Top rank on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant’s list for four consecutive years. No. 5 on the World’s Best Restaurants list. Two Michelin Stars in the first-ever Thailand Michelin guide. Chef Gaggan Anand’s list of accolades is long, and there’s a reason why. Since he founded his eponymous restaurant, Gaggan, in Bangkok in 2010, his innovative use of traditional Indian flavours and cooking techniques, and the hard-to-decipher but delicious-to-eat emoji menu have been putting Indian cuisine in the global spotlight.
We meet at the ITC Maurya, in Delhi, his last stop in a series of pop-ups he has been curating across the country (no less than 460 kilograms of paraphernalia was flown in from Thailand to India for the same). He enters the room in an electric red tiger-print jacket, shoulder-length hair, and a skip in his step that sends energy currents in all directions, and it’s evident why he’s often called the ‘Rockstar Chef’. To the point and mincing no words, he speaks passionately about his work, just like an artist talking about his art. While his revelation in the 2016 ‘Chef’s Table’ episode to shut down the restaurant in 2020 evoked a collective gasp across the world, just into the introductions and you know why that was an inevitable step for this maverick chef. “Every artist thinks of death and plans his own death. Some really do it, some do it on a painting. I, being the artist behind Gaggan, have planned this from day one and I’m following the plan, because all good things come to an end.” It is in the lead up year to the closing of Gaggan, that these pop-ups had been organised. Aptly named ‘The Last Experience of Gaggan’, it was Anand’s concluding dinner serving modernist and progressive reinterpretations of traditional Indian recipes outside the restaurant.
His famous ‘yoghurt explosion’ making it to this 15-course menu, he shares what first attracted him to his current signature cooking style. “I wanted to know what it takes to make the best restaurant in the world. Ten years ago I decided that in ten years I’ll be among the best. So I understood it and improvised it.” However, this Kolkata born and raised chef’s trajectory wasn’t as straight and simple. Although his mettle shone and Anand bagged a job at one of the country’s leading hotel chains in his third year of hospitality graduation, the work environment pushed him to quit his job and reconsider his career. At the same time he was facing a troubled marriage, which ended in divorce. As luck would have it, he went on to man corporate kitchens for a while, before visiting Thailand, and the fresh produce there allured him to shift base permanently.
The hurdles didn’t end just yet. His brother, a constant motivator in Anand’s journey, passed away untimely around this time, making it an emotionally challenging time. But charging on like the tiger he calls himself, it was while running his first restaurant in Bangkok, Red, that he got intrigued by the renowned Chef Ferran Adrià’s (of El Bulli) methods. A drinking night with friends gave birth to the idea of doing something dynamic, and off he went to Spain to learn from Adria himself. What followed is the legacy the world has experienced and tasted over the last eight years.
Now, happily remarried to Pui and daughter Tara completing the family, he talks about dreaming big. “Problem is that we try to do the best restaurant in the galli, or the city, or maybe India. We never think that our restaurant could represent India in the world. This is because we glorify restaurants which are our own mashups of cuisines which are not from India.” Yet, there are some restaurants he likes: “Bombay Canteen, O Pedro, Avartana at ITC…these are great concepts.”
Changing the concept of luxury dining, Anand seeks to take it beyond the price tag, “Luxury has been defined as money, but I believe luxury is service that money can’t buy. For example, the wine in our restaurant isn’t expensive, but you can’t buy it in a store; it’s artisanal.” In addition, it is perfecting kitchen craft that is non-negotiable, “Our paturi is better than the best paturi, because with science we realised the most difficult dish to cook is fish. The perfect fish is when it’s not too dry, not too wet, not undercooked, and giving the perfect fish is my challenge. A lamb that tastes well done, behaves underdone, has pink skin inside the meat, no blood in it — that is the lamb we cook.” He loves street food and it continues to inspire his craft, “Yesterday, all our chefs were tasting the malai doodh on Pandara Road, and I’m sure something from it will come up in the next menu.”
With his finger on the pulse of the industry at all times, Anand has collaborated with several chefs over the years. His food projects include Gaa with Chef Garima, Sührig with the Sührig twins, Meatilicious steakhouse, Get Wet bar, and Mihara Tofuten. “We’ve invested in chefs, we’ve given them a restaurant and made them a rightful partner. It’s energies. Sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes I’m right, but experimental life is very important for me,” he says when asked about how he comes up with consecutive successful models. Then, does it make for a difficult decision to close down his most thriving model yet, especially when popular chefs tend to open several branches of their profitable restaurants. “I invest in talent and don’t believe in diluting my own brand and my own kitchen. If you send your best chefs across the world, your kitchen has got no more talent. I’d rather put them back in my kitchen and make my kitchen better.”
Post 2020 would see him opening Gohgan, his new restaurant, in Fukoka, Japan with Chef Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama. Chef Fukuyama heads La Maison de La Nature Goh, a Fukoka-based restaurant known for its French-Japanese cuisine, and also featured on the World’s Best Restaurants list. Having been to Japan 83 times in the last six years, it’s no surprise that it is Anand’s chosen destination for his new venture. A small space, with tentatively between 10 to 16 seats, it will be open every alternate month and be a “once in a lifetime” experience. “I’ll make a dish out of an ingredient you hate, and you’ll end up liking it. The idea is to change perceptions.”
Looking forward to a much deserved break between Gaggan and Gohgan, Anand intends to catch up on the last nine years. “I’ll relax, watch movies, finally have a better quality and quantity family life. I missed my daughter’s walking, many things my wife did, time with my mom and I can’t stay with her because of my travels, but I have to do all that corrective measures in the years to come,” he adds. As he gets ready to prep the last service of Gaggan outside of Bangkok, he leaves with this nugget for the F&B industry persons, “Treat chefs better. And chefs should not go for publicity but go for cooking.”
Videography and editing: Saurabh Mukherjee