Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Gaggan Anand- the sequel
As the Gaggan Anand story enters its latest chapter, it is worth reflecting on what an amazing journey it has been – like something out of a Hindi movie, perhaps.
Our hero grows up in Calcutta in a middle class Punjabi family. His father faces reverses in his business and the son is despatched to catering college in Trivandrum. During his time there, he is regarded as bright (if slightly far out) by his classmates. But nobody thinks he will end up as the greatest Indian chef of his generation.
After catering college, he joins the Taj, trains at various outlets and then decides that life in a kitchen in the bowels of a five-star hotel is not for him. He leaves suddenly, returns to Calcutta and tries his hand at a series of ventures including providing packed lunches to offices.
When this provides no real joy, he decides to start all over again, rearranges his personal life and accepts a job at an Indian restaurant in Bangkok. The restaurant does well but at some stage he tires of being kicked around by the owners and walks out.
He finds a job – ironically enough – at a hotel kitchen in Bangkok but longs to do his own thing. A former guest at the Indian restaurant where he originally worked suggests they open an Indian restaurant together.
But Gaggan has done the whole Indian-restaurant-in Bangkok thing. His aspirations are now global. He has read about Ferran Adrià and the cooking revolution in Spain led by Adrià’s El Bulli. He calls Adrià’s people incessantly till finally they agree to let him come and train in Spain.
He returns to Bangkok in a few months and opens his dream restaurant, naming it after himself and claiming to serve “Progressive Indian cuisine.” His partners hold the majority of the shares (75 per cent) but the restaurant is called Gaggan.
It is a success almost from the day it opens because nobody has eaten food like this before. There are obvious El Bulli elements to the cuisine but there are also tributes, in the dishes, to global chefs he admires like The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller.
The idea of modern Indian food has been around for a while but the reference points are usually French and the emphasis is on plating and presentation. Gaggan follows the El Bulli philosophy of keeping the plates stark and simple and does not bother with the standard formula of putting a starch along with a protein to balance out each dish. Moreover he tries to design food that needs no cutlery: you eat with your fingers.
He gets written about. Time magazine features him. I wander in off the street, a few months after he has opened, and write about it here. All over the world, critics hear that something fresh and original is happening in Bangkok.
But Gaggan is already looking for new influences. He marries his Thai girlfriend Pui and flies off to Japan on holiday. He falls in love with the food and country almost instantly. From that point on, Japan begins to replace El Bulli and Spain as the biggest influence in his cuisine.
All of us, who know him and admire his skills, are impressed by the transformation. We realise that this is a chef of exceptional ability whose food is constantly evolving and getting better and better.
But none of us is prepared for what comes next. Gaggan becomes a global phenomenon: chefs and critics from all over the world flock to Bangkok to try his food. And while he himself is proudly Indian, he is probably the first chef from our country to create food that ceases to be regarded as ‘ethnic’. When people talk about him, they put him in the same league as the world’s greatest chefs, his nationality is barely mentioned.
He begins to get unprecedented global acclaim. His restaurant turns up on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and then, the World’s 50 Best. In no time at all, it tops the Asia list – a position it holds for four years. It enters the Top Three on the global list.
An episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table featuring him is such a success that the restaurant is bombarded with requests for tables from all over the world. He gets two Michelin stars. (No one in Thailand gets three stars.)
Then, he goes on an expansion spree with (and without) his partners. The first new restaurant is Sühring, run by German twins who retain 51 per cent while Gaggan and his partners keep 49 per cent of the equity. Meatilicious, a steakhouse is Gaggan’s own venture with Pui, his wife. When a planned restaurant in Mumbai falls through, the partnership backs Gaggan’s former sous chef, Garima Arora, who would have headed the Mumbai-venture, in a new restaurant called Gaa.
When Gaggan is convinced that his head sommelier, Vladimir Kojic, is an exceptional talent, the partnership backs him in a wine bar called Wet. Gaggan’s obsession with Japan leads him to open a counter-seating tofu restaurant.
All of the new places do well. The Sührings get two Michelin stars, on par with Gaggan, but rather than cause any rivalry this actually draws them closer to Gaggan. Garima gets one star and is named the top female chef in Asia. The tofu place is in line for a star this year.
In the midst of all this success, Gaggan announces that he will hand his restaurant over to Rydo Anton, his Indonesian second-in-command and open a foodie inn in Fukuoka in Japan with the Japanese chef Goh. There is consternation all around.
Why is he walking away? How well will the restaurant do without him? Does he just want to leave when he is at the top?
Then, on June 18 this year, two of his partners walk into Wet and have an acrimonious discussion with him. The arguments continue over the next few days till on June 24, Gaggan resigns from his own restaurant. His partners own 75 per cent so his leverage is limited.
His partners call the staff and say that the restaurant will go on without Gaggan. Three members of staff agree to stay on. But all 65 others resign by the end of July.
Gaggan now has to find a new operation, both to keep the faith with the 65 people who have resigned, and to prove that this spat will not be the end of the legend of Gaggan in Bangkok.
On August 1, he finds a bungalow in a leafy street off Sukhumvit Road. He serves out his notice period, cooking his last meal on 24 August. The old Gaggan restaurant closes.
The partners say that legally he can’t call his new restaurant Gaggan. So he calls it Gaggan Anand after his full name. He spends all of September and most of October fitting out the restaurant and – more importantly – designing a new menu, which is radically different from what has gone before. Of the 25 courses, only six or seven are dishes that recall the old menu.
On October 31, he does the first dry run at the restaurant. On November 1, Gaggan Anand opens. It is the most anticipated restaurant in the foodie world. It is booked out for months.
Many questions remain unanswered. Why did the partners fall out so completely with Gaggan? Why did they refuse to let him buy them out? How could the people who started what was to become Asia’s finest restaurant as friends in 2010 become such bitter foes?
The partners are not talking. And Gaggan says he doesn’t care any longer; like a recently divorced man, he has moved far beyond an unhappy alliance.
What’s the new restaurant like? Well, it is sleeker and more sophisticated than the old Gaggan.
But the surprise is the food. I went three days after it had opened and it was already the best food Gaggan has ever created. Frankly, I didn’t think he had it in him to top his past successes so completely. But he has done it.
And so as one movie ends happily, we wait for the sequel. Gaggan Anand Rides Again? The Return of Gaggan Anand?
Or Gaggan Anand: Vengeance?
From HT Brunch, November 17, 2019
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