Food

Return of the prodigal chef, Gaggan Anand

Food fix Gaggan Anand at Taj Coromandel, Chennai

Food fix Gaggan Anand at Taj Coromandel, Chennai   | Photo Credit: S.R. Raghunathan

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After a triumphant return to India, celebrated Chef Gaggan Anand talks about success, and why he’s ready to give it all up, and start all over in Japan

“To tell you the truth, I was worried about Chennai,” confesses Gaggan Anand, dropping his voice confidentially. “Also, Bengaluru.” Gaggan, then leans back into his chair with a cheery grin, “But tickets sold out in 30 minutes! I felt like a rock star. Like Kurt Cobain. Like a Foo Fighters concert in Melbourne...”

It’s a satisfying return for the prodigal chef, who left India a decade ago and then worked his way to the top, creating a fresh style of Progressive Indian Cooking, rife with flavour and drama.

His eponymous restaurant in Bangkok secured the number one spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for three consecutive years. It also made it to number seven on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

So naturally, there was a buzz when Taj Hotels announced his four-city tour, featuring 12-course regionally-inspired menus, priced at ₹19,500 plus taxes for Delhi and Mumbai, and ₹15,000 plus taxes for Chennai and Bengaluru.

Gaggan sits down for a well-deserved breather the day before his final dinner in Chennai at Prego, Taj Coromandel. Despite exuding a volatile energy, he holds his head in his hands for a minute. “You can see the toll on me. I’ve been cooking non-stop. I look tired.” He bounces back in minutes, “I am surprised at how many selfies people are taking with me on this trip... Anywhere I walk I am recognised!”

He revels in the adulation, especially because it’s coming from a home he was once so disillusioned by, that he grabbed the first opportunity to get out. “I was 29 and having a mid-life crisis. I was just sitting on Excel, chasing payments... I was crushed by personal problems. Had issues with my wife that had carried on for eight years. I needed to split and start something new,” he says, adding, “I left on February 14. Valentine’s Day.”

A new page

Landing in Bangkok, he says he felt like Alice in Wonderland. “I was overwhelmed by the markets: the salmon, blueberries, raspberries...” He began cooking Indian food, but with a twist. “I don’t make Indian food look western. I make it look artistic.”

He taps Photos on his iPhone, then flips through pictures of food so polished and stylised it could audition for lead in a Baz Luhrmann movie. He continues, “I made Indian food lighter, more accessible. Made memories into fantasies. Chocolate panipuri, glorifying keema pav, the world’s lightest idli... These are incredible feats. I was not trying to improve Indian cuisine, I was creating something new.”

As complex as his food is, the rules are simple: building on traditional strengths. “I use jalebi batter for tempura. Because we are masters of frying in India. We need to look at our cuisine and see what elements can be borrowed.” He pauses to snap a cookie into two, before adding, “Over the last few years, I have also realised that cuisine is art and zen. Taste is the most important thing.”

Saying it with emojis
  • Indian diners were presented with the chef’s popular Emoji Menu, a mysterious list of 19 emojis. The minimalist menu is meant to keep diners guessing, adding an element of theatre to the meal. Only once all the courses are served do waiters give diners text-based versions, though these are still admittedly rather cryptic.
  • Determined to keep raising the bar, Gaggan says he plans intensely personalised menus when he opens his 10-seater restaurant in Japan.
  • Guests will have to fill in a detailed questionnaire when they make reservations, including information on their favourite and most hated vegetables.

Gaggan reckons the mistake most chefs attempting experimental food make is picking flash over flavour. “Have you seen fire paan?” He plays a video shot in Kolkata, of a woman eating paan set on fire. “What the heck is this? Why do we do this?” You’ve heard about the guy who got burnt with liquid nitrogen in Delhi: we use 200 litres of it a day with no problems. This is what happens when there is no know-how. No R&D. These are the restaurants that spend 95% of their money on interior design. But five centimetres beyond the restaurant wall, nothing is spent. I spend all my money on my kitchens.”

Getting it right

He adds, “India spends money on bad sushi, bad Chinese, bad continental. Regional food is not promoted because Indians say they will order only food they can’t cook. But how many of us can make good Kashmiri pulao. Or a proper phulka. Or an idli?”

Of course, this intensive focus on both food history and modern technique can be exhausting. “Fine dining can’t be 400 covers: that’s canteen. I do 30 to 100 covers max.” He says this is why he’s chosen to close Gaggan in 2020, a decision that elicited a rash of press and bookings till the end of this year. “I can’t work so hard. My goals are not financial. My goal is to reach the top.”

The Gaggan Experience at his restaurant is competitively priced at THB 5,000 per person (about ₹9,700). “I want my restaurant to be accessible. When a backpacker who has lived frugally in Thailand for 21 days has his last meal at Gaggan to celebrate, then gets on a flight home, that is my success. I’m making honest money... I cook everyday for six hours in front of guests.”

Return of the prodigal chef, Gaggan Anand

As for the rumours of his unpredictable temper? “Ah! The bloggers,” he rolls his eyes. “Bloggers now enter restaurants with boxes of food garnishing to stage photographs! If they tried that at Gaggan, I would throw them out.”

He continues, “I give everyone the same attention. I don’t take crap. If you are a foodie, you won’t say you are a foodie. Go, eat and write your review, without telling the chef who you are... That’s a proper review.”

Besides, he’s moving on. “All good things come to an end. I’m not quitting. But I’ve achieved the dream of my 30s. In my 40s, I should have a new dream. Today, I have been named one of the greatest chefs in the world... But I don’t want to be doing the same thing at 50, being grumpy, throwing people out of my restaurant... And I don’t want to be pretentious.” He laughs and points at his feet, “That’s why I am here in slippers. I own only one pair of Louis Vuitton shoes, and that is only to wear in India!”

His plan is to open a restaurant with his friend Chef Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama in Fukuoka, Japan. Already touted as the ‘Most inaccessible restaurant in the world’, it will have just 10 seats and be open on alternative months. “I do what makes me happy,” he shrugs, “I’m becoming a monk. Although, I am a family man, so I can’t be monk monk,” he laughs, pausing to play a video of his one-year-old daughter Tara, sent by his Thai wife. “She took her first step yesterday and I missed it,” he sighs, “This is the sacrifice.”

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 1:44:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/chef-gaggan-anand-on-his-future-food-plans/article19698361.ece

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