Why Asia’s top restaurant chef Gaggan Anand is moving on from his award-winning brand
Gaggan Anand tells us about new collaborations, a possible film on his journey one day and why it is time for a change...
I’d like to be a jellyfish!” exclaims Gaggan Anand as he walks into Avartana, the specialty restaurant at the ITC Grand Chola for an early morning interview. He was in town earlier this week to promote what
the ITC has called a victory lap — The Last Experience of Gaggan. He’s already finished with Kolkata, the city of his birth. After Chennai, Gaggan will showcase his 15-course menu at the ITC hotels in Mumbai and Delhi.
It’s like getting the first catch of the day, I explain wondering what kind of fish he might like to be. Gaggan is casually dressed. With his broad shoulders and height, he looks like a football player rather than a chef who is known to create culinary marvels, that look like edible works of art.
“Not a shark!” I cannot help but exclaim. After all celebrity chefs have been known to be shark-like in their attempts to get to the top.
“No, not a shark, I have often been misunderstood,” he replies. “A jellyfish, because it’s very tasty! It stings, but it’s very tasty.”
Call me by my name
Gaggan, the restaurant has not only been awarded the top honours by S Pellegrino and Acqua Panna amongst 50 of the best in Asia. He’s been in that position for the last three years running. Gaggan has been awarded two stars by Michelin and he himself has been feted around the world at countless food festivals and jamborees. As he says, “Everywhere I go now, they know my name — Gaggan!”
He’s been described as a ‘porn star’ specialising in food. In his teen years, he was a drummer and part of a band named Shiva and Eyes. He had to give it up because of an early accident on a bike. It was after that episode that his mother insisted that he try his hand at catering by sending him to hotel management school in Thiruvananthapuram.
“Of course, it was a big culture shock, but that’s when you meet other people from different parts of the country and realise how much there is to share with them. It transforms you.” He’s kept in close touch with his alma mater and though he will not let me quote him, he’s committed to helping other students, who like him, have been financially constrained.
“One day, I think there will be a film about me. My life is my journey. Wherever I go I am recognised. I’d like people to know that it is possible to rise from a modest family background, such as mine, to whatever heights you want to achieve if you have the passion.
My passion is food. But every 10 years or so, you find that you are at a new phase in your life and then that’s when you need to make a change.”
Betel for your thoughts
He describes the particular phase that is ahead of him as his need to return to society, what he feels it has given him in the last decade. Quite aside from ‘Gaggan’ that was started in 2010, Gaggan’s life in Bangkok has also meant starting a number of other eating places in partnership with other chefs he has mentored. He readily admits that his wife Pui who is Thai, has the financial acumen to get Meatlicious — a woodfire-centered bistro that caters to the burger-and-bun crowd — up and running. There’s also Gaa, a European-Asian fusion restaurant run by a talented young woman chef Garima Arora; Minara that is Japanese modern; Wet that combines wines and chicken; and Suhring that serves German cuisine, co-owned by twin German chefs, the Suhring brothers.
This leads to the question: “So do you see yourself as a food porn star? A rock star given your continuing interest in rock bands? Or a conventional Punjabi businessman who happens to enjoy creating restaurants that cater to the modern trend of food as entertainment?
Gaggan sighs. “Let me explain the porn star part. My grandfather, when he heard that I was getting famous in Bangkok, wanted to know whether I was becoming a porn star. How could I explain that food is in fact a sensual experience? In both cases, you need your lips to taste whether it’s a kiss, or a betel leaf.” Readers might like to know that one of Gaggan’s opening numbers on his 15-course menu is to offer a betel leaf that comes foaming onto the plate like a film star onstage receiving an Oscar.
“But hype alone cannot be an ingredient. So, no to being a rock star without the talent to back it up. As to being a businessman, what are the two important things in life? Love and money. If I am a horse I need to have grass. I can’t live on air. You need to have the financial freedom to be able to experiment with all the things you love.”
He goes on to explain, how after having achieved both fame and money, with the success of Gaggan, and the investment in his other projects, he feels he is now in a position to move on.
My grandfather when he heard that I was getting famous in Bangkok, wanted to know whether I was becoming a porn star. How could I explain that food is, in fact, a sensual experience?
— Gaggan Anand
‘Goh’ tell it on the mountain
One of his dream projects is to create a fabulous coffee table book along with one of the most talented photographers in the world — Sergio from Brazil. “He is so talented that he decides who he would like to work with and I think we will make a great partnership.” Gaggan then explains that there will be only 50 books, and these will be distributed free to institutions or people they think are worthy of such a product.
“Why free? No one appreciates anything that is given free,” I protest. “Art is free,” says Gaggan. Besides a further part of the plan is to produce limited copies of the book that will actually be the size of a coffee table. An edition so lavish and so mouth-wateringly delicious that it will be auctioned to the highest bidder.
Will there be life after Gaggan? Gaggan, the man, is just entering his 40s and is in the strange trajectory of his life, where he has met a Japanese chef Takeshi Fukujama, who runs a French-Japanese restaurant in Fukuoka, who shares his passion for fantasy and food. Fukujama’s restaurant is called La Maison de la Nature Goh. Therefore, their restaurant will be named GohGan. It will be open just six months of the year, and will seat maybe just 12 people.
Naturally, this leads us to talk of Ferran Adria of El-Bulli, the famed Catalonian chef and high priest of molecular gastronomy, who has been a mentor to Gaggan. Molecular gastronomy has been a major part of the magic created by Gaggan. Though cleverly, he has used it to transform what he calls Indian street food and creating what he describes as progressive Indian cuisine. “Molecular gastronomy is like a sword, it can both cut and create,” he explains. In his case, Gaggan uses it like a light sabre in a sci-fi movie to transform the most ordinary of Indian ingredients into something luminous and yes, delicious.
El-Bulli closed down at the height of its popularity. “What I learnt from El-Bulli was to share knowledge. It’s not something to be kept to one person, or family alone. It’s like love, you have to share it.
Food and love — that’s my gift to the world.”