Chef Gaggan Anand And His Gastronomical Balance Of Emotion, Science And Art
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind about who is rocking Indian food right now, and so here I am in Bangkok. Having taken the flight especially from Mumbai, I am entering Chef Gaggan Anand’s eponymous restaurant that has been number one for three years in a row on S. Pellegrino’s prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. What’s more, Gaggan, the restaurant, has climbed to number seven on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017, a meteoric rise indeed from last year’s number 23. Recently, the chef was profiled on Netflix’s award-winning Chef’s Table. A super achievement, it cannot be denied, for a Punjabi boy from a poor family in Kolkata who dreamt of being a rock star, and was a drummer in local rock bands….
The whitewashed Colonial-style wooden house in the depths of downtown Bangkok has become famous all over with food watchers. I am entering this beautiful space and I hear him before I see him. That’s Gaggan for you; his energy seems to simply flow over everything. That, and his voice that booms, “So, you came here expecting to have curry and I gave you chicken skin and prawns’ heads instead!” He is addressing diners at the Chef’s Table upstairs, on the mezzanine, and I feel it propitious that I should be entering at this very moment. Where is the curry in Gaggan’s Indian cuisine that is fabled to draw from his memories of street food and the diversity of India’s regional cuisines? Where are the puris, the rotis, the pulavs and other staples that one might expect? Nowhere to be seen, but yes, definitely to be tasted. The flavours of Indian food dominate what we are about to eat, while the presentation — art on a plate — is decidedly western. But wait, Gaggan has been known to serve up his version of khichri as Indian risotto! And goat brain as Indian foie gras! Yeah, that too! I get it, really, from a ‘rebel cook’ with imagination and playfulness.
My research tells me that it all started with the spherification of yogurt, that he promptly named ‘yogurt explosion’. “I knew I had my symbol of progressive Indian cuisine,” he stated. This happened after he had interned with Ferran Adria’s research team at El Bulli in Catalonia. After that life-changing experience he has been quoted as exclaiming, ‘I was out of space and time. I was hallucinating food. I said I want to do this with Indian food.’ And that is what he did, applying science and modern technology to create modernist and progressive reinterpretations of traditional Indian recipes.
That little white sphere is exploding in my mouth right now, as I start out on the 25-course meal that has been dubbed the Gaggan Experience. Seeing my notepad on the ready, he had already waved it away exclaiming, “Keep it as a memory; enjoy the dinner.” A single-page menu is sprinkled with emojis and nothing else. Gaggan wishes to provide a real experience with his food and this is certain to keep you guessing, excited for whatever is coming up next as your palate taps into your own memories of Indian flavours. All senses are on high alert. Even as the dishes are explained as they are served, at a rapid trot in the start, followed by a more leisurely pace as the meal commences, things are not what they seem and what it looks like, it is not — if you get my drift. Textures are changed, temperatures are changed, visuals are changed, everything is changed…. And yet, it all remains the same.
At this point, Gaggan, the chef, is busy on UberEATS ordering food for his staff. He will later distribute this and plunge into a meal himself, quite unconcerned by diners around him. We, on the other hand, are faced by one delicious morsel after another. I do not wish to play spoiler here, so will not go into the details of the meal. But, I will reveal what was going through my mind even as the flavours burst forth on my tongue and in my brain…. I am thinking of the beaches of Versova as I bite into a prawn head stuffed with something cold and delicious. I am thinking of Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach as I bite into a ball of chocolate that squirts pani puri water. I am thinking that this bite-sized idli is spun from air. I am thinking that the ‘lime caviar’ is reminiscent of nimboo achar. I am thinking that this is a genius dish. I am thinking that I am happy to be Indian since I resonate with this — I am home and I am away. I am in taste heaven!
The meal continues over three hours, choreographed like a rock concert, with drama and flair. Lick it Up is a dish that we are told to lick even as the song by American band Kiss blares out as accompaniment. The lights dim and darkness pervades as sheets of cedar wood are burnt, cooking some leaf-wrapped sea bass. The drama is palpable, the aroma all-consuming and the fire hypnotic! A plant is served and you will discover a mango chutney leaf camouflaged within. The matcha, served Japanese style, is cold and not tea at all…. There is innovation here, daring and cool.
Gaggan’s kitchen has been likened to the United Nations since he has cooks of all nationalities here. Typically, loud rock music would be blaring to inspire them. There was a time when Gaggan himself would play the guitar in the kitchen. He has created a world of fantasy, of escapism, here in his little castle in Bangkok. But, in typical fashion, he has announced already that he plans to close Gaggan in 2020 to start a 10-seat restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan, along with fellow cook and friend Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama, which will remain open only on weekends. He has been quoted as saying that he wants to reinvent by ‘drawing on Buddhist principles to challenge himself to avoid boredom and burnout’. Looking at the demands for reservations already, this, it has been said, will probably be the most elusive restaurant by a celebrity chef, ever!
In true millennial spirit, Chef Gaggan Anand conducts his interview with Verve via WhatsApp. Here, the unabridged version….
Emotion, science and art — apparently opposing things — how have you balanced these in your cuisine?
Create the balance of the emotion of eating, the science of cooking, and the art of presenting.
What would you say to critics who call your cuisine pretentious?
They say, I will listen, and that motivates me to cook better.
What is the philosophy that informs your cuisine?
On your website: ‘fiction and not fusion’ — what do you mean?
The storytelling of food as a story, and not fusion cuisine.
“To reach the pinnacle, one needs to convert from a restaurateur into a storyteller. This completes the circle.” What did you mean by this?
It means that I don’t simply want to present food and beverage and service; I am here to give my guests an experience, a moment in life, where they have come to a famous, rated restaurant and we have to live up to the madness, happiness and the non-pretentious experience that is Gaggan today and that’s what is our future.
From being placed 23rd, to 7th in the world — how did that happen?
No idea. Maybe the food improved, the lab in the kitchen helped us to create better food, and maybe we are on trend.
Where do you see yourself in the history of Indian food?
Well, I am a poster boy in most kitchens in India and every chef will look at the poster and say, hey if he can do it then I can do it better. I am here to inspire young Indian chefs to change the perception about India.
Do you actually eat the street food in India? Where?
Anything and everything, not scared of getting sick. In Mumbai, the vada pav to paan to bhel…. In Kolkata, the chicken roll to street puchka to Bengali jhal muri…. In Delhi the kebabs to the chaats…. Everywhere in India, street food is the soul of our country.
How do you feel about cooking for the Indian public. How is it different?
Very challenging; the diets, the culture and the taste buds are so mature and yet so domesticated; we eat with religious beliefs, we cook with religious beliefs and we push people to eat with religious beliefs.
What is your favourite music to play in the kitchen?
Currently, Foo Fighters.
What is it about music that finds its way into your cuisine? Favourite concerts you have been to?
Dream Theatre and Foo Fighters last month. I have a dish inspired by Lick It Up by the band Kiss. No music means no food….
You wish to reinvent your cuisine by drawing on Buddhist principles — what will this do to your food?
I don’t think I have said that; can we leave religion and food separate? Food is food, religion is religion, although I like the Zen of minimalism in food….
Are you drawn to Buddhist philosophy in your daily living?
Do good, get good…. do bad, get bad.
Which is the best home-cooked meal you have ever had?
Mom’s dal chawal; it’s my DNA comfort food.
Your favourite person to cook for?
My daughter Tara is so challenging — she makes me feel so incomplete as a chef….
Tell me one thing that we do not know about you.
Hahaha! Really I am OCD and might check my passport when I travel 3-4 times a day hahahah….
Favourite ingredient to work with?
Green chillies; my recipes are useless without them.
Michelin Guide in Bangkok by the end of 2017, how many stars do you expect? Do you think they have visited yet?
1 is good, 2 is wow, 3 I dream of….