BEHIND THE SCENES: Atul Kochhar's Rang Mahal Dubai
A look at the Indian celebrity chef's new JW Marriott Marquis outlet
Caterer gets behind the scenes access at Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai.
Hidden beyond an array of reds and blacks within the new JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai, sits Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar.
As I wait for Kochhar in one of the exotic lounge booths, kitted out with colourful cushions displayed neatly on a crescent shaped sofa, a waiter pops along to take my beverage request.
To set the scene before I meet the man himself, I agree to a cup of Indian masala chai.
I spend a little time absorbing the surroundings. Having previously visited the hotel and being lucky enough to see a few of the 14 outlets it comprises, I notice this one, much like some of the others has the same dark-coloured interiors, a moody, yet mysterious feel to it.
Kochhar himself, though visiting numerous times and supervising the project pre-opening, has had little to do with the actual design of the 80-cover outlet, telling me “it’s totally the designer’s decision.”
The element of surprise on seeing the finished project has thus been as special to him as a customer visiting for the first time.
“I absolutely love the look of it, it’s fantastic. Burnt orange is one of my favourite colours ,” he tells me.
Of course, this isn’t Kochhar’s first venture in Dubai. Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar follows Zafran which opened in Dubai’s Mirdiff City Centre in 2010.
Upon settling in the UK in 2001, Kochhar opened a string of restaurants in across the country and in Ireland, including renowned outlet Benaras. But Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar is different to anything he’s done before.
“The concept is very simple. Rather than going down the fine-dining route, I’ve opted for the fun-dining route. I want people to come here and be relaxed and chilled out,” he says.
The restaurant, he believes, is one of the first Indian restaurants in Dubai with a lounge area. He’s insistent that the restaurant does not go down the “fine-dining” route.
“We’re not doing a three– or five– or seven– or nine–course meal. People come, they order, and food arrives on the table as they order or in whichever order the food gets ready” Kochhar says.
The reasoning behind offering a more casual-dining approach is simple – it’s the growing awareness in the industry that people are looking for more value when it comes to dining out.
For him, while quality remains of utmost importance, so too does “sensible-pricing”.
Adding that he knows of far too many restaurants in Dubai that overprice and while “it’s a business at the end of the day” and money has to be made, he has little interest in making “10, 50, or 100 times more” than what he has paid for the menu items.
And he’s adamant that he is in “no rush” for the outlet to rocket to immediate success. When asked how many covers he is expecting to do, he says: “I haven’t got to that point yet. I haven’t worried too much about it.
I know we’ll be busy, but we want to be busy to the level that we feel comfortable to look after people. We are not the restaurant which will say
“your time is up you need to leave.” We are not going to be that restaurant.
We know for sure that we are going to be really rocking here, we will be busy, but we are going to be a very comfortable restaurant.”
But it’s a tough nut to crack. Worldwide, Indian cuisine is an especially saturated market, and here in Dubai it’s no different.
A two and a half hour plane ride to India does mean that the Dubai Indian food scene is more bustling than in other cities. So what’s different? And more importantly, why does Kochhar believe yet another Indian food joint will succeed?
“When it comes to Indian food I personally feel that the Middle East is quite a mature market,” says Kochhar, touching on the point that the mass migration of Indians in to Dubai has seen a need to cater to this market and moreover, with the rise of many Indian migrant workers, residents and GCC nationals have become more familiar with the Indian food offering.
“On top of that there is a massive ex-pat population who obviously wants to eat Indian food quite regularly. So it’s a no-brainer for me to be honest.
I know it’s overcrowded, but I think we can just squeeze in another good one,” he adds.
Kochhar’s previous openings in the region mean he is no stranger to the challenges of the F&B industry in the Middle East. While he advocates sustainable sourcing, he’s not oblivious to the fact that it’s often an unrealistic ambition in this part of the world.
“I know it won’t be easy. There are massive favourites of people, of local people, and they are depleting big time. So the biggest challenge is to be able to source things that are growing here. It will be a challenge but I’m on it.”
He further explains that to him, “local” is not just the UAE, it is the entire Middle East which when considered at this scale is a sourcing goldmine, each with its own local gems restaurants can use in their cuisine. Additionally, he counts neighbouring India as local, and just as important for his outlet’s sourcing needs.
While he is a fan of Dubai and is confident a good F&B concept will do well in the city, he tells me it was important for him to consider aligning himself with a renowned brand – JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai, therefore became the obvious choice. Of course, there is the question of the other 13 competing restaurants within the two towers.
While he notes that “the benefit is humongous” and the 1600 rooms carried by the hotel is a “big plus”, he’s ready for the challenge the competition will bring.
“We are all very competitive. Everybody wants a piece of the cake so let’s see who gets what. And I’m a greedy one,” he laughs.
One thing he is keen on discussing is chef diversity and the need for the next generation of chefs to be widely experienced across a spectrum of cuisine and not just familiar with Indian or Thai. He is adamant that a successful Indian restaurant doesn’t necessarily need all-Indian chefs working in it.
“Chef Thomas Rebler [culinary director, JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai] certainly went to the wrong place to look for an Indian chef in that case – he went to Britain to find me!” he jokes.
“I think authenticity is in the concept – a good Japanese restaurant, doesn’t necessarily need an entire team of sushi masters. It can be equally well run by English boys. It’s a matter of thinking of how we make the cultures meet – it’s not about pulling them apart.
“At the moment I start with all Indian boys in the kitchen but I hope I’ll have an international kitchen sooner or later. I have international kitchens wherever else I have a restaurant. Dubai is the first kitchen where I have a totally Indian brigade. Hopefully I’ll change that in time.”
He adds that budding chefs shouldn’t “run after one cuisine”, and is convincing his team of chefs to learn what they need to of a specific cuisine for two years before they move on and try something different.
“You have to learn more and more to be better. I see three-Michelin star French chefs heading out to the Far East to India to learn about spices and vegetables these days,” says Kochhar.
He’s keen to work with the F&B team at JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai, to utilise the 14 restaurant concepts the hotel comprises, allowing for chef rotation.
“It’s important to keep learning skills - I keep learning skills. I know very little about Japanese food and one of the quests I have is that I want to take time out and go to Japan and learn some Japanese cooking.”
But he doubts we’ll see him concocting a masala sushi any time soon, he throws in as an afterthought as the question crosses my mind...
As the interview draws to a close, I’ve one question still itching me. Of his numerous restaurants worldwide, which is his favourite? Of course, I know exactly what he is going to say.
“It’s like having a few children. Every child is different from the other one so for me it’s the same feeling. Don’t ask me which one is the favourite because a father cannot say that this one is my favourite! If my son was asking who is your favourite? I would say “of course you are son,” he laughs swiftly diverting me to my final question regarding the future.
Five years from today, he believes “the restaurant will be rocking.”
“This will be, I’m hoping, fingers crossed, and I’m hoping this great God is listening, this will be the best restaurant in the UAE. I don’t want it to be the best Indian restaurant – I want it to be the best restaurant in the UAE.
“And five years time, I’ll still be around, Insha’ Allah. And what will I have in five years? I don’t plan that far – I’ll be honest. I take the day as it comes. If you ask me what I’ll be doing next year I’d say I would like to chill out a bit more. Beyond that, it’s very hard to say anything, five years is a long, long time away.”
The Kochhar Factfile
1969: Kochhar born in Jamshedpur, India
1989-1994: Employed at Oberoi Hotels Group, India
1994: Employed at Bernard Kunig fine dining restaurant
2001: First Indian chef awarded Michelin-Star status. Kochhar moves to London to open Tamarind
2003: Benaras Restaurant & Bar opens in Mayfair, London
2007: Awarded second Michelin star
2008: Ananda launched in Ireland and Sindhu restaurant on P&O Azur cruises
2010: Zafran, Mirdiff City Centre, Dubai opens
2012: Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai opens