The fine dining venue Gaggan in Bangkok has topped the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list for two years running. In part to reduce the average two-month wait for a table, its owner, Chef Gaggan Anand, has just opened an extension where every night, 12 lucky diners will have ringside seats to see the magic produced in his new ‘lab’. Crowds have been flocking to the new casual comfort food restaurant, Meatlicious, ever since.
Gaggan has modernised Indian cuisine to stratospheric levels in a city where Indian food is equated with greasy spoon curry houses, if it appeared on diners' radars at all. How does he keep it all from going to his head?
“You have to be humble. And humility comes from being genuine with people. When I look at a customer, I say, 'How do I make him happy?' It's the only thing. To make sure every table is happy.” The Kolkata native had to learn the lessons of humility the hard way. It meant financial sacrifice, but his family managed to keep him in college to pursue his culinary dreams. A young, cocky Gaggan thought he had arrived when he landed a job in the kitchens of a venerable Delhi hotel, but was kicked out for lack of assiduity. A new business went sour when a partner walked off with their investment. At one point, Gaggan famously found himself catering for Pizza Hut staff for less than USD0.20 (13 rupee) a meal to make ends meet. That business eventually grew into a successful catering and consulting concern, but it was only when he left India to run the kitchen of Red in Bangkok that people really started to take notice. He never looked back.
It was at that time that Gaggan's sensibilities grew beyond the food of his homeland. He absorbed international cuisines and new ingredients. And he discovered molecular gastronomy, a term he personally avoids. He prefers to call it “progressive” like his rock music. He cheekily applied to train at El Bulli, the harbinger of foam, liquid nitrogen and other futuristic turns in the kitchen, and was accepted. He came back with a head full of ideas on how to turn tradition upside-down and a clear vision of what he wanted his food to be. But he notes, “There's a thin line. Imagine a very traditional Indian eating curry. He asks for pickles or onion and we say no. He's unhappy because he's not getting what he wants. We're not trying to be arrogant but we're trying to create a kind of culture with Indian food.”
That culture englobes cutting-edge science and classic Indian tastes served on the linen table-clothed trappings of fine dining. A gelified yoghurt ‘explosion’ is Gaggan's homage to El Bulli's spherical olives, capturing the essence of ubiquitous yoghurt, suspending it in an ethereal bubble. Yet despite the technical prowess, he's adamant that the diner should never be made aware of all the work that a dish requires. His crystalline ice cream cone made of dried mango is filled not with sweets but with umami-packed sea urchin and a variety of mousses and garnishes. The laborious process involves the efforts of at least four cooks to produce the gorgeous morsel, yet the diner downs it in a matter of seconds, ready for the next bite. The tasting menu is timed so that 10 intricate one-bite courses are served in the first 20 minutes after a customer sits down. The effect is entirely deliberate: people come hungry so Gaggan needs to feed them, but he also wants to razzle-dazzle them. They gobble down each amuse-bouche as it comes, and before they know what has hit them, they are under the Gaggan spell, eager for more.
As he was about to open Gaggan in 2010, political protests closed the centre of Bangkok and forced him to postpone his plans. Gaggan used the time to perfect recipes in his lab at home. Then only months after the restaurant finally got off the ground, tragedy struck when the chef lost his brother. In each hardship, however, he managed to find inspiration and resolve. He also gained perspective on the transient nature of success and the need to accept new challenges. He's announced that 2020 will be the last year for Gaggan in its current incarnation. “Maybe I'll join a rock band,” he half-joked the night Gaggan was crowned Asia's number one restaurant for the second time. But you can be sure that he won't be hanging up his chef's jacket completely.
Today in his kitchen at least, Gaggan is content to let his highly trained staff do the cooking while he keeps a watchful eye on the goings-on. Here, spices are being scooped up to brine freshly delivered iberico pork; there, he coaches a newcomer on the right knife for peeling onions. Peaches, lamb, a mysterious fish mince and sure enough, puffs of liquid nitrogen, receive the undivided attention of the cook attending to them while Queen's I Want It All plays in the background. Even the retro rock soundtrack is his choice. No detail escapes him.
Like his food, Gaggan's recipe for having it all is deceptively simple. “You give every customer the same plate, the same heart, the same fun, the same passion.” It may sound effortless, though it is anything but.