With a new lab and a food show nominated for the 68th Emmy Awards, Gaggan Anand, Bangkok’s rockstar among gastronauts, has much to celebrate.
GAGGAN ANAND’S futuristic food laboratory has been a long time in the making. Now, six years after it was launched in Bangkok, his eponymous restaurant is ready to open its chamber of secrets to a select group of worthy diners, handpicked from the reservations for each day. Gaggan (the chef and restaurateur goes by only his first name) promises an ‘up close’ experience for about 10 people. The $700,000 project also sees him confident about presenting the most unexpected modern experiments with food. With a waitlist of two months at the restaurant and Gaggan-imitators sprouting up across the world, his popularity is evident. It also helps that Gaggan has twice topped the San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards and is currently No 23 on the World’s 50 best Restaurants list (from No 10 last year).
Gaggan’s brand of progressive Indian cuisine has takers everywhere; Chennai too has seen inspired dishes like nitrogen-frozen dhoklas pop up in the last three months at the restaurant J Hind at Grand by GRT Hotels. “When you play sports and get to the top, people soon discover your weak spots. I need to go back to the nets to rediscover myself,” says the chef bluntly, adding, “The lab will improve my food and this is the future of my cusine.” That the Kolkata native is not keen on the ‘molecular gastronomy’ tag is evident, despite his scientific prowess in the kitchen. “I do not have to make smoke on my table!” I’m not surprised to learn that the former drummer is a fan of progressive rock, with Deep Purple topping a list that includes Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. It’s his choice of music that will play at the lab, possibly via handcrafted Sonus Faber speakers.
Living in the moment
Born to Punjabi parents, Gaggan, 38, is brutally honest about his early struggles. There is his graduation from the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology, Thiruvananthapuram (during which his businessman father suffered financial losses), an unsuccessful catering business in Kolkata, the move to Bangkok to an Indian restaurant, and a failed marriage and restaurant consultancy. But then came his internship of two months with the groundbreaking Spanish chef of El Bulli fame, Ferran Adria. It turned his world around. “I don’t forget that I come from nothing and I have nothing to lose. Perhaps that is why I am fearless,” says the chef who has been known to show even celebrity diners the door if they try to dictate what he should cook. He admits that with fame comes enemies. ‘‘Everything that is negative, I turn into something positive.” At this compact restaurant, which sees 65 diners daily for dinner, and a workforce of 72 (“which doesn’t include me or the valet,” chuckles Gaggan), he has surrounded himself with chefs from Russia, Canada, South America, Spain and Asia. Gaggan is the cheapest restaurant in the world’s top 10 list and this, together with his overheads and expensive ingredients for his 15- and 23-course tasting menus, means he’s not really making huge profits. But the chef is not complaining.
Made in India
Known to make quiet research trips to India, Gaggan admits that his much-publicised plans to expand here were abandoned a few months ago. “The first 100 diners will cover landlord fees, the second 100 will take care of costs and only the third 100 guests will contribute to profits. It’s impossible. Everybody will use you like a lemon,” says the self-confessed dreamer, continuing, “But I am insatiable.” He shares that he hopes to make a lot of money at some point, and promptly bursts into laughter. Besides his talent, it is Gaggan’s indefatigable spirit and irreverent side that find him a growing army of supporters. They include the Ambani family and Bollywood royalty like Abhishek Bachchan, among others. So even when famous journalists criticise him for “bastardising Indian food” he shrugs it off with a mild comeback – “Don’t put me in a box of what you think is Indian food!”
Keeping it positive
With menus changing every three months and the new laboratory accounting for about 40 new dishes, there is a lot of pressure in the kitchen to perform. “I have fired many of the radicals on my team – four in one day alone – and have got new chefs on board. But I am really a people’s person,” he adds quickly, exhibiting a few characteristics of a superstar chef. The obsession over perfection is one. Non-dependance on ‘best of’ lists is another. “These lists are very volatile. No doubt, I would never have become so big without the awards but perhaps next year, I won’t even be on it,” he muses. What is important to him, he says, is being in his restaurant during a full house. “If I was into fame, I would have opened five more restaurants.”
Back to the future
Taking pride in changing the perspective of Indian cuisine internationally with his modern treatment, Gaggan has decoded many a traditional street food recipe. Tightlipped about the new menu till the lab opens a fortnight from now, he relents to share his experiments with Kashmiri morels that are dried, cooked and stuffed with paneer and mousse with an ice cream texture. They are freeze dried and sliced. “Losing moisture when freeze-dried turns the morel into a cookie at room temperature. I add a cream of cardamom, milk and saffron and it turns into a ‘morel oreo cookie’!” he says. Another experiment will see fatty tuna from Japan in a sushi with a difference; instead of rice, he’d use a breadless miso soup burger. ”
Earlier menus have had showstoppers like the ‘bloody’ Who Killed the Goat? (now replicated at a leading London restaurant). Or Charcoal, that is like its namesake in appearance, only to have undergone molecular gastronomy and sous vide techniques to become the delicious Kolkata fish chop in disguise. There are nuts in bags of edible plastic. And snow-like dhokla, thanks to a nitrogen bath and microwave. Then there is the produce, sourced from the best places in the world. “I don’t compromise and the fish and scallops must come from Tsukiji market in Japan every day. But the fruits and chicken are from Thailand.” It is this respect for integrity that got him into El Bulli. “They knew I had a great cause which was taking their philosophy and putting it forward with Indian food. So I was like a seed of their knowledge in Asia, which would blossom into what we call modernist cuisine today,” he says. It may also explain how, like El Bulli’s sudden closure in 2011, Gaggan believes that every restaurant has an expiry date. For his temple to modern Indian cuisine, that date is 2020.
To the Steakhouse
While Gaggan hopes to lend his culinary expertise to Kerala and Rajastani cuisine at some point, Gujarati street food is next on his menu. At the moment, though, it is the success of Meatlicious, a steakhouse, that gets his attention. Launched in January as a project for his current wife, it focusses on cooking techniques with wood and charcoal, with the meats sourced from around the world. ‘‘It has broken even in seven months. I go there when I need inspiration, and send Gaggan chefs there too,’’ says the chef. He dreams of starting a 10-seater weekend restaurant in Japan, and calls it the land of perfection. For now, GohGan, his collaboration with Chef Takeshi Fukuyama in Fukuoka, keeps him busy several times a year.
Telling a story
Netflix’s acclaimed original series, Chef’s Table, has an episode on Gaggan, which has been trending for the last few months. Nominated for the 68th Emmy Awards, for Outstanding Directing for a Non-Fiction Programme, it tracks the chef’s journey, from his simple beginnings to where he is today. ‘‘I wanted to prove that Indian food could be fine dining,’’ says the chef. The new dad (he has a three-month-old baby) recalls having to deliver chicken curry and rice to employees of a pizza chain, to make ends meet.
When we speak, we get Gaggan to share three best-kept food secrets of Bangkok: Khua Kling Pak Sod for authentic southern Thai food;
Ginza Sushi-Ichi for the best sushi in town; and Peppina, for pizzas.
By Rosella Stephen