Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Gaggan Anand: Top chef

Gaggan Anand's eponymous Bangkok restaurant has now been ranked as Asia's finest. The drummer-turned-deconstructive cuisine star shares the story of his meteoric rise and his most preferred dining experiences

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Nov 10, 2015 06:29:42 AM IST
Updated: Nov 2, 2015 03:47:47 PM IST
Gaggan Anand: Top chef
Image: Mexy Xavier

The wait to meet Gaggan Anand at a five-star hotel in Mumbai spans over an hour. The chef-owner of the eponymous Bangkok restaurant, ranked Asia’s No. 1 at World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, was in India to serve up an invitees-only meal for VVIP clients. Along with him is a team of 10-odd people and equipment weighing 348 kg. But this does not include a single ingredient, not even salt. Instead, the over-6-foot-tall Punjabi from Kolkata is planning to turn Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ slogan on its head and showcase produce that’s “made in India”. After he finishes “one last call” ordering the best of pea blossoms and cherry tomatoes, Anand almost doubles up to apologise, “I am so sorry. I am not a snoot. I normally don’t keep people waiting.”  

But Anand’s CV has all the elements to make him one. In just over five years, his restaurant has been ranked the best Asian restaurant and the 10th best in the world in 2015, up from third and 17th respectively in 2014. With his progressive Indian cuisine (a culinary tribute to the progressive music of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple that he grew up idolising), the restaurant now boasts a three-month waiting period: December is already sold out. Sometime “soon”, Anand will bring his magic to Mumbai, where he won’t replicate his Bangkok brand but run a separate restaurant with a head chef he is now training. Yet, the 37-year-old master of deconstructed street food, who has wowed diners with ‘theatrical’ fares like an edible bag of nuts, makes no bones about his dislike for tuxedos and would much rather talk about phuchka than his brush with Deepika Padukone at an awards show.

Perhaps it’s his middle-class upbringing that keeps Anand grounded. Or perhaps it’s the limelight he’s enjoyed since his teens—rocking the music scene in Kolkata as a drummer—that helps him wear his fame lightly. In the ’90s, even before he was old enough to vote, Anand was playing with bands like Eyes and Shiva, rubbing shoulders with guitarist Amyt Datta and drummer Nondon Bagchi among others, and winning much-vaunted college fests.

And then it all came unstuck. Anand had a bike accident that left him with serious injuries and impaired his footwork on the drums. As he spent the immediate aftermath of the accident “writing depressive songs”—which his mother ripped to shreds—another reality hit hard: His businessman father was suffering losses and was struggling financially.

That’s when he traded his drum sticks for the spatula and his scores for recipes. His mum had recognised his culinary abilities pretty early in life. “She knew I wouldn’t be a doctor or an engineer. But I had the skills to be a chef. I was always cooking at home and watching cookery shows of Martin Yan [of Yan Can Cook fame] and Keith Floyd,” says Anand.

Anand’s parents took a loan and sent him off to Institute of Hotel Management in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. On his first day, his teacher gathered the class around his workstation and made them watch Anand cook steak tenderloin, glazed carrots and caramel pudding. “I did very well at IHM. I didn’t care much for theory, but I knew my practicals were better than anybody else’s,” he says.

Anand displays such rock-solid confidence in his food even now. You can visit his upscale restaurant housed in a colonial-style building in slippers or a spaghetti top, but you can’t dictate what he should cook for you. You have to eat it his way. You can argue with him and he’ll tell you he is an artist and that you can’t dictate an artist what to paint. If you are still adamant, he will show you the door.

Gaggan Anand: Top chef
Image: Neil Hall / Reuters
Ferran AdriĆ , of the now-closed El Bulli

Gaggan has two set menus, one 15-course (for about Rs 4,500) and the other 23-course (about Rs 7,000), that he serves every guest. For the most part, there would be no spoons or forks; he feels eating with fingers allows one to enjoy the temperature and the texture of the dish. Most importantly for Indian diners, there would be no nimbu-pyaaz to go with their meal. “You are welcome at my restaurant as long as you understand my food. But don’t come here to hashtag. Here, taste is king. I will not allow you to dilute it with anything else,” says Anand. “I have thrown out VIP guests, including those from Bollywood. They have called me arrogant. I am not arrogant. My food is.”   

It wasn’t all easy for Anand. Because, even while he was at IHM, his family was going through financial hell. His parents couldn’t pay their electric bills, but they never defaulted on his college fees. Anand vindicated their conviction as he landed a prestigious job with a luxury hotel in Delhi in 2000, the year he passed out. But he quit in just over a year, realising that the corporate kitchen wasn’t for him. “I never wanted to climb the corporate ladder and be an executive chef. For me, cooking is an expression of art and needs peace of mind.”

In 2002, he returned to Kolkata and started an industrial kitchen, preparing gourmet dishes in a city that hadn’t yet warmed up to global trends. His fish in wine sauce and burnt butter had no takers. Customers, instead, ended up nitpicking on the quality of the fish. In his own words, he was 15 years ahead of his time and it boomeranged on him.

The turnaround started only in 2006 when he landed a commercial catering deal with a telecom firm. He kicked his fancy ingredients aside and called upon local chefs to rustle up basic, homestyle food. “Finally, I started minting money and cooking 6,000 meals a day. I was done with the darkest years of my life. But those years taught me a valuable lesson: How to be thick-skinned,” says Anand.  

Gaggan Anand: Top chef
Anand’s version of daab chingri, a traditional Bengali dish. At Gaggan’s the prawn is marinated in mustard and spice and is cooked sous-vide. It is served on a bed of rice, with coconut foam and finely cut coconut pieces, garnished with a silver vaq and mustard flower

Just like he quit his well-paying job at the luxury hotel on a whim, so did he begin his journey to Bangkok. In 2006, while working as a food consultant, Anand came to Mumbai to interview a chef for a restaurant in Thailand. But the chef wasn’t proficient in English and his clients were hesitant to take him to a city where language would be a barrier. Anand decided to throw his hat in the ring. That December, he packed two shirts, two pairs of denims and a kurta and reached Bangkok with $500 in his wallet. And he never returned.  

He started as a chef at Red, a fine-dining restaurant. By the time the internal politics at the restaurant pushed him out, he had earned a name for himself. He next joined Lebua, Bangkok’s uber-luxury hotel.

Then, one night during a drinking binge, an Australian colleague dismissed Indian food as merely curry and bread. “Fired up, I called up Rajesh [Kewalramani], my best friend and now a partner at Gaggan, and told him that let’s make the best Indian food and show the middle finger to the rest of the world,” Anand thumps on the table with a fist. “That’s when the idea of Gaggan was conceived. My target was to be the best restaurant in the world, not just the best Indian restaurant. And that fight is still on.”

In Bangkok, Anand perceived a gradual shift in the world of cuisine, from French to Spanish, led by Ferran Adria’s three Michelin star Catalonian restaurant El Bulli, located in north Spain. Just prior to the launch of Gaggan in Bangkok, he cold-called El Bulli and told them he wanted to study in its lab to learn cooking techniques and apply them to Indian cuisine. He received an invite two days after he sent his resume, and he packed his bags again, this time for Spain.

Gaggan Anand: Top chef
Image: FB / Allwecandid
The interiors of Gaggan

One of the key lessons the team at El Bulli taught him is that there is no such thing as molecular gastronomy; that they are chefs and not scientists. Cooking is basic human engineering, he says, and that cans of liquid nitrogen or edible gold dust are merely peripherals. “You have to put salt with your heart, not measure it with a scale, they told me,” says Anand.

The definition of exotic to him is not about transcending price barriers, but creating something from ordinary and presenting it as an art. One of his signature dishes comes in a raggedy bowl of sal leaves—not conventionally luxurious perhaps, but evocative of his childhood memories of having phuchka in Kolkata. “Food is my imagination and how I put it on a plate. When you put it in your mouth, it draws you.”

Adria, head chef of the now-closed El Bulli and arguably one of the most creative chefs of the world, would aver that it is exactly this philosophy that drew him towards Anand. Five years after Anand spent two-and-a-half months at his lab, he met Adria days after winning at the World’s Best Restaurant awards for that year. “He hugged me and the whole restaurant fell silent. Adria has realised that he has sown a seed in Asia and it’s growing,” says Anand.

In the first couple of years, Anand’s restaurant lacked direction. Regulars claim there was a lot of creativity—the tobacco-smoked ice cream would be a delight for smokers, for instance—but the food would be inconsistent. Besides, his restaurant was a revolving door for managers and kitchen staff; Gaggan had—and still has—an in-your-face personality and a lot of Thais had a problem with that. Now, Anand has a cosmopolitan staff. Besides, they are getting attuned to his thinking, and his sommelier is one of the best at pairing wines with his out-of-the-box food. Together, they have been able to back up the vision that Anand has for his restaurant.    

There was a perceptible shift, says Tim Footman, British journalist and author settled in Bangkok, when Anand ditched a la carte and carried on only with its set menu. “Gaggan’s is not about an individual dish. It’s about the journey he takes you on,” says Footman, who has been eating at the restaurant since 2011. “You can tell there are Indian flavours going on… the turmeric, the cumin. But the overall effect is so different. It’s the surprise in the dish that throws you off. There are a lot of places in South East Asia trying out molecular gastronomy. But no one has applied it as successfully as Anand.”

Bangkok’s evolving culinary scene over the past five years too has helped Anand take his food across the world. People go to the city not just to eat Thai green curry, but good food—Italian, Lebanese, Indian, what have you—just like they would do in Singapore, London or Paris. In such a milieu, Gaggan remains a must-visit for culinary aficionados.

For many, that may be a great place to be in. But, for Anand, the journey has just begun.

Gaggan Anand: Top chef

(This story appears in the 13 November, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)