When Gaggan Anand’s Bangkok restaurant was rated as Asia’s Top Restaurant on the influential but slightly absurd San Pellegrino list of Asia’s 50 Best restaurants last year, you could hear the gasps of astonishment around the continent.
The global list of the world’s best restaurants is routinely derided (each year, when the names are announced, the London critics compete to see who can make the most fun of it) and is hated by the French (who feel, accurately, that it is biased against them). But despite the foodie scorn, that list has the power to transform a chef’s future.
The Asia list is much less influential and amateurishly put together but, outside of India and Japan, where nobody takes it seriously, it still has the power to put restaurants on the global foodie map. And because so many of the restaurants on the list feature chefs who are not natives of the country they cook in (around 35 per cent or so of the list usually comprises expatriates of one sort or another), it is read within the global chef community.
But what neither the World nor Asia lists have ever done properly is to give India its due. (Or Japan either – according to this list, the city of Singapore alone has more great restaurants than the whole of Japan!)
So it came as a huge surprise to Indians when, a few years ago, Gaggan first made the list. Then, last year, Gaggan was rated as Asia’s Best Restaurant, an accolade that put him ahead of all the great chefs of China and the Japanese masters (for the record, Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other capital city and more three-star restaurants than Paris). Next, he turned up on the global list in the Top Ten.
Most people (myself included) believed that Gaggan would not make it to the top of the list this year. We were wrong. For the second year in a row, Gaggan is Asia’s best restaurant, which more or less guarantees that he will be back in the global top ten once again.
A place on the list ensures commercial success. The first time most people heard of René Redzepi was when Noma topped the list. So it has been with Gaggan. He is modest about the accolade and says that all lists are subjective.
But for all his modesty, the ranking has translated into massive commercial success. His Bangkok restaurant is booked out months ahead and nearly every major chef in the world has heard of him.
Because Gaggan is now such a great brand, he could open branches in say, Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo and mint money. In fact, friends have encouraged him to strike while the iron is hot. His brand is never going to get any bigger so why not cash in now? Why not create a global Gaggan empire? Why not conquer New York when the going is good? At least, open in India: in Bombay or Delhi, perhaps.
I watched Gaggan grapple with these issues and suggestions for all of last year and was impressed by how stubbornly he stuck to his stand. There would be only one Gaggan, he said. He could guarantee the quality of his food only if he controlled the number of guests. So he would not make his kitchen cater to more than 20 guests at a time. Over a full dinner service that meant around 60 guests a night. And that would be it.
As for franchising the name, he refused point blank. He would have to be in control of anything that bore his name. Yes, he was willing to experiment with a second brand that took inspiration from his menu. But he would not call it Gaggan.
And then, he made a couple of moves that took me – and everyone else, I imagine – by surprise.
His second restaurant had nothing to do with Indian food. He opened a steakhouse called Meatlicious, in the trendy Ekkamai district of Bangkok and put his Thai wife, Pui, in charge.
Being Gaggan, he couldn’t let it be just another steakhouse. Instead, he insisted that almost everything should be cooked on an open fire, either in a large oven (a little like a pizza oven) or on a grill. Then he decided to import extremely high quality beef (Miyazaki with the highest level of marbling) from Japan along with excellent Australian beef. He put steaks cooked from this exceptional meat on the menu at nearly half the price charged by Bangkok’s other steakhouses, arguing that he would make up in volume for what he lost in mark-up.
I went there for dinner earlier this month and ate at the counter while Gaggan stood in the centre of the open kitchen, personally checking each plate as it went out. The steaks were excellent but the two best dishes were not beef. There was a brilliant foie-gras crème brulee and an Iberian suckling pig that had been rubbed with Jamaican-style spices before it went into the oven.
The restaurant was jumping and though prices were reasonable, the parking lot told its own story – it was packed out with BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches.
In a sense the food was the antithesis of the cuisine on which Gaggan’s reputation is based. It wasn’t just that he had moved away from Indian. It was also that, for a man who made his reputation using technology in the kitchen, this was as simple and primitive a cooking style as you could imagine: just meat and fire.
And it was every bit as good as the food at Gaggan’s.
But that is not all that Gaggan has been up to. Last autumn, Thomas and Mathias Sühring got in touch with him. The Sührings are identical twins who cooked with great distinction for many years at Mezzaluna at the Lebua hotel. (I have often written about their food before.)
The Sührings had left Lebua to start out on their own and had found a beautiful old house in the Sathorn district for their restaurant. As the project grew, they needed investors. They asked Gaggan if he would like to come in.
Gaggan had always partnered with the Kewalramani brothers, who were his initial investors so he consulted with them. When the Kewalramanis agreed that this was a risk worth taking, they agreed to become more or less equal partners with the Sühring twins and the restaurant opened quietly a couple of months ago.
Despite the absence of any publicity, Sühring was packed out the night I went. It is a lovely restaurant – one of the prettiest in Bangkok – and seems much more suited to the talents of the twins than the bland hotel restaurant surroundings of the original Mezzaluna.
I know the Sühring brothers’ food reasonably well, having eaten it often at Mezzaluna. However, for this new venture, though they have stuck with Modern European, they have approached it from a Teutonic perspective (they are Germans, after all) rather than the Italian approach they preferred at Mezzaluna.
Most of what I ate was terrific – and deceptively simple. A langoustine was seared on one side and paired with pork. An unlikely combination of roast beef, herring, egg and beetroot worked surprisingly well. German noodles (spätzle) were garnished with crisp onions and mountain cheese.
The best dish, however, was the simplest. It consisted of excellent sour dough bread (baked in the restaurant) with a sort of pate made from aged Camembert and a bowl of rendered pork fat with onions. The twins served it with German beer, pickles and ham but I dispensed with all that and asked for a glass of red wine, instead. It was outstanding.
Sühring is already doing well. I imagine it will become a destination restaurant. It is certainly the best European food I have eaten in Bangkok.
Gaggan has other plans. Rajesh Kewalramani and he have long planned to open a curry house on the other side of the road from the main Gaggan restaurant. It will be simple Indian food but just as Meatlicious is much more than a simple steakhouse, this will have Gaggan’s twists on the old dishes.
And no, he hasn’t forgotten all his molecular wizardry yet. There are plans for a lab on the terrace of Gaggan where the experiments with foam, shape and taste will continue.
Does all this mean that Gaggan will remain in Bangkok? My guess is that he prefers to do new things rather than recreate Gaggan in new cities. Almost every great chef who opens a second restaurant does some variation of the food that made him famous. But Gaggan has done something diametrically opposed to the style of his main restaurant.