A hole in the wall of a zoo in Kolkata was a portal to his heart’s desire—food. A young Gaggan Anand, least interested in studies, would often skip school and head to the nearby zoo, following the scent of hot samosas wafting in through the teeny-weeny outlet. All he remembers is a hand jutting out of the hole and giving him samosas. He never saw the vendor’s face, but his samosas left a memory trace. Food had, by then, worked its charm on Anand.
Today, that Punjabi kid from Kolkata runs his eponymous restaurant in downtown Bangkok. Gaggan, which serves progressive Indian cuisine, has topped ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ list for the fourth consecutive year in 2018, and was ranked seventh in the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ 2017 list (the 2018 list will be announced at Bilbao, Spain, on June 19). Gaggan is also one among three restaurants in Bangkok to get two Michelin stars, after the Michelin Guide made its Bangkok debut last December (no restaurant received the highly coveted three stars). In 2016, Anand was featured in season 2 of Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
At Gaggan, set in a whitewashed colonial house, things are done differently from the word go. Instead of a traditional menu, guests are given a list of 25 emojis, each giving little or no clue about the dishes being served in the 25-course meal spread over two to three hours. “Surprise is the key to my food,” Anand, 40, tells THE WEEK. “I like to play with people's mind.” So, what you see is not what you get. The food looks anything but Indian; the flavours, however, connect with the desi in you. Anand’s cooking is inspired by India’s regional cuisine and its street food culture. “I love street food,” he says. “The flavours and my memories all come from there.” A list of the dishes served is presented at the end of the meal. Music, too, has had a heavy influence on him—he grew up listening to progressive rock (Pink Floyd, Foo Fighters) and even played drums in local bands—and is his constant companion while cooking. He says cooking trumped over a career in music because of “the need to earn money”.
It was a need that niggled him since childhood. Anand’s parents were poor—his businessman father had, what he calls “waves”, where he saw more lows than highs. His parents, however, never let him compromise on his passion or education. Once they realised that cooking was his calling, they ensured he joined the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology in Kovalam, Kerala. Back home in Kolkata though, they were struggling to make ends meet. Anand, aware of their plight, vowed to be the best chef in India. He was certainly the best in his batch then, which eventually earned him an internship with the Taj group. “I have seen a common man's life, and also the harshness one has to go through,” he says. “That surely made me work hard.”
Anand found his comfort zone, but not for long. Soon after his internship, he met a guy who suggested they venture into industrial catering. His partner, however, ditched him, and he was worse off than when he started. His first marriage was also on the rocks. “Each person has to go through some sort of hardship,” he says. “Some are lucky enough to [talk about] it [later], while some are sailing through it.” His elder brother, whom Anand calls ‘chia’, gave him a leg up, and he started managing his office cafeteria. Soon, he became a consultant, helping people set up restaurants.
And, Bangkok beckoned him with a consultancy call in 2007. Anand landed in the Thai capital on Valentine’s Day with a broken heart, an almost empty wallet (just $500) and “a bag full of dreams”. Anand was offered Red, an Indian restaurant, which became successful in a year. That’s when he first heard of Ferran Adrià’s elBulli (Roses, Spain), then the world’s best restaurant, and learnt about molecular gastronomy. “I was hallucinating food,” he says on Chef’s Table. “I said, ‘I want to do this with Indian food.’ I wanted to change my cuisine.” So, he devoured books on elBulli, and started experimenting in his kitchen at home. But, his experiments weren’t received kindly—“This is not Indian food,” said some customers; “Don’t change our food,” said others. Many called him mad. By that time, Anand had moved on from Red, and was working with a hotel. “I was bored with the way Indian food was presented,” he recalls. And, he wanted to show the world that Indian cuisine was not just chicken tikka masala and naan.
So, one September night in 2009, a frustrated and drunk Anand called up his friend and future business partner Rajesh Kewalramani and told him that he wanted to start something of his own. And, that’s how Gaggan (meaning sky) was born. Though he wanted to name his restaurant Barsaat (rain), his business partners insisted on naming it after him. But, before setting up Gaggan, Anand did a six-month internship at elBulli. “It gave me a new vision,” he says. ElBulli’s spherified olive inspired his Yogurt Explosion, which is spherified yoghurt (spherification is a process that gives the yoghurt a gel-like texture). His signature dish, Yogurt Explosion looks like a spoonful of fluffy sky.
Anand had planned to open Gaggan in April 2010, but political clashes pushed it to December. Moreover, once the restaurant was open to public, he initially served chicken tikka masala and naan to pay off the loans at the earliest. Even as he was struggling, tragedy struck—he lost his brother. “I didn’t attend his funeral for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to see him dead, and second, I wanted to come back to Gaggan in a positive frame of mind,” he says. “I had to make sure that my family and I survived the tragedy. We miss him. But, if I hadn’t acted strongly and positively then, my family would have been in ruins today…. My brother was the guardian of the family, and I had to become him.” Whenever he misses him, he turns to Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd and These Days by Foo Fighters for comfort.
Overcoming a tragedy made him fearless, and he started cooking what he wanted to. First come the quick bites in rapid succession, following which the pace of food served slows down. He kept a couple of curries and naan towards the end of the meal for a few years, and later discontinued it. His menu reflects his food philosophy—constant change. That’s why, he and his team of 20-odd chefs, of different nationalities, travel the world looking for inspiration. And, an annual trip to India is a must.
Food is his religion, and he takes it very seriously. But, there is a fun side to him, and that finds a place on his plate, too. He has a dish called Lick It Up, which is served while the Kiss song by the same name is played. Picking it as the highlight, the website of ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ describes the dish thus: “Made with green peas, fenugreek, mushroom and tomato, the dish is designed to be ‘licked up’ directly from the plate—the flavours are layered to touch the tongue exactly where the different taste receptors are placed.” Sounds magical, no? All magic, they say, comes at a price—THB 6,500 (around Rs14,000) per person. And, it seems it is worth every penny, if one goes by the comments on his Instagram posts—“Best food experience ever”, “Truly unique experience with every bite”, “Absolute wow”. Like Mason Florence, chairperson (Southeast Asia-North), World’s 50 Best Restaurants, says on Chef’s Table, you would never hear that the food at Gaggan was okay or pretty good. “It was either like, ‘Oh my God! It was amazing. It was the best meal of my life,’” he explains on the show. “Or, it was, ‘It’s overrated. He is bastardising Indian cuisine.’”
Next year, however, Gaggan will stop taking reservations, and will be a ‘by-invite only’ restaurant. Like elBulli, which shut shop in 2011, Anand will close down Gaggan in 2020. “I need a new challenge,” he says. Gaggan will be replaced by Raa, which will be run by his head chef Rydo Anton. Anand will leave the bustle of Bangkok for Japan’s zen-like atmosphere. He plans to open 'GohGan', a 16-seater restaurant, with chef Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama, in Fukuoka. But, for now, Anand is busy with his other projects, which include a steakhouse called Meatlicious; a modern German restaurant—Sühring—in partnership with Thomas and Mathias Sühring; a natural wine bar named Wet; a Thai restaurant; and a tofu restaurant—Mihara Tofuten—all in Bangkok.
Anand also found love in Bangkok. Food played cupid, bringing him and his Thai wife, Pui, together. My wife loves Indian Chinese, he says. “She is very embarrassing to go to buffets with. She eats so much,” he says, laughing. Anand’s favourite food, however, is dal chawal, made by his mother. The day we spoke he had rajma chawal with achar for lunch—the relish evident in his voice. His mother, on the other hand, loves his Yogurt Explosion. But, his two-year-old daughter, Tara, is a fussy eater. “She sometimes has no respect towards what I cook for her, and spits it out. It is kind of irritating. I want to slap her, but I can’t because she is my weakness,” he says. His only solace is that Tara, like him, loathes broccoli.
Anand is slowly preparing for his move to Japan, which clearly has left an imprint on his mind—he has visited the country 75 times since December 2012. And, it has evidently invaded his wardrobe, with clothes by Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. He owns 102 pairs of Onitsuka Tiger shoes—“I am a shoe w***e,” he says. Why the fascination with Japan though? “It is zen, it is very cool,” he says. “It is very pleasant. Those who have been to Japan will understand, and those who have not been there, it is a hidden world they should always go and discover.”
But, why not India? He had plans to open an outlet in an Indian city, but that changed. “I cannot do mass, and class I won’t survive,” says Anand. “I have understood that I cannot live in a big city because one day I will become a grumpy chef, throwing people out of my restaurant. And that is why, Japan has become a place where I go to more often than any other place in the world. Because I can go there, relax and read things and come back with better ideas and a better frame of mind. From my 30s to 40, I have been running Gaggan, from my 40s to 50, I will be running a restaurant there.”
What about his 50s then? That’s too far ahead to plan, he says. But it would definitely involve music and cooking. Wherever the wanderer in him takes him next, for Anand, sky will always be the limit.