Asia Pacific

A culinary rock star is born

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Bangkok may be an unlikely location to shake-up Indian cuisine, but the creations of Gaggan Anand has seen his restaurant rated as the 17th best in the world. Maida Pineda finds out what is driving the 36-year-old

When a three-year-old restaurant lands the 10th spot in Asia’s 50 best list in 2013, and then the 66th spot in the Top 100 restaurants in the world, you take notice. But when the same restaurant sweeps to the number three spot in Asia, and climbs 49 spots to be 17th in the world this year, you take a trip to Bangkok to dine there.

Gaggan Restaurant is the only Indian restaurant to make it to the list. The man behind all this is Gaggan Anand, whom Time Magazine called “the Captain Kirk of cuisine”. As far as I’m concerned he is the only chef who has served me Viagra. In the 16-course Best of Gaggan tasting menu, Viagra is the name of the second course of freshly shucked oysters with yuzu-spiced apples, horseradish ice cream and lemon air.

Every course showcases his witty spin on what he calls “progressive Indian cuisine”. Don’t expect basmati rice and butter chicken here, or bread when he serves you a sandwich. Instead you will find foie gras mousse in between delicate onion water baguette. Expect to be surprised with every course – each dish is thoughtfully executed and cleverly presented.

Anand was nowhere to be seen in the restaurant when I visited. He insisted it would be better for “the food to speak directly to me”. The next day, he invited me for lunch at his favourite Thai restaurant.

He arrived in a red BMW, dressed in red shorts and a striped red, white and blue T-shirt. While his car is flashy, this 36-year-old chef is a down-to-earth person. He had just returned from a series of pop-up events in India, Hong Kong and Moscow.

In India, his pop-up had a phenomenal turn out. Despite the US$230 price tag, it sold out. Anand reveals: “It was a very popular pop-up with people queuing. Even the owner of the hotel we were doing it for, The Four Seasons in Mumbai, did not get a seat.”

While many in India made a big fuss over its price, the fee covered ingredients flown in from abroad, the logistics and flight cost of his team. “We didn’t charge a baht more, it was just the cost,” the chef says.

“You didn’t earn from this?”

His answer was another question: “What do bands do when they do concerts? They promote their album.” These pop-ups were scheduled long before the success of his restaurants early this year.

“It was high time I went to India,” Anand says. So I ask, “Are you opening something there?”

“No, there is nothing to be revealed as of now. I’m still looking for the right city,” he says. “I have the right partners with me, so they are quite into it. Investment is not the issue. The issue is what will be the right product and how much time I have to think of the product. We are very focused at Gaggan with the way we want to go, and we have not reached our peak yet.”

Anand also admitted his fear, “My climb is too fast, that’s why I’m scared. I might fall down faster. You know what they say about fashion, one day you’re in and the next day you’re out. I’m part of that fashion game.”

Freedom to experiment

For Anand, having the best Indian restaurant in Bangkok, not in India, is “the funniest part” of his story. I ask if he thinks the restaurant would have worked in India and he is adamant. “No! The Indians know their good food, and they don’t like to experiment. They are now learning to understand better food, but their comfort food is their comfort food. Don’t mess with it. But since we’ve changed it outside India, they are ready for internal change.”

Establishing himself in Bangkok was not part of a grand big plan. Anand bluntly tells me: “In 2007, I ran away from my wife and went to Bangkok with US$500 and four pieces of clothing.” All he had waiting for him was a three-month consultancy with a restaurant.

And Gaggan Restaurant is the result of a drunken evening with friends, where his frustration with previous jobs lead to a proposal his current partners accepted. His dream was to put Indian cuisine on the global fine dining map, and the only way was to create “progressive” Indian food.

While the restaurant was being renovated, Anand went to Spain for an internship with Ferran Adrià. Determined to learn from the best, he called elBulli 18 times asking for an internship. His persistence paid off, leading to a life-changing experience. “My religion is elBulli. My pope is Ferran Adrià, and he wanted me to exploit the technique of elBulli and molecular gastronomy and exploit what my cuisine has to offer.”

While the momentous climb of his restaurant opens many doors for Anand, he is clear about the path he wants. He is not keen on a TV show or a cookbook as many famous chefs have. “I refused MasterChef India last week,” Anand confides, with no remorse over the exorbitant fee he turned down. “I’m not a TV person. It’s not my thing. The show is geared for the masses and that’s not my audience.”

Despite the clamour for a cookbook, Anand refuses to create one saying: “A book should be fun to read, but people don’t read nowadays. So I want to do a documentary when I’m really famous.”

Rock bar and food laboratory

What consumes Anand now is creating a bar and a state-of-the-art lab next to the restaurant, set to open in March. “We’re making a bar with no electronic music. We will put in a turntable playing Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin,” he says. “The lab is not for me. It’s for the community of Bangkok and chefs from around the world. We’re going to exploit ingredients, ideas in Asia and how they matter to the world. The problem is we’re so busy trying to understand French and European cuisine, Asian cuisine also has that much depth. We’ve got to exploit the boundary of taste.”

As we finished polishing off plates of authentic Thai food in a restaurant with only us two foreigners dining, one thing remains clear – this Indian chef marches to a different beat. His cooks can attest to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd blaring in the kitchen as he cooks.

Asking what inspires him, Anand pulls out his phone and shows me a list of ideas for dishes. He tells me about a macaroon filled with goat’s brain. “What do you think I should call it – intelligent macaroon or brain damage?” I answer, “brain damage!” He breaks into a great big smile, “Yes, I like that. It’s a Pink Floyd song, too.”

Anand’s conversation is peppered with curse words. It is highly unlikely to find him in any formal socials, or endorsing any product. His straightforward nature is often perceived as arrogance. But they don’t know Anand is a rock star. Once a drummer of a rock band in India, this chef has become a culinary rock star happily headbanging to create good food.

Maida Pineda