The Gaggan Anand episode of Chef’s Table is a portrait of a chef who developed a distinctive style of cooking after working a series of unremarkable kitchen jobs early in his career. Anand is one of the most charismatic people ever featured on Netflix’s docuseries, and by the end of this chapter, it’s easy to see why the chef and his restaurant have developed such a dedicated following. This standout episode was directed by the show’s creator, David Gelb.
Who is Gaggan Anand?
Gaggan Anand is the chef/owner of an eponymous restaurant in Bangkok that serves a tasting menu of forward-thinking Indian fare, supplemented by a few traditional favorites. Gaggan currently sits at the number five spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Last year, the chef announced plans to close his flagship restaurant in 2020, telling Eater, “I hate to be predictable, so I need to take this break.”
What was Gaggan Anand’s journey through the culinary world like?
As a young man growing up in India, Gaggan was not a particularly good student. His family was poor, but he managed to go to university and then culinary school, where he excelled. Gaggan got a job in a hotel during his third year as a student, but he quit because of the hostile attitude of the chefs who ran the kitchen. “I just hated it, I couldn’t accept it,” he says. The chef contemplated giving up cooking, but then he met a businessman who convinced him to start an industrial catering business — a “food factory kind of thing.” His partner split after launching the company, and Anand went into debt trying to keep the floundering business alive.
Gaggan then got a lifeline, of sorts, from his brother, who hooked him up with a deal to take over the cafeteria at the big company he worked for. “His brother was actually the guy pushing Gaggan all the time, at that point of time,” the chef’s current business partner, Rajesh Kewalraman, explains. “He actually changed all his negativity into courage to motivate him to pursue his dreams.” Soon, the chef managed hundreds of employees and was serving around 5,000 people a day. Gaggan pretty much stopped cooking to focus on the business side of things, and that’s when he started to worry that he’d lost touch with his food.
After helping some other people launch their projects, Gaggan accepted an opportunity to open a new restaurant in Bangkok called Red. He immediately fell in love with Thailand, and the restaurant was a big hit. At the suggestion of a restaurant critic, Anand began researching Ferran Adrià’s work at El Bulli, and that’s when the got the idea to start experimenting with cooking Indian food using modern techniques.
One drunken night, Gaggan’s friends convinced him that he needed to have his own restaurant where he could cook the type of experimental food he was now obsessed with. He called up his business partner in the middle of the night and pitched him the idea. Much to his surprise, Kewalraman went along with it, and with some newfound free time before opening the restaurant, Gaggan decided to go work as an apprentice at El Bulli. “I want to learn from the lion how to hunt,” he told his partner.
What was his big creative breakthrough?
The opening of his eponymous, forward-thinking restaurant took longer than anticipated, partially because of political protests involving the construction team. When the doors opened, Gaggan cooked “chicken tikka, curry, and naan bread” just to make some money back. Then, a few months after opening the restaurant, the chef’s brother died. Before he passed, Gaggan’s sibling left him a message that included the phrase, “Be famous, show the world that Gaggan is the only one.” That letter gave him the strength to get back in the kitchen, where he now felt fearless. “I was cooking what I wanted to cook, and the restaurant here became very successful,” he says.
What are some of Gaggan’s notable quotes in this episode?
On how Indian food has developed over the years: “When you look at India, our cuisine has 30 to 36 cuisines itself, completely different to the geography, but then they all become a curry. Curry came from British, the word. They named anything that was saucy or soupy a curry. In our own language, there’s no word called ‘curry.’ My mom doesn’t know what is a curry. So what we have done is taken any invasion that has happened — the British; before the British it was the Mughals — they have actually changed the cuisine of the country.
Chicken tikka masala symbolizes Indian food, no? I love my chicken tikka masala. It was not even Indian. This is a British invention. British brought us tea. Two hundred years back, we didn’t have anything called tea. All we did was drinking yogurt as lassi. Even the naans, the breads, were not Indian. They are actually Persian. We have portrayed a wrong picture of India. It’s our own fault. We’ve kept Indian food as comfort food, and that’s why Indian chefs have not excelled.”
On visiting Thailand for the first time: “I came here, saw raspberries [and] strawberries, fresh in the market. Foie gras in the market. Caviar in the market. It’s like, ‘Wow, these we don’t get even in the best restaurants in India.’ I was a kid in the park. The world of dreams just opened up. And I thought, ‘This is it.’ And I left India forever.”
On the inspiration behind his signature “yogurt explosion” dish: “When I was coming back to Bangkok, I knew I wanted to be the El Bulli of India. And I thought, ‘How do we do that?’ And then I saw the answers were in the history. What was the one dish that changed El Bulli? It was when they created the spherified olive. I thought that if they could conquer a dish which was very Spanish and every Spanish [person] could accept it, I need to conquer the same thing, but in India.”
On his career since leaving home: “I have lived a dream, that if you are even born in poverty, you can still go where you want to go. I had my struggle, and I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want to go back, I want to go ahead.”