From being a small town boy to an acclaimed chef - The Journey of Atul Lahkar
“If you cannot feel while eating, you cannot cook: Atul Lahkar
A chef extraordinaire who has brought the graceful Assamese cuisine at par with other cuisines on the international platform, Atul Lahkar continues to forge ahead with new ideas and creative ventures.
Food for Atul Lahkar has always been an emotion; so much that for him, it is the bridge that unites one with every form of love.
Born to an economically backward family in Tezpur, Atul Lahkar was one of 8 siblings who had faced hardships in many phases of life, since childhood. He completed his studies in Tezpur by 1990. Affected by the rebel groups of Tezpur, he decided to leave his hometown and begin a new life in Guwahati in 1992. While stepping out on a journey that would change his destiny and identity forever, he only had some potatoes and rice handed to him by his mother; this is a memory he holds close to his heart. His love for food took a major turn in 1994 when he had to take his elder sister for treatment to Chennai. In all the hard days and financial struggles, what remained intact was his passion for food. Recalling his days in Chennai, he shared that his interest in food was made firm after he witnessed a vendor religiously cooking and feeding Biryani to his customers, everyday, from morning to evening.
Soon after returning from Chennai, driven by his passion (which he mistook for curiosity) towards food, he went and asked his mother what Assamese food actually was. He was not surprised when his mother instantly replied, “Tenga-khaar-aaloo pitika.” That was when he decided to explore the plethora of Assamese traditional recipes, handpicked and meticulously chosen from all over the state; there has been no looking back ever since.
He started his journey from Barpeta, following which he travelled across villages of Assam, stayed and learnt the food habits of nearly all the communities of the state and produced more than 400 traditional recipes. His desire to understand food and food habits has taken him to such corners of the state that one can only imagine of.
“Food for me is my only love. I romanticise with food. It pains me when I see people so drawn towards western food and not interested in Assamese cuisine. Be it birthdays or weddings, it is strange how we do not prefer to put up an Assamese menu, although it is rich in all aspects,” shares Lahkar.
He not only cooks soulful delicacies, but weaves tales out of recipes and vice versa. Recipes such as “Ronga Mota Kukura, Xandoh Guri Posola” (a dish made of chicken combined with rice powder), and “Baahe Borahe, Haahe Kumuraye, Juti Logai Khai Tengai Maase” (Pork with bamboo shoot, Duck with gourd, and fish with something sour) are rich authentic slogans taken from tales which he has drawn from our ancestors of Tiwa, Ahom and many other tribes.
The artiste with rich culinary skills is personally attached to herbs such as Kalmou Xaak, Manimuni, Dhekia Xaak, Bhedailota Xaak, Thekera Tenga, etc and tries to curate those into stimulating recipes.
Fast forward to the year 2000, he started his first culinary school called ‘The Ultimate Kitchen’ at Rajgarh. Meanwhile, he started to make his presence on national television too. In 2005, he was offered to be the official cook of Delicacy, Ganeshguri. From designing the first ever authentic Assamese menu to introducing the culture of Khorikaa meat, that was the stepping stone for Atul Lahkar.
His next two ventures Khorikaa and Heritage Khorikaa have become the most sought after places in Guwahati when it comes to Assamese cuisine. Over the years, Atul Lahkar has mastered the art of indigenous Assamese cuisines and herbs, to produce thoughtful delicacies. A traditional Assamese platter at Khorikaa includes rice, lentils, leafy vegetable, khaar, non-veg curry (fish or meat), and kheer.
The more recipes he produces, the more he learns to experiment with Assamese ingredients. Chef Lahkar has worked with internationally acclaimed chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Sanjeev Kapoor and Vinit Bhatiya amongst many others.
Café Heritage Khorika, the latest venture of Atul Lahkar, is a by-product of his seamless efforts to take Assamese cuisine outside the typical notion of ‘Khaar, Tenga, and Aaloo Pitika’. The cafe brings authentic Assamese dishes in a soothing ambience that has good music and a library under one roof. While people of Assam go crazy for Axomiya Jalpaan during the month of Magh, his new venture is the go-to place for anyone who is looking forward to a lazy conversation over tea and Laru/Pitha. One can get Ghila Pitha, Narikol Pitha, Til Pitha and Narikol Laru at his new cafe. Cutting apart the mainstream identity of all these Assamese Jalpaan, the chef also plans to introduce Sweet Tekeli Pitha with tea, and Salted Tekeli Pitha combined with a bowl of meat. “For me, every month is a month of Bihu. I don’t want the people of Assam to wait for Magh to enjoy Laaru and Pitha,” expressed Chef Lahkar.
The person who is so dexterous with his culinary capacities otherwise shares a very simple food habit. His personal favourites are Joha rice dish teamed with fish curry. As much as he values the food on his plate, he values the plating style too. For him, taste without beauty leaves a void and beauty without taste is vague; the two go hand in hand for him. Sharing a quick tip for our readers, he said, “The best and simplest way is to keep your plate clean, with less elements, colours of which contrast with each other.”
The chef owns his personal terrace in the apartment that he lives in. His terrace is nothing short of a mini farm, where he plants his own herbs, organic plants and spices. A walk around his terrace and balcony could leave any visitor awestruck and give a fair idea about the obsession with food that he has. He takes pride in showing his garden to people and calls it his ‘perfect companion.’
Atul Lahkar is an artist of rich values; he has risen from scratch and is self-taught. During a time in this fast moving world, when everyone believes in accepting the modern, this person holds strong to his roots. He thrives to make an identity for Assam, the kind that hardly one thought could be possible. His tireless efforts, limitless creativity and fine recipes can only be tried, tasted and appreciated with awe.