Chef Gaggan Anand put Indian food in the fine dining spotlight with his eponymous Bangkok restaurant. At Gaggan, Anand set out to redefine traditional Indian food with what he calls “progressive Indian cuisine,” an approach that gave rise to his signature charcoal prawn Amritsari and yogurt explosion and a 25-course emoji tasting menu. And since its debut in 2010, Gaggan has won numerous accolades, contributing to Bangkok’s status as a world-class dining destination on par with London and New York.
But in 2016 the Chef's Table star made headlines with his decision to close Gaggan in 2020. It’s an unusual move for a restaurant that held the top spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three years running and is a safe bet to land a spot on the first Michelin Guide for Bangkok in December. “I hate to be predictable, so I need to take this break,” Anand tells Eater.
Anand doesn’t want to stop cooking. He plans to open a restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2021 with Japanese chef Takeshi Fukuyama of La Maison de la Nature Goh, which he says “will be the future of fine dining.” And lately, more than a superstar chef, Anand is proving to be a savvy restaurant owner. After investing in Meatlicious, an easygoing wood fire-centered bistro; Gaa, a European-Asian fusion restaurant; and Sühring, a modern German venue, in Bangkok, where he lives, the Indian-born chef is planning to open two new businesses next year: an organic wine and fried chicken bar and a tofu-omakase Japanese restaurant. “I’m becoming an investor in talent,” he says.
Eater caught up with Anand during Semana Mesa SP, a food symposium in São Paulo where the chef was the guest star. He discussed the end of Eurocentric hegemony in fine dining, his Indian roots, and his plans to open new restaurants that “change the history of gastronomy.”
When did you realize that you had achieved international fame?
I would say I realized that when I officially opened Gaggan. When the first dish went out, it had charisma and charm to pull people in. We have never had a bad day, and that’s the best thing ever. Restaurants have ups and downs, and in seven and half years we are just going up and up, which is a blessing but sometimes scary as well. It’s just like a video game: You have to go to the next level and the next one. You get addicted to it, but you always have to play better. So you constantly evolve, and that is what Gaggan is all about.
The idea [for Gaggan] came from a dream, and I’m living this dream today. I’m traveling the world to the best cities, in the best airlines, in the best seats to stay in the best hotels. It’s incredible, the attention that I get, and I love it all, but then I realize that in the end, if I don’t go back and cook better, this won’t be worth it. And this is the Gaggan I’m trying to be.
Why was Thailand the best place to open a progressive Indian restaurant?
It was destiny. I had lived in Bangkok for two and a half years by that time, and the city is the best of East and West. Despite the crazy traffic, you have good infrastructure, hospitals, airports, schools, and, obviously, good food. In Thailand, food starts at one dollar — and really good food at that — and the cuisine is very similar to Indian: the chiles, spices, and the ingredients.
Thai food came from Indian Hindu and Buddhist cuisines. Imagine if I were trying to do that in Nordic countries, in Canada, South Africa. I would really have a struggle to find ingredients, but in Bangkok I have all I need within five meters. And Bangkok is also one of the Asian cities with the lowest cost, and this made my risk more doable. I can serve a 20-plus course menu, with seafood, uni, toro, and other expensive ingredients for $6 USD a course, which would be impossible in many cities.
How has your Indian heritage influenced your rise in fine dining?
As an Indian, I always had this dream. Indian cuisine has given pepper and sugar to the entire world. Ingredients that are now present in every kitchen in the world came from India, and isn’t it about time that an Indian chef be presented in that top bar?
In the last 20 years we had a big shift and in the last 10 this shift was even bigger. Fine cuisine was in Europe, New York, London. Now, people are opening their minds to other cuisines, not only chefs and foodies, but regular people who love to eat. Now, one can compare a top-class restaurant in Paris to a top-class meal in every part of the world. You don’t have to go to a specific city to eat in a fine dining restaurant.
Actually, the fine dining definition has changed a lot. In the last 20 years, when you went to a fine dining restaurant, there were tablecloths, and those things. Fine dining restaurants looked like bistros and bistros looked like fine dining restaurants. Today, it is a complete turnaround. Chefs today look like rock ’n’ roll artists, wearing slippers, not shaven, with lots of tattoos. Today, people love it when a chef refuses his prizes and says “fuck it.” The concept of luxury has changed. This is very game-changing, and I’m glad to add some new colors to that.
At Gaggan, you use street food to inspire new dishes. Why is this approach important to today’s food scene?
I am going to cook in [Massimo Bottura’s] Gastromotiva Refettorio in Rio for those in need, and I googled Brazilian comfort food. I have to cook something they can really recognize. That’s the point: Indian cuisine for me is recognition, a way to bring back my memories, from my life in India and all the street food I have tasted. So if an Indian street food vendor comes to my restaurant, he will recognize the roots of Indian cuisine to then discover something that can be hidden behind it.
At Gaggan, you have always looked for a more playful, whimsical touch, in dishes like your lemon cheesecake ice cream in the shape of Minions and an emoji menu. Why do you think food has to be fun?
I believe in fantasy, in seduction. Food is seduction. A good dish has to seduce you to focus only on that, forgetting about the music that is playing, the people around you... even if only for a few seconds.
But now, the problem is that 50 percent of the people who are coming to my restaurant are going there to judge me and to judge my food. They compare: I ate at Narisawa, I ate at Noma, I ate at Heston [Blumenthal’s restaurant]. There are people who go to Gaggan only to check a list, and I don’t want to be compared. It is an insult to me and to other chefs, so I realized that I had to be far from this trap that this prize and competition culture has established in gastronomy and create an experience that couldn’t be compared to any other. That’s why I started the emoji menu, [started serving] dishes you eat with your hands, and [created] a faster way to serve a 25-course menu. I have to [impress] that 30-year-old foodie guy who traveled the world with his thousand-dollar camera when he comes to my restaurant by serving him random and challenging food. I want to make him think “why” and “how,” “why” and “how” all the time.
You have opened more casual restaurants in Bangkok recently. Why did you decide to go in this direction?
I have always believed that Gaggan is one restaurant and it will always be one restaurant. It can’t even move a hundred meters from where it is, otherwise it may fail. So as a chef, I also became a restaurant owner and investor, and also a guy famous in Bangkok for bringing something new to the country. So I take advantage of this to bet on some new concepts, such as a steakhouse with wood fire, something very uncommon [in Bangkok], or a German restaurant run by two very talented twin chefs [Thomas and Mathias Sühring, Anand’s partners]. I’m opening an organic wine and fried chicken bar next year, which will be called Wet. And also a Japanese restaurant, Minara Tofuten, a tofu-omakase. In two years Gaggan is closing, so as a restaurant owner and a businessman, I need to survive. The horse needs its grass.
Why did you decide to close Gaggan by 2020? And what do you plan to do after?
I made up my mind when I opened Gaggan in 2010. Because every restaurant has a 10-year life span nowadays, otherwise it becomes very predictable and I hate to be predictable. I didn’t think Gaggan could last for so long, and I am really glad it did.
My next restaurant will be a venue where Japanese chef Takeshi Fukuyama and I will be cooking together, which is something that has never happened in the world, changing the history of gastronomy. GohGan will open in 2021. We meet every four months and most of our innovations come from this collaboration, and because of this I asked him last year to open a restaurant together. We have met to cook many times and every time we get better, because we have affinity and freedom to work with each other.
We plan to open only six months of the year with 10 seats per day. It’s very limited, exclusive even, because it will be in Fukuoka, not in Tokyo. I think this [restaurant model] could be the future of fine dining. My idea is for a place where the personality of a chef is 100 percent present in his food. It’s like a concept more than a meal.
And besides Fukuoka, is there another city outside of Thailand you’d like to open in?
I would love [to open in] London, because London loves Indian food. And I would love the challenge to change Londoners’ idea of what Indian food really is. They say: “I love my curry, I love my chicken masala,” but I would show them how chicken masala is a British recipe, not an Indian one, and prepare many Indian dishes for them.