A few weeks ago in Singapore, I met an Italian restaurateur who had spent time in Bangkok managing the Dusit Thani hotel. We got talking about the food in Bangkok which, we both agreed, was excellent and a lot cheaper than the food in Singapore or Hong Kong.
“Even the Indian food is good,” he said. “I went to a restaurant called Red and there was a young Indian chef who told me that he would make me an Indian risotto. I was sceptical but when it arrived, it was wonderful. Don’t tell my mama but it was one of the best risottos I have eaten.”
I told him that, as far as I knew, Red had ceased to exist. But I had a pretty good idea who the chef in question was. Did he remember his name? Was it a chef called Gaggan Anand?
“Gaggan?” he said. “The man who now runs that famous Bangkok restaurant? No. I don’t think so. This was a very young chef.”
But of course, it was Gaggan, even if nobody had heard of him in those days. I mentioned the conversation to him and he remembered both the Italian restaurateur in question and the dish. “I cooked him a khichdi,” he said. “As far as Italians are concerned, that is an Indian risotto!”
The fact that even an experienced restaurateur cannot reconcile the chef at the famous Gaggan restaurant in Bangkok (Number 10 in Restaurant Magazine’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants) as the young guy who made him a bowl of khichdi (or risotto, if you like) tells you something about how fast Gaggan Anand’s rise to fame has been.
At only 33, he is already one of Asia’s hottest chefs and his restaurant has become a mecca for foodies.
What makes his rise even more extraordinary is that his restaurant, Gaggan, on Soi Lang Suan in Bangkok, only opened in December 2010. I first wandered in on a whim a few months after it opened but since then, it has become popular with food writers from all over the world.
Gaggan grew up in Calcutta, the son of Punjabi parents. His first passion was music and he played drums with local rock groups before deciding that he had to make a real living. Business reverses caused his family’s fortunes to dip dramatically (“I watched my house being auctioned in front of me”) and Gaggan, armed with a diploma from a catering college in Trivandrum, decided to find steady employment as a trainee with the Taj group.
But his rock-and-roll temperament and an early first marriage led him to leave the Taj and set up a successful catering business in Calcutta. That ended when his marriage flew into rough weather and his wife and he moved to Bangkok to make a new life. This was not easy. His stint with Red (where he made the khichdi/risotto) ended unhappily (as did his marriage). He wound up at Lebua, working with Deepak Ohri (who helped him with the legal complications that followed his stormy exit from Red).
His temperament was not suited to hotels, however, and his friend Rajesh Kewalramani, a telecom executive from Bombay who has lived in Bangkok for 18 years, remembers getting a late-night phone call from a very drunk Gaggan. “He was miserable,” Kewalramani recalls. “I just want to get out and do something of my own, he kept saying.”
Kewalramani asked Gaggan what his dream was: if anything in the world suddenly became possible, then what would he most want to do? Gaggan said he dreamt of going to Spain and working at the El Bulli academy and learning the secrets of scientific cooking. (They don’t like the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ at El Bulli.) “So do it”, Kewalramani told him. Gaggan wrote off to Ferran Adrià’s people and to his surprise, they invited him to come and work in Spain. That experience transformed his attitude to food. “I wanted to get to the bottom of flavours,” he remembers. “I wanted to use those techniques to extract the best flavours from Indian ingredients.”
When Gaggan came back to Bangkok, Kewalramani found two other silent partners and they launched the Gaggan restaurant, which serves a molecular take on Indian cuisine. While the menu took some people by surprise, the restaurant got its share of high profile Indian visitors (Biki Oberoi, Sonu Shivdasani, the Ambanis etc.) and soon became extremely popular with well-heeled Thais. Within a few months, the international food press had discovered Gaggan and since then his rise has been steady.
Even so, he was surprised to be included – and especially rated so high – in the Asia Top 50. He was told that his restaurant was in the list and attended the ceremony but burst into tears when he realised that Gaggan had come tenth. “I called my mom,” he says, forever the Punjabi boy, “and I cried and cried all night. It was all just too much for me.” As we have seen, lists of the world’s best restaurants are, by definition, controversial and arbitrary, and personally, I think the Asia list is slightly risible. But I applaud the recognition accorded to Gaggan and am even more pleased to see that he is not carried away by all the hype.
If you took the rating at face value, you would have to accept that Gaggan is the best Indian restaurant in Asia, ahead of every single restaurant in India. (No Indian – in the geographical sense – restaurant made the top 10 of this list). But Gaggan is very conscious of his limitations, admiring of Indian chefs and says that the Taj group’s Arvind Saraswat, under whom he trained, remains “my absolute guru”.
Equally, there is no denying that his food is unlike any other kind of Indian food I have ever eaten. Indian chefs who try molecular gastronomy often come across as children who have just been gifted chemistry sets. But Gaggan is a master of the technique and his cuisine is confident and assured. It helps also that he has an international kitchen. Three of his chefs are Spaniards from El Bulli and similar restaurants who are familiar with the technology. His outstanding sommelier is also Spanish. (“You can say that as an Indian opportunist, I am taking advantage of the crisis in the Spanish economy,” he concedes, slightly sheepishly.)
This time in Bangkok, I went with the celebrated Delhi restaurateur, Prasanjit Singh, to Gaggan and we sat at the chef’s table which allowed us to view all the action in the kitchen. Gaggan himself was cooking, assisted by many Spaniards. He served us a 19-course menu paired with three wines chosen by his Spanish sommelier (Salon champagne, a flowery white from Gaja and then Opus One).
I’ve reproduced the menu here but the basic principle was the same as the guiding philosophy at El Bulli: capture the authentic flavours but use technology to play around with the shapes and forms. So, a first course of papri chaat was a sphere of spiced yoghurt (made using a now popular technique called spherification) that exploded in your mouth to yield the flavour of the Indian street. A plate of white and yellow powder and mousse transformed itself into the very Gujarati flavours of dhokla and dahi wada. A cappuccino of truffles was memorably enriched with Kerala pepper, two flavours that I would not normally have thought went together. And so on. Prasanjit, who watched the kitchen with his restaurateur’s eye, was impressed by the care, trouble and effort that went into the preparation of each dish. It was, he said, still a little avant garde for the Indian mass market but perfect for real foodies.
Not that Gaggan is planning to open in India anytime soon. His next project is a lab that will allow all diners to see chefs experiment with the food. His kind of food costs money – in terms of salaries, ingredients and time taken per dish. So Gaggan is not making the huge profits you might expect.
But he doesn’t mind. He’s having a great time. And he plays music in the kitchen to get the chefs going. The night I was there it was The Fugees. “But do mention,” he said, as I was leaving, “that my favourite song is Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd.” It’s a good choice. He has been through a lot. And now he can tell blue skies from pain. And heaven from hell.
1. Yoghurt – Liquid papdi chaat explosion
2. Burger – Mutton kebab with tomato water bun
3. Samosa – Vacuum-fried crispies with spiced potato sandwich and fennel cress and anise flowers
4. FlatGappa – Pudina and dhania paani sorbet and air-dried potato crispies
5. Burnt cake – Inspired from black sesame and khajur chutney with lemon powder and kala namak
6. Foie gras – In two forms: caramelised and in cold powder with toast and onion chutney
7. Dhokla or khandvi – In mousse and snow form with coconut nitro powder and curry leaves
8. Truffle air – White truffles espuma with milk and Wayanad pepper
9. Mangosteen sorbet – With grappa and lemon skin frozen with liquid nitrogen
10. Game on – Wild French quail sous-vide 6 hours with Chettinad spices and sour cream
11. Mix and match – Liquid makai, petit pois, with garlic oil, baby spinach and churan
12. Treasure shells – Norwegian diver scallops cooked with young coconut, pepper and coriander foam and oil
13. Vasco Da Gama finally landed – Norwegian lobster slow cooked with pickling spices, and Goan curry
14. Ganne ki mojito
15. Best memory – Free-range lamb chops sous-vide with green herb oil finished in charcoal tandoor
16. British national dish – Chicken tikka with makhni foam and wood smoke
17. Fusion called confusion – Dry shrikhand, apple petha and eggplant
18. In season – Organic Mahachanok mango cannelloni with fresh mango sorbet
19. I love this – Nolen gur ki kulfi frozen instantly with liquid nitrogen
From HT Brunch, May 5
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