HT Brunch Cover Story: The reinvention of Gaggan Anand
You know who Gaggan Anand is, of course. You have read about the decade of triumph after triumph for the Kolkata-born, Bangkok-based chef, who is counted amongst the world’s most influential culinary personalities. His underdog chaat-to-ceviche success story is also well documented in a much-watched miniseries on Netflix (his episode was nominated for an Emmy Award) and is widely written about by the global media.
What you probably don’t know is that Anand has had his life turned upside down in the last year. Yes, even before the pandemic.
Almost like a farcical Bollywood movie script, in which the hero is struck incessantly by seemingly bizarre circumstances, Anand’s gilt-lined career began careening out of control. His critics had written him off, his friends and family were concerned, and a Bangkok-style happy ending seemed far-fetched.
The terrible three
Three major events took place in close proximity that changed his life:
First, he lost his much-celebrated restaurant. After a bitter fall-out with his erstwhile partners last year, Anand walked out of the eponymous restaurant, he had spent his life creating in Bangkok. The legal terms forbade him from using the name Gaggan in future projects, as he didn’t own the trademarks. He would also lose all his coveted awards, such as the two-Michelin star rating the restaurant had been awarded.
Second, he lost all his savings. When the restaurant, Gaggan, in its previous avatar and location shuttered, Anand felt a strong moral responsibility to his staff of young, hopeful chefs that he had mentored. “My dream team, 65 lives, handed in their resignation to the company. They have put their future in my hands,” he shared on social media last year. He took it upon himself to support his loyal team members financially. The result was that Anand had to scrap his plans to move to Fukuoka in Japan. Instead, he invested his life savings into a new restaurant in Bangkok, taking on a substantial financial burden and even a fresh mortgage.
Third, his marriage broke up. Already dealing with a business separation and an existential crisis, the timing of the divorce could not have been worse. “I haven’t spoken about it before, and not many know. But today, there are no ill-feelings, there is no bitterness anymore, we are on good terms and we will continue to be there for our daughter,” he shared during our conversation last week.
For many chefs, the compounded impact of events like these would destroy their spirits and perhaps even lead them to hang up their chef’s whites. But Anand wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he decided to reinvent himself.
I first met Anand sometime in 2011, when I ate his 25-course tasting menu at Gaggan, in a dimly-lit, dingy lane off Bangkok’s Soi Langsuan district. This was before he had become a global sensation or had his eatery rated as Asia’s Best Restaurant. Though I enjoyed my dinner and thought the food was good, it was Anand himself who was the real revelation. He was unlike any chef I had met before; a larger-than-life personality; gregarious, garrulous and mercifully unfazed by the pretensions of his industry. That night, I watched him hop from table to table pouring generous servings of expensive Sauternes into unsuspecting customer’s glasses, all on the house.
We struck up a rapport, and the following day, at 1pm, he arrived at my hotel, dressed in floral green shorts and a black tee, to take me to a ‘secret spot’ for his favourite Thai food. We drove in his bright red BMW M3, and he told me about his love for rock music and his dream to go for a Foo Fighters concert one day and watch his idol Dave Grohl perform live. “I don’t know if I will ever get to do these things but if I wasn’t a chef I would have been a drummer, like Dave,” he said.
I distinctly recall moments from that drive: Anand blasting loud music and singing along to the chorus of the band’s hit track, Pretender:
What if I say I’m not like the others?
What if I say I’m not just another one of your plays?
You’re the pretender
What if I say that I’ll never surrender?
Perhaps these lyrics best define Anand’s resilience. Whatever life throws at him, he fights back and never gives up.
Full speed ahead
In the last couple of weeks, a more mature Anand has emerged since Bangkok re-opened for business.
Everything negative in my life has been cut off like a cancer and I am in a happy place,” he tells me. His new restaurant is called Gaggan Anand and he’s had to undertake a re-branding exercise; which includes a new logo and the addition of his surname to the restaurant title, to get around the trademark complications. “We are full night after night. And I am proud to say, I have protected every job, we haven’t fired a single employee during the Covid pandemic”, he asserts.
Anand credits his buoyant temperament to an unusual combination of meditation and rock music that he feels healed his bruises and ignited a new-found conviction. Though it is unclear whether the two are meant to be experienced in unison.
The period he spent in lockdown has been constructive, he says, and allowed him to delve into new projects.
Two weeks ago, he opened a new casual restaurant (distinct from the more formal Gaggan Anand), called Ms. Maria and Mr. Singh, which serves a hybrid menu of popular Mexican-Indian dishes. “If not for Covid, we would have opened branches in Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles by now. But it will happen by next year,” he says. The Mexican-Indian restaurant has plans to debut in Mumbai soon, and it will be Anand’s first venture in India if things go as planned.
Also on the radar is a newer avatar of Wet, his suggestively-named natural wine bar that shut down last year as a consequence of the fall out with his previous partners. He is scouting for a new location in Bangkok.
“We are dry now, but Vlad and me are ready to get wet next year!” he jokes, referring to Vladimir Kojic, his long-serving Serbian sommelier and now principal partner in the bar venture.
Anand credits Vladimir for his appreciation of natural wines (wine fermented naturally without additives). “Vlad taught me about organic and biodynamic wines. It is still a novel concept in Asia, but we will make it popular,” he says.
But before the wine bar, Anand will foray into coffee. Teaming up with his protégées, the Sühring brothers – the celebrated German identical twin chefs – to open a coffee shop in Bangkok this year. The project is called C Degree and is backed by a popular Thai fashion brand. Anand hopes to open multiple branches across Thailand. “I will make the coffee and the Sührings will do the bakery, it will open from 9am to 9pm every day,” he says.
There’s more: Anand has been toying with the idea of opening his own culinary academy for some years and says plans are progressing rapidly. “We will open in Thailand at the end of next year and I will create the full syllabus. It will be unlike any other existing school because we will only teach things that we practice in reality,” says Anand, who had a stint at an institution run by the legendary El Bulli in Catalonia, Spain.
The academy will be open to international students and provide formal training as well as certificates for aspiring chefs. “Admission fees will be very high but we will offer scholarships to at least five deserving students from the bottom rung of society every year,” he says. The academy appears to be the project he is most enthused about; perhaps this is because it will allow him to leave behind a legacy much bigger than any restaurant could.
With multiple projects in the pipeline, it is fair to say that Anand is back and hungrier than ever. His zeal has been channelised towards his work and his reinvention is almost complete. And if his detractors are still sceptical, here’s something to chew over: since the time we met nine years ago in Bangkok, he has befriended David Grohl and attended 10 live Foo Fighters concerts around the world.
Which is fair enough, because Gaggan has turned into something of a food fighter himself!
Raaj Sanghvi is the CEO of Culinary Culture and contributes to various international and Indian media publications. He can be found on social media @raajsanghvi
Note: The photo shoot with chef Gaggan Anand was conducted before lockdown
From HT Brunch, July 19, 2020
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