Restaurant magnate or minimalist?
The trick for Anand is to decide his path: as a restaurant magnate or minimalist? For now, he seems to be doing the former while purporting to want the latter. After closing Gaggan, he plans to open a 10-seater restaurant, GohGan, in Fukuoka, Japan. He is most excited about this collaboration with Japanese chef Takeshi “Goh” Fukuyama, whose much-awarded restaurant in Fukuoka, La Maison de la Nature Goh, is one he admires. Together, they plan to start an ultra-exclusive restaurant that will open only on weekends every alternate month.
Anand also plans to open a tofu fine-dining restaurant in Bangkok. “I am supposed to do the impossible, right? Nobody in Asia has done something like this. I will kill the market.” And whet the appetites of vegetarians like me. The format is still fluid and the opening date is far away: 2021 to be precise.
Currently, though, he has invested in at least five restaurant ventures, including Sühring, Gaa, Meatlicious and Wet. He opened the steak restaurant Meatlicious (also in Bangkok) with his Thai wife, Pui. He plans to open a wine bar, Wet, hopefully next year near his restaurant Gaggan, with his sommelier Vladimir Kojic, who prefers natural wines. They plan to import 35,000 bottles. When I ask Kojic what it is like to work for Anand, he says, “Things will be normal and then suddenly it will be chaos.” Predictably, chaos erupts during a lunchtime conversation when a staff member threatens to quit. “See, I told you,” says Kojic, who has seen this narrative before.
Anand’s partnership with chef Garima Arora, previously with Noma and later sous chef at Gaggan, has seen many curveballs. First, her restaurant Gaa was to open in Mumbai, then it opened in Bangkok earlier this year. It serves Indian-inspired organic international cuisine and is already getting accolades. Anand has also partnered with the Sühring twin brothers (Mathias and Thomas) and their restaurant, Sühring, is already on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
He detests chefs who are “dishonest” with their food, by which he means chefs who are confused about what they want to cook and serve. “Spanish people eat octopus soft in a Romesco sauce. Japanese eat it hard in a takoyaki or sashimi. One needs to figure out how you want to serve your octopus,” he says.
In my 30s, I achieved this success with my restaurant in Bangkok. In my 40s, I want to do something different.– Gaggan Anand
I meet Anand at The Taj West End at 11am. It is later that evening that he will preside over a 19-course meal at Masala Klub, but I am to spend the day with him. My plan is to take him to Russell Market for the photo shoot. That doesn’t go as planned. He walks out of the fish section because they are selling sharks. “I stand for sustainability and look at these guys, selling sharks,” he says.
Later, over lunch at the West End’s coffee shop, Mynt, Anand tells his team to taste the vegetarian appam-stew that is brought in. Anand hates buffets: “They remind me of the kind of cooking I used to do (in the early days of his career) and are a great way to recycle leftovers, so why would you eat at buffets?”
Francesca Ferreyros, his Peruvian chef, tells me how they brainstorm for new ideas. Many of their dishes are now inspired by the pop-ups they do around the world, she says. Each month, four teams have to create two dishes and bring it to Anand for testing and approval, she says. Sometimes, Anand lays out the contours of a dish. The vegetarian stew that is poured over the appamis brought in. It has cubed carrots and beans floating in coconut milk. “How about if we make granules that are the colour of these carrots and beans and pour fresh coconut milk on the table?” says Anand. And so a dish’s journey to Gaggan restaurant begins.
At lunch, the finger bowls finally arrive after a slew of à la carte dishes. “Guys, this is a thin lime soup,” says Anand. “You dip your finger in to give flavour.” He bursts out laughing and then turns serious. “We should do a soup like that. Where people can put their fingers in.”
Team Gaggan travels with some 200kg of excess baggage everywhere, says Kumar, the publicist. On this visit, they worked with the Taj’s own chefs to create dining experiences that were sold out, in half an hour of being announced on email to the Taj InnerCircle members. For Anand, this is a victory lap in his homeland before he moves, perhaps permanently, or as permanently as a peripatetic chef can be, to Japan.
Each Taj dinner begins with a flower and lamp ceremony. The menu cards look pretty with Anand’s signature emojis in lieu of words. There are 19 courses with many triumphant dishes and a few failures. Lick It Up, for instance, is a great concept, but for a diner to lick a plate in company is humiliating—in my view. Indians lick their fingers and hands anyway, as anyone who has tried to stop a running rasam on a banana-leaf plate knows. Anand could have fostered the sensation of eating with the hands and licking the food without subjecting his guests to this.
Overall, though, the food is brilliant. A dazzling, painstakingly prepared eggplant cookie: puréed eggplant (like a bharta) squeezed into a mould in the shape of a cookie with an onion chutney jam in between. It takes “four days to make and 4 seconds to eat,” says Anand. A “charcoal” that looks like burnt wood but is made with edible bamboo, is delicious, with hints of Amritsari onion and chilli. A surprising combination of green tea with melons and tomatoes.
How do you rate food? Taste, of course, but also whether it is memorable. By that standard, Anand succeeds. The memory of his dishes last long after the evening. As he shuts shop, Anand wants to leave behind another kind of memory.
“Here is the scoop,” he says. On the last day of Gaggan the restaurant’s existence, Anand plans to upload all his Gaggan recipes as a free, sumptuous e-book that can be downloaded by anyone.
“It will be my gift to my country and my chef community,” he says. “I may not be able to stop poverty or make India less hungry but at least I can gift my recipes to aspiring Indian chefs.” Great entrepreneurs, they say, are characterized by unrealistic ambition bordering on hubris. Is Anand a visionary or is he delusional? Is there a difference?