First Michelin-starred Indian chef comes to Dubai

Atul Kochhar has helped open the Zafran restaurant in Mirdif City Centre with his protege Ankur Chakraborty.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, Aug 1: Atul Kochhar, Celebrity Chef (right) and Ankur Chakraborty, Executive Chef (left) of the new restaurant ÔZafranÕ at Mirdif City Centre in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News
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DUBAI // Atul Kochhar is used to blazing a culinary trail. The first Michelin-starred Indian chef is already known for modernising the cuisine for European palates. Now he hopes that last Saturday's opening of the restaurant Zafran in the Mirdif City Centre will do the same for Arabia in both taste and accessibility.

The Zafran is owned by Landmark Group, a retail conglomerate in the Middle East and India, which approached Mr Kochhar, and asked him to recommend a chef whose culinary expertise would put the restaurant up there alongside such endeavours by Marco Pierre White, Gary Rhodes, Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Gagnaire and Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa, among others. Mr Kochhar had no hesitation in naming his protégé, Ankur Chakraborty, and, between them, they have designed a menu which, they say, will destroy the "myths and ethos attached to Indian food - that it is spicy and hot".

Zafran will be the first Indian "celebrity chef" restaurant in the country and Mr Kochhar said he hoped that his experimentation with menus would "become universal and everyone can eat Indian. There is spice inclusion. We can't change the tradition, but authenticity can be played with". As a chef, Mr Kochhar said he derived his inspiration from home cooking and styles of food that are intrinsic to everyday life in India, but uses produce and styles of dishes not necessarily found in his home country. Although there will be additional challenges in the UAE, where all the food is mostly imported, it was still one of the most interesting markets, he said.

"The food scene is exciting here," he said. "There is a lot happening. The region has grasped food in a big way. One of the attractions is the melange of people and cultures." The unusual location has raised eyebrows. While most top restaurants in the UAE are in hotels, opening in a mall is understandable, said Gaurav Tandon, a food critic and host of Eating Out, a television programme on Set TV Asia. He said the approach made haute cuisine more approachable. "For the first time, a Michelin-starred chef's outlet is in a mall," Mr Tandon said. "This shows this is not just for the rich. It has come to the masses. There is always a wow factor associated with Michelin star. Earlier, you had to think 10 times before you went to one. Now, you can watch a movie and then eat at such a place. This is achievable only in a place like Dubai."

Mr Tandon added: "It can stand up. There is a huge appeal for Indian food. It is one of the first choices for anyone to eat out. After all, everyone knows butter chicken and butter naan but this rises above that. This shows that Indian food can compete with any global cuisine on that level." Mr Chakraborty and Mr Kochhar insist that their take on contemporary Indian cuisine will be widely accepted by the expatriate population of the country. With larger portions and twists on traditional European fare, the menu is targeted at European and Arab families.

For example, potted duck is cooked with traditional Indian spices usually reserved for preserving pickles, then put in a jar and served with an orange and cumin jelly and a side of crispy naan bread, which is typically served soft and fluffy. The two chefs first met in Abu Dhabi after Mr Chakraborty invited Mr Kochhar to be part of Gourmet Abu Dhabi 2008. Mr Chakraborty was at the helm of Indigo, the Indian restaurant at the Beach Rotana Hotel.

"He is a culinary guru to me," Mr Chakraborty said of Mr Kochhar. Soon after, Mr Kochhar invited Mr Chakraborty to work at Benaras, his restaurant in London, before the latter moved back to India as an executive chef. But, with the opening of Zafran, Mr Chakraborty relinquished his position as an executive chef and started working with Mr Kochhar again. "I missed the cooking," said Mr Chakraborty. "As a head chef, it was too administrative a position. I missed the cooking, shouting, presentation. I missed the action.

"I also like the market here. It is very competitive."