At Gaggan restaurant in Bangkok, diners are presented with tasting menu with a difference — each of the 25 dishes is listed using a single emoji. Examples have included a butterfly, a bunch of flowers, a lemon, an explosion and some lips.
This isn’t a crafty attempt by chef Gaggan Anand to appeal to Generation Z customers, however — having claimed top spot on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for the past four years, prices reflect this acclaim, meaning only the most dedicated of gastronomes tend to beat a path to his door. Instead, the emojis represent the various emotions associated with eating and the playfulness of Anand’s ground-breaking modernist Indian cuisine.
Opened in 2010, Gaggan is Anand’s successful attempt at redefining Indian food and elevating it to the top table of gastronomy, to sit alongside the likes of French and Italian cuisine. “Indian food has such a deep-rooted history, it has evolved in culture and history, but it hadn’t moved on like other cuisines,” he says. “In India, we’re extremely good at cooking good food family-style, but when it comes to fine dining it collapses. I wanted to change the perception of Indian food; that was the challenge.”
Eight years on and Anand has certainly done that. With a typical meal comprising a progression of small, highly impactful dishes, such as his renowned spherified ‘Yogurt Explosion’ and ‘Lick it Up’ — where guests are instructed to lick the food straight from the plate while the Kiss song of the same name plays in the background — Gaggan is now regarded as one of the most progressive restaurants in the world. In short, it’s done for Indian food what elBulli did for Spanish cuisine two decades previously.
Born into a poor family in Kolkata in 1979, Anand started cooking to help his sick mother. This sparked an interest in food, which would take him first to restaurants around India and then to Bangkok, where he moved in 2007. While there, he decided to go and work under Ferran Adria at elBulli, in Catalonia, and learn his distinct style of molecular gastronomy.
“I used [the restaurant’s] vision of progressive cooking and its use of scientific techniques. I loved how Ferran would put many flavours into just one bite and make food an emotional experience. I wanted to create a time machine that would take people back to the streets of India I remember as a boy.”
Inspired by his time at elBulli, following a drunken evening with friends he proposed the opening of a boundary-pushing Indian restaurant. The rest is gastronomic history.
But why Bangkok? Was he worried that his cooking style wouldn’t be embraced back home in India? “Bangkok was my destiny,” Anand says. “I’d lived there for three years and it’s a place where people accept spicy food. Chillies are part of Thai culture. I couldn’t have done it in London or Tokyo or New York, it wouldn’t have worked. Bangkok is very touristy, people come for the massages and street food, and I knew this would be something very different.”
Gaggan started off serving a 12-course tasting menu alongside an a la carte and vegetarian options, but he realised that to carry out his vision properly he had to create
a multi-dish menu that would surprise as well as delight. This menu is continually evolving, with him and his team devising about 60 new dishes every month, cut down to 20 based on availability of ingredients. These sit alongside five regular dishes, including raw scallops in uncooked curry, and charcoal prawn Amritsari.
“The challenge is always to make the menu better than it was before,” Anand says. “Around 80% of the dishes are new each month but we don’t change the way we cook. The experience is the same. If you’re doing rock ’n’ roll, you can’t suddenly do hip hop.”
What has changed, however, are customer expectations, fuelled by Gaggan’s lofty position of number five on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “The easy part was getting to the top, the hardest thing is trying to stay there,” Anand says.
It’s partly because of this ongoing pressure that Anand will eventually call time on his Bangkok restaurant, with Gaggan scheduled to close in 2020 (he’s handing the premises over to his head chef Rydo Anton). But it’s primarily because he doesn’t want his project to go stale. “Why would you close a highly profitable, highly successful restaurant? All good things come to an end — that’s something else I learned from elBulli,” Anand explains. “If I don’t close Gaggan I will become a super egotistical and grumpy chef that treats it as a feather in my cap. I don’t want that.”
The chef doesn’t intend to be out of the game for long, though. Giving himself a year off “to conserve my energy”, he plans to return to the stove in 2021, this time opening a restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan, with fellow chef and friend Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama. Called GohGan, the 12-cover restaurant will only open for a few days each month and will be a permanent version of the pop-ups of the same name the pair collaborated on in the past, although Anand is remaining tight-lipped about the food.
“GohGan is two people telling different stories,” is all he’ll reveal. “It’s going to be two very different jam sessions. I want to do something elite and serve only a few people at a time. The future of fine dining is no more than 20 covers with a chef who is always in the restaurant, and when they’re not, it’ll be shut.”
Anand isn’t turning his back on Bangkok, however. In fact, he’s investing in ventures across the city, such as German restaurant Sühring, and Mihara Tofuten, which he describes as an omakase (‘chef’s choice’) tofu restaurant “like no other in the world”. Then there’s his relaxed steakhouse, Meatlicious, wine bar, Wet, and future ventures Raa, Gaa and Sol. It’s a portfolio as varied as his menu at Gaggan. As he says: “I love to surprise people.”
As featured in Issue 3 of National Geographic Traveller Food.