Here’s a recipe from a Michelin-starred chef you should never try at home: Take one Hollywood plot, mix in nice dollop of Bollywood’s dimpled diva, blend with some bigotry and add a good dash of anti-Islam masala, and you end up with a hefty serving of humble pie.
That’s just what has happened to Atul Kochhar, the internationally acclaimed Indian chef who is now based in London, after he tweeted that followers of Islam had “terrorised” Hindus for 2,000 years.
Maybe he should stick to rattling his pots and pans in the kitchens of his restaurants in London, Spain and on P&O cruise ships from now on. Clearly, he lacks the most basic knowledge of the history of Islam and, just like the staff at US-based Starbucks coffee outlets, needs a crash course in race relations and political sensitivities.
Already there has been an immediate and right reaction from the JW Marriott Marquis hotel in downtown Dubai in ending its relationship with Kochhar. On Wednesday, the hotel said it was ending its association with the chef. It noted: “We pride ourselves on creating a culture of diversity and inclusion for our guests and associates across the hotel and our restaurants.”
This sad and pitiful episode began with a recent episode of the television action series Quantico, which stars the Indian actor Priyanka Chopra. It depicted a terrorist plot hatched by a group of Hindu nationalists. Naturally, it provoked outrage among some Indians, and Chopra apologised for the storyline last weekend.
For the record, Hollywood seemingly always falls flat when it comes to depicting minorities of any kind, reverting to stereotypes, poor accents, and a half-baked knowledge of history, heritage, political and social sensitivities.
And speaking of half-baked, along comes chef Kochhar with a tweet last Sunday: “It’s sad to see that you [Chopra] have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorised by Islam over 2000 years. Shame on you.”
Shame on her? Shame on the pot for calling the kettle black. Who needs 250 characters on Twitter when his 110 characters are sufficient to run a blunt kitchen blade through multicultural understanding, religious tolerance and the values of the Indian constitution in one fell swoop.
Stunningly stupid misspeak
Clearly, no sooner had he posted it than he felt he had jumped from the frying pan into the fire — and removed the tweet and apologised. For the glorified line cook who has appeared on MasterChef Goes Large and the Great British Menu, and has four books under his belt, it was a stunningly stupid misspeak of the gravest of proportions.
“There is no justification for my tweet, a major error made in the heat of the moment on Sunday,” he said. Heat of the moment? This is a man who deals in the finest details of temperatures day in, day out.
“I fully recognise my inaccuracies that Islam was founded around 1,400 years ago and I sincerely apologise. I am not Islamophobic, I deeply regret my comments that have offended many,” Kochhar said.
The 49-year-old’s own website says that he has changed the way people perceive and experience Indian cuisine. “Taking inspiration from his native India, while continuously researching regional dishes, Atul has managed to combine his love of heritage with his love of British ingredients to create a unique and innovative modern Indian cuisine,” his website boasts.
He certainly does, it seems, know how to stir things up. He was the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star while working at Tamarind in central London on 2001. He went on then to open the highly acclaimed Benares Restaurant & Bar, a move that brought him a second Michelin star in 2007.
Even if he is not currying any favours in the Muslim community now, the Brits in particular love his food. He’s opened a string of restaurants too across the London commuter belt, has one establishment in Ireland and opened another in Madrid. And as a testament to his popularity in the United Kingdom, he’s an adviser to the quintessentially British chain Marks & Spencer. Obviously, he’s not a chef either who would shy away then from microwaved convenience frozen meals.
The father of two with his wife, Deepthi, is no stranger to international publications either, and his work ethic and culinary talents have not gone unnoticed by the establishment in the UK. He’s had the privilege to cook for Prince Charles at St James Palace — I guess the royals don’t order takeaways — and was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth during one of the President of India’s state visits.
Originally from Jamshedpur, Kochhar is a man who has travelled far from his roots, and he began his culinary career at The Oberoi group of hotels in 1989 and also gained a diploma in Hotel Management along the way before heading to London in the mid-1990s.
He was interviewed for a personality piece in the Guardian some months ago. Asked what his last meal would be, he gave an answer that was heavy on sentimentality and provided food for thought.
“My last meal would be exactly like the meals I used to have with my brother, Vikas, and sisters Indu and Seema, in our childhood home in Jamshedpur,” he said.
“We’d cook together. Our father, Raj Kochhar, was in the catering business, and our grandfather was a baker, so we all helped with everything — cooking was in our veins. I’d have red kidney-bean stew [Punjabi rajma masala], the way my mother always makes it. It’s the most comforting anytime dish to have with rice or bread, some mango pickle and a side of potatoes with okra. Indians like to bite a raw green chilli with their meal, so we’d have some of those, and some black pepper poppadoms. To drink, we’d make Punjabi mattha — buttermilk with a pinch of salt and ground cumin.”
That all sounds very enticing, satiating and homely. The only problem is he could still have his foot firmly in his mouth then.