“I'M NOT A POLITICALLY correct person,” announces Gaggan Anand, the Bangkok-based Indian chef whose eponymous restaurant, Gaggan, holds the bronze spot on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list.
No shit, Sherlock. In the 10 or so minutes preceding this statement, he's accused the Thai government of shunning his and Nahm chef David Thompson's success because they're not ethnically Thai, moaned about how his father won't divulge secret recipes from his arsenal (“that's a problem,” he deadpans), proclaimed that he met his current wife by “[hitting] on the hottest customer that came to [my] restaurant” and declared that he only likes to eat noodles, to the exclusion of even his own brave, bizarre and boundary-breaking cuisine – the same progressive Indian food that has earned him his reputation today. “Long meals make you tired. I don't hate my food ... but I don't eat it.”
What he's referring to in this particular un-PC instance, however, is the fact that while hosting a three-day pop-up event at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, he spent more time chatting up an iPad-toting customer, who had eaten in his Bangkok restaurant just one week earlier and had the photos to prove it, than he did schmoozing another table whose guests included a member of Hong Kong's Executive Council and top Mandarin Oriental brass. It's not the first time the outspoken chef has walked away from important connections – at the age of 22, he left a management-trainee position at the Taj Group in India, cooking for the likes of Bill Clinton and other high-profile guests. “I married my first love, and it was totally wrong. And then we did business together, so it was even more complicated. It was like risotto mixed with a paella, just totally crazy,” he says. “I had lost not only control, but my confidence in life. I was sitting at home, not getting drunk and wasted, but sitting at home with no interest in life.”
One day, he says, he woke up and “suddenly became a man”. In 2003, aged 25, he was delivering Tiffin boxes dangling by carrier bags on the handlebars of his bike. He took a loan to expand the business and, before he knew it, he had 200 employees executing 6,000 meals a day, and a fleet of cars to replace his bicycle. But just as business boomed, his family problems escalated. When an offer came in from a friend to move to Bangkok to work in an Indian restaurant, Red, he had only one request: “Can you give me US$500? Then I'll quit my life and go with you.”
Then, he recalls, “I told my wife, ‘I'm leaving you. This is all my money balance, under your name. Everything is yours. I have no sin, but I don't think we can be married together.' I quit with no guilt because I'm only taking $500, two pants and two shirts.”
By 2008, he had joined Lebua Hotels & Resorts, working as the chef de cuisine. He'd become a voting member of the S. Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants board, which took him to restaurants experimenting with foams and other molecular techniques. He'd tasted dishes by Thomas Keller when he guested at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, and Googled enough to learn of this Spanish culinary wonderland called elBulli. “What is this food? I went totally into it. Like checking my porn.”
At the hotel, he asked his executive chef if he could experiment with the liquid nitrogen they were using for Western cuisine. His chef said, “‘What will you do with it? You're an Indian chef.' I said I want to try something with Indian food and this, and he said, ‘Do it when you have your own restaurant.' That night hit me so hard.” Naturally, Anand began to hatch a plan ... and that plan was to get drunk. At 1am that night, in the throes of inebriation, he woke his best friend by phone, proposing they open their own establishment. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we talk tomorrow morning,” said the friend.
They found a beautiful house on Soi Langsuan and set to work renovating it. Anand had quit his job and become obsessed with the modern techniques that were revolutionising the culinary world. “We're going to do molecular Indian food,” he said. “What's that?” his friend asked. He showed him photos of elBulli, and his friend suggested that he spend some time at the Spanish institution to learn more, while the site for Gaggan was under construction.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy? It takes two years to get a reservation. They will not even give me spit.'” He called 20 times before he reached someone who spoke English, and told them, “I cannot follow your YouTube, I cannot follow your books, I want to see the real thing. I want to change Indian food. They said, come.”
Come he did, to the Alícia Foundation, the research arm that ran alongside the restaurant elBulli. He came back, experimenting in his own kitchen and then the restaurant's, devising dishes like a Yogurt Explosion amuse-bouche, a cumin-fused twist on elBulli's famed spherical olive; or Viagra, so named because it features the classic aphrodisiac oyster, but paired with horseradish ice cream and kokum reduction (as well as a little bit of foam). It's not all airs and graces, though – the Alchemist's Cake is an almost classic dhokla with curry leaves, mustard seeds and coconut ice cream, while Best Memory pairs a sous-vide-cooked lamb chop with steamed rice and otherworldly spiced croissants.
When the Asia's 50 Best list was launched last year, Gaggan and its fantastical creations just barely cracked the top 10, a position not quite high enough to earn a spot on the global list. This year, it climbed to three on the Asia roster and 17th in the world. Has it changed him? Of course. “Before, I cooked what the customer wants. Now,” he says, grinning, “I cook what I want.”
Anand, along with everyone in his kitchen, keeps a file on the Notes app of his phone. He reads aloud, “Baby shrimps dancing. What do we do? Be merciless and kill them live [tableside] or fry them and create something interesting? How about a shrimp cocktail – as in mixology?”
You may see a raw-shrimp drink show up on his menu in as soon as three months, or as long as two years, or not at all. That's why he's taken the title Progressive Indian for his unique cuisine, co-opted from the progressive rock he listens to, and because of this constantly evolving process of culinary experimentation and discovery. “You need people to protect a cuisine or the industry – and you need people like me, who destroy it.”