What is it about Gaggan Anand that makes him able to achieve what no Indian restaurants in the country have been able to do? At 38, Anand is still relatively young by the standards of the restaurant industry. Like most young and sharp people, his tolerance for the banal or the plain stupid is low. Spend five minutes with him and it’ll become clear; worse still, if he isn’t around for five minutes, it means he has already written you off and walked on. If he is, your conversation will only get more animated and interesting from there.
I met Anand at his famous restaurant when it was new and not remotely as popular as it is today. His achievements are a big deal, considering the kind of chefs who are now working in places like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo. All this, mind you, in addition to the plethora of local heroes who champion the cause of umpteen cuisines from the region (fact: Asia has more regional cuisines than any other continent.) But back then, Gaggan the restaurant was yet to find its fame, even though Gaggan the chef had long found his calling.
In the true tradition of molecular gastronomy, I remember being regaled course after course with tiny treats, with things that seemed to have been concocted in Willy Wonka’s lab; even as the meal progressed, I couldn’t help the feeling that all this gimmickry was perhaps going to be too much about the dazzle. But the last few courses served up good food, with all the workmanship and minus the showmanship.
The strong blend of flavours and textures was a welcome departure from the image of scientific lab satiety that one is subjected to by many purveyors of molecular gastronomy. Dishes like Viagra (freshly shucked oysters in a spicemarinade, grilled and served with kokum ice cream) or his version of the keema pav – lamb curry with dehydrated tomato bread and chutney – left me asking for more. His food is all about imagination and trust. You have to come with an open mind, and then you have to trust his interpretation, allowing it to take you somewhere new and unfamiliar.
On another visit, I remember him sitting down to show me some videos he had created, imagining the recreation of various traditional dishes. Like Anand, they were risqué, the rhetoric punched through with innuendos — all I am at liberty to say is that it involved mythical figures in rather imaginative positions, and collectively they pushed the limits of that which we have so far known, by reimagining an alternative more colourful. This was also the visit when the table next to ours complained that Anand hadn’t paid them enough attention, considering their clout back in Mumbai. The way he chased them out of his eatery, telling them where they could shove their clout, reminded of the good old Michelin days in France, when grumpy chefs chased away diners who asked for salt, or a well-done sirloin.
I have known Anand for a while now, and in spite of his adjective-rich expressions and opinions, I see the warmth of a good lad within. He admires sincerity; he devotes his life to it, so when he sees it in another, it shows in his approach. The trouble with his boisterous personality is that people mistake it for all that he is, whereas the real Anand can only be understood through his creations.
And yes, he loves his wines. He is the first person to admit that he doesn’t know much about them, yet the one Indian restaurant with a wine collection that could put some top wine bars to shame is his.
Awarded consistently and ever-increasingly, Anand remains a bastion of evolutionary Indian food. The real recognition that he is truly a food phenomenon has to be the fact that people claim not only to have eaten there, but also lament how `it’s not what it used to be.’ Nothing spells success more than the loathings of the rich, bored and clueless, who go through life putting ticks in expensive boxes. In the meantime, if you are on your way to Bangkok, buy tickets only after your reservation has been guaranteed — and don’t turn up late, because your amuse-bouche will be a blunt earful from the chef-owner himself.