He walked into a meeting room at Delhi’s ITC Maurya wearing a Gucci jacket patterned with fang-bearing panthers in every possible bright shade. “Fashion isn’t about the brand, but how you carry it. This jacket represents me.”
He’s flashy, he’s quirky, but more than any of that, he’s Gaggan Anand—the chef extraordinaire who will soon pull the plug on his two-Michelin-Star restaurant in Bangkok, the eponymous Gaggan, so that he can “stop”, as he puts it with a flourish, “prostituting myself.”
I had him all to myself for 45 minutes on the day he was about to conclude his swansong four-city pop-up, ‘The Last Experience of Gaggan’, held in collaboration with ITC hotels. What was meant to be a tête-à-tête between journalist and celebrated personality became a no-holds-barred operatic celebration of the latter, filled with his theatrics and quirks that we already admire, but for which I now had front-row tickets.
But I had to remind myself that I had an interview to conduct, even if I felt well at home in that meeting room. After all, Gaggan had offered me his French-press coffee with the warmth of a host, before pouring me a glass of water. A seven-minute discussion on our mutual fondness (love, in his case) for the American rock band, Foo Fighters, ensued, after which we both cribbed about Delhi’s pollution. Well, at least now I knew that beneath the showy, uninhibited Gaggan is a man who is in love with himself but not full of himself. Someone unafraid to stir up controversy, but with his heart always in the right place.
View this post on Instagram
We began by tracing his origin, inspirations, and who had prodded him onwards—“it was mom. Nobody else would have pushed me in this direction. Then there’s my family, our food, some great Indian chefs like Manjit Singh Gill and Arvind Saraswat. There’s Japan. Oh, and street food. Chefs who have no names.”
Indeed, Gaggan does not believe in garam masala or use garlic in his food—cooking practices he inherited from his mother. His journey, on the other hand, has been symbiotic with that of his restaurant, which was meant to “present Indian food to the world. For instance, I asked myself, ‘how do I make ghevar, a non-user-friendly dessert for foreigners, super user-friendly and present it as the most caramelised milk they have ever tasted?’”
At some point the restaurant began to stretch the limits of the cuisine. A little later, it became a place where his personality took culinary form. He showed me the picture of a dish that resembles Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon cover art, while another dish, ‘lick it up’, is meant to encourage patrons to lick their plates as well as pay homage to a Kiss track. From the emoji menu to his rock gods, everything is the menu is pretty much Gaggan—“and a bit of fantasy. It’s not a cuisine, it’s my memory”, he adds.
But now, at the peak of his journey, he seems to have hit a rather, umm, unique, realisation—“food is porn and we chefs have become prostitutes. So I wanted to close on a high. As Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters once said, ‘we never say that this or this is the last song. We take you to what we think is a high and we leave it there’, and I do that with my food.”
So what will he do now? Well, as of now, he definitely isn’t headed back to India—“the only modern Indian restaurant I’m proud of is Avartana [ITC Grand Chola]. But who has innovated even 10 dishes in the past year? There isn’t anyone. In India, anything works if it’s got chilli in it and MSG is the new salt.” For Indian food within India, the chef would rather stick to old institutions and seek nostalgic value. “The truth is, food here has been destroyed over the last 12 years. Like, what the f*** is a samosa bun?”
It is well known now that Gaggan will soon launch GohGan with chef Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama in Japan. A Japanese restaurant that will only have 10 seats and remain open for just 15 days a month, Gaggan realises there’s no guarantee that things will pan out perfectly, as he reverts to using music metaphors—“not every album is a hit. Freddie Mercury, after leaving Queen, made a song in a studio in Barcelona called ‘La Japonaise’, which he sung in Japanese. No one knows the song, but he did what he wanted to. Every artist, when he reaches the pinnacle of his art, wants to experiment. Some experiments boom, some don’t. I don’t know, I’ll discover it for myself. That’s the challenge I take and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Also, a feeling of escapism does accompany the chef—“if it’s Star Wars, I want to be a Jedi alone in my island”—and he’s convinced he’s unwanted even in Bangkok—“It’s the curse of being Gaggan in Bangkok”—with many being jealous of his success, his charisma, his magnetism. But whatever said and done, what makes Gaggan Anand and his food great is that he’s stuck with his heart; he’s stuck to being Gaggan. And if that means he’s no longer cooking for you, so be it. Maybe one day he’ll be back, but no one but Gaggan Anand himself can make him do so. And that’s the way it should be.