha Patil.
“I was very proud to be asked,” he says of the 2009 occasion. “I cooked pan-fried sea bass with a coconut sauce, which is one of my signature dishes. There were four chefs and we all cooked a dish each. The reaction? There was no feedback actually. I’m sure if there had been anything wrong we’d have been told. It was one of my career highlights.”
Not, one should stress, that the rest of Atul’s career has been too shabby.
He’s the founder and head chef of London’s famous Benares restaurant, a TV star, author of three bestselling cookbooks, and feeder of some of the world’s biggest stars. David Cameron, George Clooney and Prince Charles are among others he’s made meals for.
Not bad, all things considered, for a chap whose own family were “gutted” when he first said he wanted to become a chef. They had dreamed of him being a doctor or an engineer.
“I remember my uncle’s exact words,” he recalls today. “He said ‘Are you crazy? You’ll be peeling onions all your life’.”
Atul Kochhar is the sixth celebrity chef I’ve interviewed in the past two weeks. Even for a specialist food writer, I imagine this would be a lot. There’s already been an Italian, three Indians and a Turkish-Bulgarian.
I like food as much as the next man. But by the time I get around to interviewing Atul, celebrity chef fatigue is starting to set in. If one more person tells me how passionate they are about locally sourced ingredients, I feel like I could metaphorically slap them with their own fillet of Dubai-reared, grass-fed beef.
A part of me has even started to resent people who eat out. What’s wrong with a dish of dal in front of the TV anyway?
And yet, within minutes of meeting Atul, 44, I’ve genuinely forgotten all this.
For one thing he seems to feel my pain. “Hmm,” he nods when I ask if there are too many celebrity chefs. “I wouldn’t argue with that.”
More pertinently, perhaps, this is a chap who is genuinely interesting and genuinely funny.
On cooking for George Clooney: “Did I feel pressure? Of course not. You know what, I can’t tell him anything about acting and he can’t tell me anything about cooking. So we’re even.”
On his own father’s reaction to him becoming the first Indian to receive a Michelin star in 2001? “I called him from the UK and told him and he said, ‘Well done, but I think this is just a tyre company shelling out accolades. You just keep concentrating on your cooking, son. I’ll be the judge of how good it is when I visit again’.”
And on his own favourite meal? “Red kidney beans [rajma]. It takes me back to my childhood [in Jamshedpur]. But if you made red kidney beans in our house it better be a large pot or you have a problem. Everyone loves it that much.”
That childhood, actually, was when he first developed his passion for food. His father, Sahdev Kochhar, ran a catering business supplying school canteens, and a teenage Atul – one of six siblings – would often be asked to go into the kitchen to lend a helping hand.
“I absolutely adored doing it,” says the father-of-two. “Learning how to use the vegetables and mix the spices and what to toast and what not to, and all these little basic things, I loved it.”
His mother Sudesh, meanwhile, had a somewhat interesting way of ensuring he went into adulthood with a robust palate and unfussy attitude towards food.
“She had this philosophy where for any child who didn’t like something, she’d say ‘OK, no problem, now you’ve told me, you can eat it for the next five days’. And she would give it to you all that week,” recalls Atul. “She was a tough cookie. Even my father was scared of her for that. He didn’t like turnips but when he came home and smelled them cooking, all he would say was, ‘Oh, I had a big lunch, I don’t think I’ll have any dinner tonight’.
“But, you know what, I used to hate white pumpkin and now I love it so she did something right.” What neither his mother nor father ever wanted, however, was for Atul to turn that passion for food into a career.
In his late teens he won a place at medical school. So when the young Atul dropped out and declared he was to train to become a chef, the family was mortified.
“Initially, they were gutted,” he says. “Everyone tried to talk me out of it. My aunt, who is a doctor, said I would repent the decision all my life. My sisters all had something to say. They were all achieving PhDs by that point.
“But I stuck to my guns. I told them if I repented, it would be my own failing. But you know what? I’ve enjoyed it ever since, and within about three or four years my father was pleased with the decision too.
“I still wake up every morning excited, thinking I’ve got so many things to do. It’s good I’m not a doctor because I just couldn’t imagine being this passionate about taking someone’s temperature.” Atul ended up moving to the UK in 1994 after being headhunted for a new restaurant, Tamarind, in London’s wealthy Mayfair area.
By that time he’d already established his name at some of India’s top venues including The Oberoi hotel in New Delhi. So when he got offered the opportunity to show off his skills in Europe, he jumped at the chance.
Yet his parents’ part in his success story was not quite done yet. The blending of Indian flavours with British ingredients, which he has become famed for was, it seems, inspired by advice from his father. Around 1998, the old man came to visit, and was surprised by what he tasted.
Says Atul, “He said to me, ‘You know, we were a Punjabi family living in the east of India, so what did you notice about our cooking? We held on to our roots but we cooked with the local ingredients and local influence. Now you’ve come to this new country with so much diversity and you haven’t learned any local influences at all. You’re still cooking like you’re in New Delhi. Why don’t you use ingredients that are grown here?’
“He told me off, essentially. But he was so right. And it changed my entire philosophy.”
Out went an over-reliance on okra and, yes, white pumpkin. In came Cornish sea bass and Welsh lamb but, crucially, they were flavoured with traditional Indian spices such as ginger, cardamoms and chillies.
The new menu struck the zeitgeist. As British diners started to demand something more of Indian restaurants than simply curry and chips, Atul found himself in vogue.
Two years after his dad’s visit, he was awarded his first Michelin star. Two years after that, in 2003, he opened his very own place, Benares, also in Mayfair.
Towards the end of our hour together, I decide to ask Atul some quick-fire questions, some about food, some not. So, for the record, his favourite piece of kitchen equipment is the tandoor, he generally does the cooking at home and he hates processed foods – “eat fresh”, he says. He also likes rock ’n’ roll music, enjoys a night at the cinema and prefers early mornings to late nights. “Maybe I’m getting old,” he muses. He considers himself Indian British, but his children British Indian. And – important this – he couldn’t have done any of it without wife Deepti. She runs their home and has supported him and helped him throughout his career. He also rather enjoys the fame that has come since his first TV appearance.
That was in 2006. Producers at the BBC phoned one afternoon and asked if he’d do a screen test for a new show called Great British Menu. He said, why not? They loved him. The resulting programme – in which chefs from different parts of the country compete to be named the best – saw him pitted against none other than Gary Rhodes.
“This man is my hero,” says Atul. “When I won I could not believe it.”
He’s since appeared on everything from Masterchef to Saturday Kitchen, and released a trio of cookbooks.
He’s also opened two more London restaurants and this place in Dubai. The latter came in 2012. Bosses at the Marriott invited him to be involved and he jumped at the chance.
“Why the UAE?” I ask.
“I don’t need to teach anyone here about Indian food,” he says. “Everyone knows already. It’s the largest Indian city outside India and even Emiratis grow up eating this food. It’s part of the culture here. So, there was already a huge audience.”
He now plans to expand into his home country itself. By the end of 2015, if all goes to plan, he’ll have two places in Mumbai. More may follow after that.
“You know what?” he says. “I wake up every day with small dreams and try to fulfil them as I go by. Like last night, I saw my rump of lamb wasn’t that great here, so I have come back today and said to my team, let’s find a way to lift it, to make it the best.
“And if I do that one thing while I’m in Dubai, I go back to England and think that’s a job well done.
“Small steps. Some people call me too slow or conservative but that makes me happy. That’s how I’ve always got things done.”