The Taste With Vir: A tribute to Chef Gaggan Anand’s legacy of fine food and great taste at Gaggan
Nearly a decade ago, I was walking down Soi Lang Suan, a then trendy (but still charming and peaceful) street in Bangkok when I was intrigued by a sign for a restaurant which claimed to serve ‘Progressive Indian Cuisine’. More out of curiosity than anything else, I wandered into the restaurant and asked if they had a table.
No, they didn’t, said the (Thai) manager. Fine, I said, reckoning that it was a long shot anyway, and turned to leave when the (Indian) chef came bounding up. He would find me a table, he said. Could I wait for a while? Say an hour or so?
Okay, I said. Could he get me a coffee while I waited? I was now sufficiently intrigued to want to see what ‘Progressive Indian Cuisine’ was like.
Er, no, he said. They had only been open a few months and they didn’t have a coffee machine. But Soi Lang Suan had many bars. Perhaps I could go and get a drink in one of them.
In most circumstances, I would have said something like “Not to worry. I’ll make a booking and come back some other time”. But something about the chef made me say that I could come back in an hour.
I did go off, wait somewhere else and return just as the restaurant was emptying. The chef suggested a few dishes. I ate his food. And I was blown away.
I wrote about the restaurant a little later. But it made no difference. In a matter of months, the world had discovered Gaggan. And the chef Gagan (in those days he had just one ‘g’ in his name though the restaurant always had two ‘g’s’ in its name) Anand went on to become a star.
But even I couldn’t have imagined how successful Gaggan would become. The restaurant received rave reviews from international critics. Many of the chef’s inventions were widely imitated and lesser chefs based entire careers on ripping him off. He was soon on the list of Asia’s best restaurants and eventually become number one on the list, holding on to that title for an astonishing four years --- still a record. He rose steadily up the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and was No 4 in the whole world this year. (I reckon he should have been number one but the list is often accused of an American-European bias.)
Over the years I got to know him well. I wrote frequently about him. He featured in my food TV shows and was one of the few chefs to rate a full-length interview in Virtuosity along with all the front-line politicians, writers and movie stars.
He didn’t really need the publicity. He was appealing to a global audience and the odd Indian TV show hardly mattered to a man who had been on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. But he was proudly Indian and always pleased to be recognized in his own country.
Among Indian foodies, he became a legend. He was the first Indian chef to get so high on global lists of the world’s best chefs and to be taken so seriously in international foodie circles.
Then, last year, he announced that he would close Gaggan in 2020 and go off to Japan to collaborate with another chef. They would open an inn together and Gaggan would opt out of the rat race for recognition. He wanted to be on no more lists. He had two Michelin stars (the highest in Thailand) and he wasn’t going to chase the third.
I was sad to hear that Gaggan would close but I respected his decision. Better to go out at the top than to keep worrying about Michelin stars and rankings.
A month ago everything changed.
Gaggan had a disagreement with his partners. I don’t have their side of the story but he felt that he was under too much unfair pressure. He decided to resign. He would no longer cook at Gaggan, effective the third week of August.
The sudden announcement took the food world by surprise. What could have gone so wrong that Gaggan would walk away from the restaurant he created?
At that stage, I imagine, Gaggan planned to simply advance his Japan plans. He would leave the restaurant ten or eleven months before he had originally planned to move on.
But then, his staff became disgruntled. Gaggan’s original plan had been to install Rydo, his brilliant number two as the chef at Gaggan (they would have changed the name to reflect Rydo’s ascendance) and keep a benign eye on how things went. (He would still keep his shares in the restaurant.)
But once the staff decided that they would not stay at the restaurant and work with Gaggan’s partners, that changed everything. Rydo was among those who wanted to resign. So now Gaggan had 65 staff members who needed jobs after Gaggan left the restaurant in August.
Eventually, Gaggan did the only thing he could. He decided he would put his Japan plans on temporary hold and open a new restaurant. The staff could all come with him and they would not just recreate the magic of the old Gaggan but they would create an even better restaurant.
So as things stand, Gaggan, the restaurant, will shut down around August 24. And then six or eight weeks later, Gaggan will open a new restaurant with most of the old staff. I don’t know where the new restaurant will be but rumour has it that Gaggan has not only settled on a new location but that work has begun on the site.
I went a day ago to Gaggan for one last meal. I doubt if I will return to Bangkok before the end of August so this was my last chance to eat the food that had so enthralled the world.
Since that first day when I walked in off the street, the Gaggan restaurant has grown and changed. Its most extraordinary feature is the Lab, a separate space with a circular table that seats a dozen or so people.
You can’t book the Lab. Gaggan decides who, among the people who have reserved tables for each day’s seating, will get to sit there. Loyalists and regulars usually get to eat there. So do visiting chefs and professionals. But at any given sitting, Gaggan picks around six people at random, either because they seem interesting or because they are single diners who might enjoy the Lab’s convivial atmosphere more than sitting alone at a table in the restaurant.
Whenever he is in town, Gaggan hosts the 9.30 pm seating at the Lab. He introduces each dish himself, talks about its creation and is on his feet talking for 3 hours. As the evening progresses, the mood changes, with liberal use of loud rock music. And by the end of the evening, when all the guests are quite merry, the evening becomes the most exclusive foodie party in all of Asia, with guests and chefs singing and dancing and free wine being offered to everyone.
You don’t pay extra for the Lab so I have never have worked out why Gaggan puts himself through such a strenuous performance each night. But I guess he does it for the best reason of all: because he loves the joy that can come from food and from interacting with his guests.
On Monday, when I went for dinner at the Lab I was startled by how high-powered the rest of the table was. There was the brilliant and charismatic Spanish chef David ( Dabiz) Muñoz, whose three Michelin star Madrid restaurant DiverXO is booked out months in the advance and who is a great lover of Indian food. There was another three-star chef Jan Hartwig from Munch with his team. There was the head chef of Yannick Aleno’s three Michelin star restaurant in Paris. There were the Suhring twins, whose eponymous Bangkok restaurant has two Michelin stars (and is rated number four in Asia). If you count Gaggan’s two stars, there were a total of 13 Michelin stars in the room.
The food, from Gaggan’s new menu, included his takes on everything from Kachoris to bondas to balchao to vindaloo to ghewar. It was simply outstanding and if you think I am now too biased in his favour you had to see the response it got from the other chefs.
As is always the case, the guests and the staff sang along at the end and the evening ended in a party. I didn’t stay till the party got properly underway because it had been quite an emotional experience for me.
All those years ago I had walked in on an unknown chef. And now as the world’s best chefs were applauding his genius, the life of a restaurant that I visited three or four times every year was coming to an end. I will never be able to go back there again.
Of course, the Gaggan story has merely entered its second season. The new restaurant will have the same calibre of food, given that he is taking the whole team with him. And knowing Gaggan, he will endeavour to outdo himself when he opens in a new location.
But I was still sad. And so as the music got louder and the magnums of wine came out, I said goodnight and left.
Tomorrow is another day and a new chapter soon begins in his life of Gaggan Anand. But speaking for myself I was sad to see the end of the restaurant where it all began.
But time hurries on...
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