Fine dining and Indian cuisine may not seem like the perfect match, but that’s because nobody managed to pull off the perfect balance of the two – until Chef Gaggan Anand, that is. The wacky, eccentric chef has a mind that boggles and a genius that knows no bounds. The Indian born and bred chef has managed to redefine traditional Indian food in a way that nobody has before, creating progressive Indian cuisine that includes a 25-course tasting menu served across five hours.
And, to add to his eccentricities, he carved his name as a world-class chef in the most unexpected of places: Bangkok, which he put on the map as a fine dining destination in its own right. The restaurant bore his name, Gaggan, a mark of his self-possession and dedication to carving a name for himself as a celebrity chef.
The myth, the mystery of undefinable Indian cuisine
For far too long, Indian cuisine has been equated with low-cost meals that exist within the confines and boundaries of traditional cooking. You can’t get too experimental or it won’t be Indian anymore. There needs to be tikka masala and goat curry – neither of which are originally Indian dishes but products of colonisation (tikka masala is a British invention and Goan goat curry is a Portuguese-inspired dish).
Gaggan (the restaurant) changed the way the world interacts with Indian cooking. It created a mashup of Indian standards and Western ingredients that defied all categorisation and order. Gaggan made Indian cuisine fine dining. It made it wacky. It gave the already flavoursome cuisine even more flavour, character, and excitement. A modern-day overhaul, a marriage with molecular gastronomy, a mind-blogging food journey that’s simultaneously based in tradition as well as innovation. And the world absolutely loved it.
Gaggan’s food is not Indian in any traditional sense. If you ate there, you’d be hard-pressed to place any origin to the dishes being served. In fact, you’d have even more questions than answers. What cuisine is it? What is it trying to be? All or nothing, it seems. Anand’s food is perhaps best encapsulated in the way he describes his pork vindaloo dish: “A little Portuguese, a little Indian, and none of either”. Of course, if you ask Chef Gaggan Anand he would never call his food anything. To him, his cuisine is simply described as ‘Gaggan Anand’.
Consider Gaggan’s mango-infused pate of foie gras dressed with Japanese oak leaves. Or his scallop curry, served ice-cold instead of extra hot – with a serving of curry-infused ice cream to further the confusion. Then there’s Lick it Up, a popular favourite at Gaggan that encapsulates the flavour of India in three smears of pulverised herbs and spices. The diner is urged to lick the dish off the plate, as un-fine dining as you can get but still so undeniably eccentric, in the way you want innovative dining to be.
If it seems quirky – good, you get it. Chef Gaggan Anand’s bizarre emoji menu and inexplicable creations are all part of his desire to stand out from the crowd of other fine dining chefs. “I have to impress that 30-year-old foodie guy who travelled the world with his thousand dollar camera when he comes to my restaurant by serving him random and challenging food”, Anand says. “I want him to think ‘why’ and ‘how’ all the time”.
Fine dining, but make it crazy
If you thought the food was wacky, there was a whole set of rules that accompanied the dining experience at Gaggan. First, the emoji menu, composed entirely of emojis with not a single line of text on the pages. Then, the endless string of rules, one for each of the 25 courses served at Gaggan. Some were more doable than others, but all encapsulated the crazy essence of Chef Gaggan Anand himself. First, there was the less-wild demand of ‘no cellphones, except to document the dinner and the chefs preparing it’. OK, doable. Then there’s ‘no smoke breaks’ and limits on trips to the bathroom. If you can’t hack the rules, you can’t hack Anand and you have to leave Gaggan.
But that’s all part of the charm of the restaurant, which quickly soared to the top of foodie bucket lists and put Bangkok on the map as a world-class food destination. If you want to get a reservation at the chef’s table at Gaggan, you have to make sure you can handle Chef Gaggan Anand’s antics. To filter diners, there’s a questionnaire that needs to be completed before making the booking. Questions include, ‘Tell us about an embarrassing moment in your life’. Another question asks you to choose one of five songs you would sing with abandon if prompted (including options from Backstreet Boys and System of a Down). Mind you, it’s not a hypothetical question – you will have to sing. Whatever the group chooses in the questionnaire is on the roster, though Anand has been known to grow sick of your chosen song and switch it to something else before you have the chance to finish. Perhaps a blessing for some.
As wild and wacky as it may seem, as intimidating and unabashedly anti-fine dining, Gaggan skyrocketed to popularity, named top restaurant in Asia in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Chef Gaggan Anand says about Gaggan’s success, “We never had a bad day, and that’s the best thing ever. It had charisma and charm to pull people in. Restaurants have ups and downs, and in seven and a half years we were just going up and up”.
From zero to food world hero
The idea for Gaggan was said to have come from a dream. To this day, Chef Gaggan Anand is still living that dream and travelling the world living a luxurious lifestyle that he well and truly earned for himself. He grew up in poverty outside Kolkata, watching his mother prepare classic Indian dishes like chicken masala (not to be compared with chicken tikka masala, the British dish) and fish fry. He went to hotel-management school and started taking on jobs in hotel kitchens in India. His first venture in the food industry was a catering company that failed to take off, and after that he spent a year delivering food by bicycle, earning a meagre 25 cents an hour.
Things started moving up for Anand when his brother hooked him up with a job running the cafeteria of a telecom company. This was no fine dining but it was Anand’s entry into the freedom of running your own kitchen. There, he learned to make satisfying meals out of a budget of a measly dollar. Fast forward a few years and Anand had married and divorced his first wife and spent two months at Ferran Adrià’s Alícia Foundation in Spain, a research centre devoted to culinary technological innovation. It was here that he learned how to play with food and turn it into an experimental, sensory experience. He was taught how to manipulate liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and use sodium alginate and calcium chloride to turn things like olive juice into opalescent olive spheres.
Gaggan is born
After that, he moved to Bangkok to consult at an Indian restaurant. This is where he found his very first fan, a man who encouraged him to open his own restaurant with his own investment. To Chef Gaggan Anand, Bangkok was the ideal location to launch an out-of-this-world Indian fine dining experience. Here, he can find all of the ingredients he needs to cook incredible Indian food, all of the spices, chillies, and ingredients. He can serve a 20+ course menu with seafood, uni, toro, and other premium ingredients for a mere $6USD per course. There’s not many places in the world where that can be achieved.
So in 2010, Gaggan opened his doors and changed the face of Indian cuisine on a global level. The menu displayed elements of Anand’s adventurous life to date, including techniques he picked up in Spain. Nowhere is this more apparent than his yoghurt explosion, a dollop of yoghurt that explodes in your mouth and leaks flavours of cumin and dried mango powder into your taste buds. The perfect marriage of Indian ingredients and modern gastronomy.
The success of Gaggan lasted a decade. It earned Chef Gaggan Anand two Michelin stars and managed to come fourth on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019. It put Anand on the map of celebrity chefs after an appearance on Netflix documentary series, Chef’s Table, and turned him into a food-world antihero. He put Indian food on the fine dining map, but it also opened Anand up to a side of celebrity chef-dom that he just didn’t appreciate. “There are people who go to Gaggan only to check a list”, he says, “And I don’t want to be compared. It is an insult to me and to other chefs.
Too wild to be constrained
At some point in the game, Anand started to feel like he was churning out the same dishes over and over again to appease critics, fine dining know-it-alls, and self-proclaimed foodies. At the same time, he was growing fed up with the Michelin guide and food critics that simply don’t understand the Indian palate. He tells the New York Times that he has no respect for Michelin and its rankings. “They will always send a French or a Brit to my restaurant, who may have spent time in India but not know India like an Indian would. And they will never give me a fair judgement”.
Chef Gaggan Anand started to feel like the eurocentric palates of his reviewers meant that his gifts would never be truly recognised, even with Michelin stars in tow and international recognition. He further expressed his distaste with the Michelin guide in the South China Morning Post. “How can a French Michelin guide judge Indian cuisine without even having an Indian inspector?” he asks. “Would the French accept Ceat [an Indian tyre company] going and doing restaurant awards in Paris? This is why I do not accept Michelin as a restaurant guide. It’s the whole ideology and the way they look down on us”.
To be fair, Anand’s misfit nature seemed to be amplified in the world of fine dining and culinary extravagance. To him, Indians had failed to let their food truly make a name for itself and let the world define its cuisine instead. “As a chef, it’s a disgrace that I sit with Japanese, French, and Italian chefs, and they talk about fine dining, and I’m like a donkey, just sitting there”, he says. “They always value a French dish more than an Indian dish. They don’t care what techniques you use. I get so angry”.
New beginnings for the chef anti-hero
Luckily for Anand, a well-timed mutiny would force him out of his celebrity chef rut. In 2019, three of his financial partners tried to oust him from Gaggan. At the time, he was overseas in Austria and was notified of the mutiny by his head sommelier. Never one to be phased, the rebellious Anand took matters in his own hands and gave his team of 71 workers an ultimatum. They could either stay with him and start over in a new restaurant, or stick with the investors. 66 of the workers chose to stay with Anand, and that became the beginning of a new chapter of his career.
The result was Gaggan Anand (not to be confused with Gaggan, the first restaurant). Still in Bangkok, this one opened in November 2019 with the same fine dining gusto as Gaggan, only under the new Anand who didn’t cater to Michelin guides or international foodies. That said, the new restaurant still relied heavily on international travellers and overseas guests keen for a mind-blowing dining experience. It featured a $400 menu and the usual fanfare associated with fine dining. But then the pandemic came shortly afterwards. To adapt, Anand shifted the focus to domestic diners. As travel restrictions came into place, he changed his business model to cater to the Thai residents living close to the restaurant.
The lunch menu dropped to just $50 (but then went back up to $100 after that price point was deemed unsustainable). He took one and a half hours off the chef’s table experience (Thai diners have less patience, he tells the New York Times). With the cheaper offerings and local focus, Anand started to feel a growing connection with the local community and those who may not have been able to afford Anand’s offerings before. “We ignored our immediate 50km for a decade cos we were in the fame run”, he says. “We didn’t give a [expletive]. I’m looking for more Thai products and more local farmers [now]”, he says. But fine dining is over for Anand. Or is it? He can’t seem to make up his mind.
Gaggan in the future
On the one hand, Chef Gaggan Anand seems to want it all. On the other, he drops such musings as, “If this is what being a celebrity means, I want [expletive] none of it”. It’s hard to tell what he wants and whether he’s well and truly done with the fine dining scene. Perhaps what Anand truly needs is to redefine fine dining for himself, as he has done with Indian foods. Blurring the fine lines and putting things together that never would have paired well before.
“I would love to open a fried chicken restaurant or some stupid [expletive]”, he tlels the New York Times. “But I don’t want to give up fine dining”. For the time being, Anand is setting his sights away from Thailand and in Singapore, where he’ll be opening up a pop-up restaurant that he promises will be different and more evolved than his current offerings.
“They don’t know what’s coming to them”, he says. “It’s not emojis anymore, it’s not the old Gaggan anymore, no more licking the plate”. Part of the inspiration for his new menu will be derived from the hit Korean TV series, Squid Game, which features a trial using a dalgona snack. “Imagine, how do you connect Squid Game with Gaggan’s Lick it Up and the idea of the death penalty?” he asks. “I gotta make sure somebody licks”.
So, it seems Anand still has that enigmatic oddball charm that made the world fall in love with him and his food. For him, food is fun, first and foremost. “I believe in fantasy, in seduction”, he says. “Food is seduction. A good dish has to seduce you to focus only on that, forgetting about the music that is playing, the people around you… even if only for a few seconds”
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