“So you’re not going to Japan anymore?” I ask chef Gaggan Anand on the big move that was going to happen in 2020. For those of you who haven’t followed through, Anand announced in 2016 that he is going to move to Japan in 2020. However, after a heated legal battle with his partners, one that he very openly speaks of to me during our phone call, he resigned as chef of Gaggan in Bangkok in June this year, and — with his staff of 66 employees — promised to come back with a new restaurant, one that’s his very essence. In two to three months, Gaggan Anand is a restaurant standing real, with Gaggan’s OG crew, whom he calls his rebels. To answer my question, he says, “I realised moving will be the biggest mistake of my life. I calculated that my partners would have made a lot of money had I just left. If I moved to Japan, I would not be able to take these 66 rebels with me. I wanted them to continue the journey with me. So, opening Gaggan Anand in Bangkok was the right thing to do. We’re the Lagaan team, we weren’t supposed to win, but we won,” he chuckles. So what according to him makes a restaurant stand out, I ask him? “The people,” he says, and continues, “You can have the best restaurant in the world, but if the people are not happy, the vibe of the place will be like a funeral. You can have an ordinary restaurant, but if the people are happy, you’ll see how it’ll be the happiest place in the world,” he says.
There’s a pink neon LED sign in his new restaurant that says ‘Be A Rebel’. So, what’s the most rebellious thing he’s done as a chef? “I think I’ve changed the history of Indian food. If I go back to India today, I will find something in Indian restaurants that I’ve done. It’s incredible because that is my legacy. My biggest rebellion was that I didn’t want Indian cuisine to look like it’s all naan, kulcha and biryani,” he says. The problem in India, he continues, is that we don’t realise the value of the food we have. “We’d rather run behind international cuisines, and then ruin them, like we did sushi with avocado and cucumber,” he laughs. The dishes at his new restaurant have no names, they’re just emojis. Edgy? Definitely. But edgier is the reason Gaggan’s done this. “I don’t want people to just copy what I write. I want them to be more interactive with the food. Today when you see people at restaurants, they’re just into their phones. They don’t talk among themselves, they don’t even listen to the chef. I want them to experience the food, not just eat it. This way, they can come up with their own names for what they’re eating. Experiencing food is like a roller-coaster — you won’t know what’s coming next, and the curiosity has to excite you,” he says.
His previous restaurant would have bookings full for six months, and in a month or so of opening, Gaggan Anand is also booked for two months. He has a dining area for everyone who wants to eat, and a special 14-seater area called G’s Spot, which is more for interaction and a personalised experience, to give a memory to the guests, who have so much fun for those four hours that they give the restaurant their hotel address to drop them back. Gaggan has always preferred cooking for a crowd that’s there for the feel of the place, and not so much a crowd, in that sense. “I’ve proven a point. If a chef can open a 10-seater restaurant and survive with it, he can be one of the best chefs in India. You don’t need money, you just need talent. If you’re going to be a venture capitalist, then you’ll just end up multiplying, going international…” he trails off. Quintessentially a Kolkata boy with an undying love for his city, Gaggan believes in bringing the Bengali palate to his menu for the memories. “I have aloo dum on the menu. I have Bengali fish chops, in mustard oil. An Indian ate this fish and he’s like ‘oh this fish tastes Japanese, it has wasabi’. I asked him where he was from, and he told me he’s from the north. I told him this is mustard oil, and while he has understood Japanese cuisine well, he seems to have forgotten Indian food,” he smirks.
Gaggan gives me an analogy to look at Indian food from a different perspective — a spaceship. “People look at how to reach the moon in a spaceship. We think we’re going to the moon, but can water work as a fuel? It’s that thought — you change the way the dish is being cooked, but you don’t change how it tastes in the mouth. And on the spaceship, it takes you to that memory of where the dish belongs. That’s transformation — you don’t change the dish’s meaning. We’ve gone back to serious cooking, keeping aside the glitterati of fancy food,” he says. Even though he doesn’t associate with the term “molecular” anymore, I prod him to tell me the status of molecular gastronomy in India. “They don’t understand it nor have they researched on it. In India, they want to make Thai food taste Indian, they want to make molecular food Indian and put jalebi on caviar. If you take trends and just implement them, it doesn’t work. You lose face,” he says.
The way Indian food can reinvent itself in India, according to modern palates, is to give smaller restaurants more importance and reach, Gaggan says. “Chefs need to be given enough exposure. We need to think about how restaurants were built to be, which is not something to be multiplied, and keep serving garbage. We’re diluting our own cuisine by making Chinese samosa, Mexican bhel. It’s stupid. Why are we not serving methi aloo in a restaurant? Why not karela? Why are we not giving khichdi more importance than the risotto and how are we more focused on quinoa and not bajra?” he says. So, what meal does Gaggan Anand the chef like to come home to, I ask. “I’d pick a phulka over a naan, I don’t like naan at all. Sorry if it pisses people off. It’s too overrated. For me, it’ll be a phulka with a dal and jeera tadka and sabzi,” he says. I read somewhere that despite being “the celebrity chef” whose expensive food is like a status symbol, Gaggan wants to be known more for the food, and doesn’t care about this celebrity status. Why though, I ask him, is it because he feels the celebrity status affects the kitchen of the chef? “There are two kinds of chefs. One who does the hard work in the kitchen, and the other who is there to take a photo,” he says. Gaggan and I then laugh for some time about vegetarian sushi, but that’s not a conversation I’m writing about. This man is a talenthouse, I think, and there’s more to his story than his skills in the kitchen — it’s the heart and spirit he puts into his creations.