Atul Kochhar: ‘Darkest year of my life’ since anti-Islam tweet
A year in the life of a chef can be a long one. Known for working crazy-hour shifts day in, day out, these hardy lot spend most of their time on their feet in uncomfortably hot environs, before signing off late to catch what little shuteye they can. The last thing they’d want is to make things any more difficult for themselves.
But that’s precisely what happened to Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar last year, who found out the hard way how truly long a year in the life of a chef can be!
Renowned for his culinary skills, Atul rose to prominence in 2001 by becoming the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star for his efforts at London’s Tamarind restaurant, before securing a second six years later at Benares. Since then, he’s authored a number of successful cookbooks and been a regular on a variety of television cooking shows. Everything seemed to be going smoothly for the culinary maestro, until one fateful day last year.
Responding to an apology issued by Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra over US TV series Quantico in which she starred, Atul posted an Islamophobic tweet during, of all days, the blessed month of Ramadan, only to become embroiled in a Twitter storm. Taking exception to Chopra’s tweet, which had her apologising for a controversial episode that had Indian Hindu nationalists hatching a terror plot to frame Pakistan, Atul replied:
It’s sad to see that you have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorised by Islam over 2000 years. Shame on you. [sic]
Despite deleting the post and later apologising, the damage had already been done, with the story quickly being picked up and reported by news outlets across the world. In response, and within a matter of days, JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai distanced itself from the offending tweet by terminating its partnership with Atul. Later, he was also forced to part ways with Benares, though under somewhat uncertain circumstances.
Since then, the chef appears to have made somewhat of a comeback following the opening of his latest London restaurant, Kanishka, in Mayfair.
It wasn’t until March of this year, however, after reading an interview with him published in The Caterer, that our interest in this affair was rekindled. The article went into some depth regarding his road to recovery and how he and his family had managed to deal with the aftermath, before quoting the chef as stating:
I’ve said sorry several times and if people are not listening, then they’re deaf to it and I’ll move on.
It was this remark that prompted us to contact Atul Kochhar and find out who these unforgiving lot were, while also looking to explore the subject of forgiveness and redemption with him. It wasn’t too long either, that we received a reply from him in the affirmative.
And so we met Atul at Kanishka, sometime after lunch, and began by asking him to recall the day of the incident and the reasons behind said tweet.
“I remember it clearly. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was cooking for my family,” he began, before attempting to explain the reasons behind said response. He says that his intention at the time was to emphasise the inherent danger in wrongly stigmatising another nation as terrorists, in this case Hindus. Of course, given the backlash, not only did he fail to do so, but divulges that he’d inadvertently posted what was, in actual fact, an incomplete tweet, only to be informed of his “catastrophic mistake” a few hours by a concerned friend.
“I immediately tried to correct it,” he recounts. “But the biggest mistake I made was that I deleted it, which I shouldn’t have. I should have said, ‘Guys, I’ve done this and I’m really sorry. That is not what I meant, this is what I meant.’”
But by then “all the abuse had started” and eventually reached such a level that “if you have been a person who’s never been involved in any of this, you feel very cornered; you feel very much vulnerable. You don’t know what to do and you look for answers and you look for support”.
One person Atul immediately turned to for advice and counsel was a very good Muslim friend of his – a preacher no less living in Dubai – whom he’d known for a long time, and who offered this sage advice: “There is always forgiveness from the Supreme Almighty. So if you’ve asked for forgiveness, that’s what you’ll get. You have to be truthful and you have to say from you heart that you want that and that is what you’ll get.”
Honestly, I’m not that kind of person. I would never say anything like that to anybody, never mind a great religion like Islam.
Throughout the interview, Atul repeatedly emphasises that he isn’t the person he was painted out to be during the furore of the Twitter storm. “Honestly, I’m not that kind of person. I would never say anything like that to anybody, never mind a great religion like Islam,” he says, before stressing: “I made a very silly mistake, a very stupid mistake. I got involved in a brawl which was not even mine, and for no reason got a little emotional at that time. I’ve made a mistake and I’ve put my hands up and I’ve said ‘sorry, sorry, sorry guys’. I’ll do anything and everything possible to make amends. … And if I’ve hurt your feelings, then other than saying sorry and trying to make it up to you, at the moment I don’t have anything else to offer.”
Nevertheless, while Atul has had to endure both financial and reputational damage, he has also had to deal with the impact all this has directly had on his family. “My kids have suffered a lot because of my tweet, and I feel bad about it,” the father of two says, remembering how shocked his youngest was when he came to learn of his dad’s costly mistake. “I could see the fear on his face and I didn’t enjoy that.” And though Atul is reticent in being more specific about why he was forced to pull his son out of school for two weeks, in spite of reassurances from the headmaster, he only adds that “those little souls didn’t need to suffer, but they did”.
My kids have suffered a lot because of my tweet, and I feel bad about it. … I could see the fear on his [son’s] face and I didn’t enjoy that.
Another worry for the chef was the prospect of having to face childhood “best friends” back home in India who, while being Muslims themselves, were more like family to him than anything else. Having been raised in a “very secular home” not far from Lucknow in a place called Shahzanpur, Atul reveals how liberal and inclusive his upbringing was, to the point that not only did “we celebrate everything” as a family, but that he wasn’t informed of his Hindu roots by his parents until his teens. “I felt very ashamed that something had gotten [so] out of hand – for which I would be answerable to for a very long time – and how I was going to face them. [This] was another thing constantly on my mind,” Atul recalls.
In the end, with all the worries of shame and consequential guilt leading to him becoming “depressed for many, many months thereafter”, Atul confesses that he “just wanted to hide away from everyone and have some time to myself”. Hence, the Kochhar family decided in August to get away from it all and, in spite of the monsoon season, travel to western India’s coastal state of Goa, where they stayed in relative isolation to take stock of all that’s happened.
“It was truly a soul-searching time. It was the first time after a long time I actually sat down and thought about what I have done in my life in terms of right and wrong. And how I can return to being the person I want to be or have been. I spoke to a lot of people, I read lots of things, and did a lot of talking with my kids and my wife (who was my strength),” Atul confides.
It makes me very proud to say that it was my Muslim friends who helped me to come out of this.
Ultimately though, while he acknowledges: “I only came out of this because I had family on my side and friends on my side,” Atul emotionally concludes: “It makes me very proud to say that it was my Muslim friends who helped me to come out of this.”
Atul Kochhar describes this last year as “the darkest time of my life”. And yet, despite everything he, his family and his friends have had to endure, the chef has reconciled himself to the fact that “Allah meant it like that; God meant it like that; Waheguru meant it like that”.
“I made a mistake. I’m human. I’ve asked for forgiveness,” he declares, prompting us to inquire into what forgiveness actually means for him. He answers, after a considered pause: “It’s the acceptance [of mistakes]. It’s also the understanding that we were not created to be perfect. God made everybody equal. Everybody has their own thought processes, and not everybody can do everything in life.
“Also, if a person has understood the mistake made and seeks forgiveness, I think saying: ‘Yes, I forgive you, let’s move on!’ – I think the person who’s forgiving becomes a lot bigger, in my opinion. That’s forgiveness for me. It’s love for humanity and love for Allah – love for God – that’s forgiveness for me.”
And if there is one major positive he has taken away from all this, it’s that, despite there being “people who took advantage of my situation, which was very sad… I know, after making that mistake, that there are more good people in the world than bad, and that’s a big positive I’ve learned out of all this”.
He adds: “In spite of this stupid mistake, I received an amazing amount of support from people saying that mistakes do happen; you will recover; things will be fine again. That time I didn’t believe anybody. [But] forgiveness came, people picked up phones to talk to me and supported me.”
So where does this now leave social media for the Michelin-starred chef? Atul admits that he’s far more careful with it, having resolutely decided that “social media is only for my family and for my food, and I won’t talk about anything else”. Calling it a “double-edged sword”, he laments in jest: “Sometimes I would rant about cricket also – as an Indian I passionately love cricket – but I’ve given that up also. I’ve suffered so much!”
And what of the stubborn naysayers who refuse to forgive no matter what, we finally ask?
“I don’t know what will make them happy. But I’m trying to put the past behind me, move on, be the person I was, and work with the world. Hopefully in time, they will see that I’m a genuine human. I made a mistake, I’ve asked for forgiveness. And I want to move on, and so should they.”