Opinion

Anti-Muslim tweet: How Michelin-star chef Atul Kochhar learned bigotry is bad for business

The Twitter post by the London-based chef of Indian origin targeting Priyanka Chopra has led to a call to boycott his restaurants.

It is not okay to brandish your bigotry on your Twitter timeline. Paying customers do not like haters, especially if they are public figures who have two Michelin stars. Atul Kochhar just got a lesson in the power of consumer boycotts on the microblogging site.

“It is sad to see that you have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorised by Islam over 2000 years. Shame on you,” the London-based celebrity chef tweeted to actor Priyanka Chopra on Sunday. Kochhar was responding to her apology for an episode of the television series Quantico where she uncovers a terror plot by Hindu nationalists.

Kochhar’s timeline rarely strays from bland tweets about food and his television appearances. Until now, I have thought of him as a guy who would probably get irritated with you if you frequented restaurants that served basa (he is big on sustainable fishing, according to Wikipedia). Now he is just more confirmation that the world is getting uglier and that hate – not just against Muslims – lives everywhere, even under celebrated cooking aprons.

Cancelled reservations

Angry Twitter users were quick to point out that Kochhar has run a successful restaurant in the United Arab Emirates, where Islam is the official and majority religion, for many years now. Many announced they would stop frequenting his restaurants. Some said they had cancelled reservations.

“I sure hope Benares Restaurant is not terrorised by all its Muslim customers. I’ll make sure I take the longer walk around Berkeley Square and avoid your shop-front. Don’t want you to feel threatened by a 5.2 Muslim woman,” Halima Nawaz tweeted to the swish Mayfair restaurant’s Twitter handle. Benares, which serves modern Indian food, got a Michelin star in 2007.

JW Marriott Marquis Hotel in Dubai, which houses Kochhar’s Rang Mahal restaurant, was quick to distance itself from the chef’s remarks: “We are aware of the comments made by Chef Atul Kochhar. We would like to stress that we do not share the same views as stated in the remark, nor is it a representation of the culture of diversity and inclusion that we pride ourselves on at the hotel.”

Halal Gems, a London-based halal restaurant finder app, was the next to react. Founder and chief executive officer Zohra Khaku said she was disappointed to see Kochhar’s message, especially since his restaurants benefit from Muslim clientele. “Sadly this is not the only case of people with bigoted views actively soliciting income from Muslim customers,” she said in a statement. Halal Gems said they would henceforth not promote any restaurant associated with Kochhar.

It is astounding how someone who does business across the world can be so clueless about the economic impact of being publicly bigoted. One wishes Kochhar had picked up a few lessons on inclusion from Anthony Bourdain, that other globetrotting television host, chef and author who has been in the news after his death last week.

Brands and boycott

In recent years, consumers have repeatedly demonstrated to brands that hate can be bad for business. There has been some pressure on companies across the world to clearly announce their stand on hate speech and fake news.

British advertisers are boycotting YouTube because their advertisements appear next to content from Islamic State supporters and white supremacists. Stop Funding Hate, a social media campaign launched in 2016, aims to draw advertisers away from British newspapers that, it believes, use “fear and division to sell more papers”.

But nowhere has this been more visible than in the movement to boycott brands that support United States President Donald Trump. #grabyourwallet.org was launched after Trump’s comments about women while he was en route to film an episode of the Access Hollywood TV show came to light in 2016. It is a simple Google document listing companies that carry Trump products, are affiliated with the president or his family members in any way, and whose chief executive officers raised money for or endorsed Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Closer home, when verified Twitter user Abhishek Mishra tweeted in April that he had cancelled his Ola ride after seeing that the driver was Muslim and that he does not give his money to “jihadi people”, the taxi hailing company was quick to respond: “Ola, like our country, is a secular platform, and we don’t discriminate our driver partners or customers basis their caste, religion, gender or creed. We urge all our customers and driver partners to treat each other with respect at all times.”

Twitter user Austin Fernandes had this proposal for Kochhar: “Just admit you’re islamophobic and come back to India, sanghis will stand in line to eat at your restaurants and the govt will make you official caterer to every sarkari function.”

Not really. Kochhar’s restaurants may have been successful around the world but apart from feeding rich, mostly vegetarian Indians on the occasional private charter cruise to Antarctica and organising pop-ups in a couple of cities, he has not had much luck in India. Both his restaurants at the Bandra-Kurla complex in Mumbai, NRI – Not Really Indian and Lima, shut earlier this year. Kochhar received a lot of publicity when they opened in 2016, but I was unable to find any reports explaining why they closed. It is likely the negative impact of Kochhar’s comment will be strongest in global cities such as London and Dubai, rather than back home.

After deleting the offensive tweet, Kochhar wrote:

Most Twitter users treated Kochhar’s plea with the same disdain he displayed for Priyanka Chopra’s apology.

Late night on Tuesday, Kocchar tweeted again, this time apologising unreservedly.

Priya Ramani is a weekly columnist with Mint Lounge.

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