He was at the helm of the best restaurant in Asia. He gave it up for more creative freedom, and started one of his own. Kolkata-born Chef & Restaurateur Gaggan Anand has been redefining fine dining at his new eponymous restaurant in Bangkok, pandemic notwithstanding. He speaks to us about his struggles and triumphs, and forecasts the next culinary trends. By Sumeet Keswani
Produced by François Oosthuizen
Photographed by Jittarat Jintasirikul
Hair & Makeup by Thawanphath Thaspanyapoll
Location : Gaggan Anand Restaurant, Bangkok
It was outrageous. Implausible. It had two Michelin stars. It was No. 1 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants four times in a row. Gaggan would not shut down. Gaggan could not shut down! Yet, shut down it did, in August 2019. And anyone who actually knew Chef Gaggan Anand wasn’t surprised that he had kept his word. Except the farewells were more rushed and acrimonious than expected. Anand resigned a day before his restaurant would be ranked No. 4 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019. He left all of his accolades and tangible profits along with his micromanaging business partners, and set out on a new path. Sixty-five of his colleagues walked out with him. He endearingly calls them his fellow rebels.
Just three months later, Anand was wearing the chef’s hat again—this time inside a white structure under a veil of foliage in Sukhumvit, Bangkok. His new restaurant echoed even more of his character—and not just because it bore his last name too. Gaggan Anand had all of the chef’s mischievous non-conformism that had made Gaggan so popular, and then some. Apart from reinventing his emoji menu and signature creations like Yogurt Explosion, Anand would send a quirky questionnaire to diners before their booking dates, inquiring about their favourite music band, cuss words, and Kama Sutra positions among other things. And there were plenty of bookings. Until the pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt in March 2020.
The four-month-old restaurant had to shut down until June 2020. Since then, Thailand has tackled a second wave and is currently combating a third one with another lockdown (at the time of press). In this period, restaurants have faced various levels of restrictions: deliveries only; limited dining-in hours; no alcohol; etc. Gaggan Anand kept reinventing itself to survive. “We came up with six menus in different phases and did juice pairings when we couldn’t serve alcohol,” Anand tells me over a late night video call. “I pushed my boundaries and adapted whenever there was a window, but right now I can’t do anything.” The ever-innovating chef has drawn the line at deliveries. “I can deliver food from Ms. Maria & Mr. Singh [a Mexican-Indian restaurant he opened in March 2020], but 90 per cent of my dishes [at Gaggan Anand] won’t taste good after the first five minutes of cooking.” Straight from the shoulder, he makes a dire prognostication: if he can’t open in three months, he might have to shut shop permanently. I have to do a double take. “I will lose everything, but I will still have my self-respect. The soul of my food is not deliverable,” he asserts.
Anyone familiar with Anand’s tasting menus will know he’s not exaggerating for effect. On March 26, 2021, Anand transformed his Chef’s Table—a place cheekily called G’s Spot—into a 16-course Star Wars-themed dining experience. It wasn’t just a pun filled meal embellished with light and sound effects. The dishes traced their provenance to the movie franchise. “There’s a bird called porg in Star Wars. It was created by combining puffin, seal, and pug dog. [Its call was composed by blending the sounds of chicken, turkey, and dove.] When we created Roasted Porg Leg, which Chewbacca loves to eat, we combined three bird meats— quail, duck, and chicken—on duck feet. It’s proper food!”
It’s proper food that glows. A spherical dessert called POG is luminescent in black light, as are the chopsticks that look like lightsabers made to devour food. The 14 diners might as well be Jedi, or ‘Gedi’ as Gaggan likes to call them. It is a fantastical version of what Anand had vowed to do in Fukuoka when he first announced his intention of closing Gaggan. The original dream, GohGan, would have been a 10-seat private table served in collaboration with Chef Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama of La Maison de la Nature Goh. The Star Wars experience was sold out for months, but could only last 11 days before the latest lockdown came into effect. “Now, every day two guys have to spray water on the moss table we created, to maintain it,” Anand sighs.
His continuous innovation led to Gaggan Anand debuting at No. 5 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, despite the pandemic. But Anand rules out earning back his Michelin stars ever since he dissed the French body of inspectors for its lack of Indians in an NYT interview. He repeats his criticism to me, just in case they missed it the first time. “Would any French chef ever allow an Indian to review their stars? Why should an Indian do the same?” His rhetorical questions are as hot as his choice of chilli.
While the pandemic has caused unprecedented losses, Anand spots a positive or two. “Since the lockdown, it’s difficult to import things. So, chefs are excited about what they can source locally. It encourages a sustainable step forward.” He also acknowledges the global rise of veganism and believes that it’s part of a larger trend of eating healthier. But he laments that Indian food hasn’t been progressive enough. “We don’t have a single diabetic-friendly mithai store in India. We have sugar-free sweets, but they’re still fried. Some sworn vegetarians don’t even know what lactose-free milk is.” Anand himself has “almost turned pescatarian and declared myself lactose-intolerant since COVID-19.” He feels much healthier.
Another thing that bothers the chef about India is the low value attached to Indian food. “I’d rather pay INR 500 for a well-made dhokla than a poorly executed Chinese bowl,” he says. In fact, Anand deems Indian dishes to be more testing than what is generally regarded ‘fine food’. “Making a kachori or rosogulla needs much more skill than opening caviar or shaving truffle over pasta. But people find the latter more luxurious because it looks bloody expensive on social media. Ingredients like caviar or truffle are not even cooked. Why are we chefs if we can’t cook?” Anand fumes in his expletive-laden patois. So passionate is his discourse that you’d be forgiven to think he was reading out a pamphlet of revolution. He declares that the key to progressive Indian cuisine, which Anand himself pioneered at Gaggan and is taking forward at Gaggan Anand, is the rise of smaller, chef-led restaurants in India.
While he’s focussed on the future, I ask him which fantasy will follow the Star Wars episode at G’s Spot. Harry Potter, he says. We muggles can only hope for our letter of acceptance to his school of wizardry. Bring on the questionnaire!
G’s Sweet Spots
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