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Atul Kochhar

Tamarind was soon known as one of the best Indian restaurants in the world, and in 2001 it won a Michelin star – making Atul the first Michelin-starred Indian chef in the world. This spurred him on to leave Tamarind and open his own restaurant, which he did with the help of two business partners in 2002. Benares was born, and was awarded a Michelin star in 2006. ‘We’ve not looked back since,’ says Atul. ‘Everything’s gone from strength to strength since we opened – we’ve got a Benares in Madrid, a restaurant called NRI (Not Really Indian) in Mumbai, Sindhu in Marlow and Hawkyns, a British restaurant in Buckinghamshire.’

Despite all his other restaurants, it’s Benares in London that continues to set the standard of Indian cuisine worldwide. But it’s not totally Indian in the traditional sense – the reason for its success is Atul’s combination of regional Indian flavours and British ingredients. But it wasn’t always like this. ‘I came to the UK very uninformed,’ he explains. ‘I was proud of my culture and confident in what I knew but I wasn’t prepared for what I would learn when I came here. It was my father who really pointed me in the right direction – he came and visited for a few days, looked at my menu and said it could be for a restaurant anywhere in India. Why wasn’t I using my knowledge of eastern, northern and southern Indian flavours to play around with dishes, and why wasn’t I focusing on great ingredients? That’s when I started learning about meat, fish and vegetables and they eventually became central to my menus. Swede, marrows, wild mushrooms, game like hare and rabbit – they were great quality and a lot of it was cheap as chips when in season. All I needed was someone to remind me.’

Now, Atul’s food is a combination of traditional Punjabi dishes such as tandoori chicken (‘I would never want to change it’) and Indian fusion (‘I could have an east Indian ingredient on the plate that’s infused with the flavours of north and south India’). Dishes such as New Forest venison and biryani with spring mushrooms, wild garlic and chocolate curry or Curried scallops with pickled celeriac and pine nut podi are prime examples of his ability to combine British ingredients with Indian flavours, but Atul is keen to highlight the regional differences in his home country’s food. ‘Indian cuisine doesn’t exist to be honest – we have very specific regional cuisines instead,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes the tastes are like chalk and cheese; it would be like comparing Finnish cuisine with the food of southern Italy. Calling food Indian is just as vague as describing a dish as European.’

Three things you should know

Atul has published several cookbooks, including Curries of the World and Indian Essence. He also appears regularly on television and competed in the first three series of Great British Menu.

Atul’s latest restaurant, Hawkyns at The Crown Inn in Amersham, specialises in traditional British cuisine with a modern twist. It’s not the chef’s first foray into a cuisine other than Indian, as he also runs a Peruvian restaurant in Mumbai.

P&O cruise passengers have the opportunity to taste Atul’s take on southern Indian cuisine on two of the company’s ships, each of which are home to his Sindhu restaurants.