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How Gaggan Anand is setting a new course in food business

He can be endearing and exasperating. But Chef and famous restaurant owner Gaggan Anand, like his food, is unfailingly dramatic.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 27, 2019, 08.46 AM IST
With two Michelin stars and number one ranking on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, Gaggan in Bangkok is one of the most successful Indian restaurants in the world.
These are not silver or gold, just glass. But I cannot replace them. If you break even one of these plates or put one in the bin while clearing, we will have to reduce the number of diners and I will call up Nakul Anand straight away,” says Gaggan Anand, trying to strike fear in the heart of the service staff at the ITC Sonar Bangla in Kolkata. “I don’t like to do these things,” he confesses later, when out of earshot of the staff.

Nakul Anand is an executive director on the board of ITC and part of the top brass at the hotel chain where Anand’s pop-ups are taking place across four cities. I am a fly on the wall in the kitchen, listening to his team briefing ahead of the first fancy dinner in Kolkata, priced at Rs 25,000 per head (all 60 seats sold out). Anand, for his part, is being just Anand: dramatic and theatrical.

Anand’s return to cook in the City of Joy and his childhood is significant because it is a return of the prodigal child to his roots — the city that he had left with just $500 and some dreams a little over a decade ago — “for one last time,” before he shuts his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok that has given him so much fame and a station in life. In 2020, Anand, whose restaurant company now makes $24 million annually (half of it is the turnover from his restaurant Gaggan), will move to Fukuoka in Japan to open a 16-seater restaurant and begin a new chapter in his life.

Gaggan Anand wants to give his star restaurant in Bangkok to his head chef Rydo “as a gift”.
Love him or hate him, find him exasperating or endearing, the thing about Anand is that he is unfailingly entertaining.

He speaks seemingly without any filters, without any regard for political correctness or social niceties but perhaps always with an eye on his audience.
Mushroom Pao

Cheesecake, with a base inspired by the murukku, is made using strawberries from Japan.

Raising laughs and keeping us amused seem important to him, a natural performer. The Indian pop-ups at various ITC hotels are “my way of telling India’s rich people that I will no longer be your personal cook after this,” he says dramatically.

It is exactly this flair that finds expression in his cooking and in the way he presents his food. There is always a touch of drama: whether it is in the explosion of chilli that burns your mouth as you bite into an uplifted version of a chocolate golgappa served as a nest-egg at the dinner later in the evening, or in the glowing embers of the banana leaf covering the paturi.
Paturi wrapped in banana leaf, which is torched before serving.

Anand’s most famous dish, the yoghurt spheres, are being placed in the refrigerator by Rydo, his head chef, who is also travelling with him for the popups.
Anand’s most famous dish is his yoghurt spheres.

“Rydo has changed so much in his five years at the restaurant, his personality has totally changed. He now talks much more to customers, too,” says Anand, almost as an aside, as we watch the spheres, quivering in spoons, being carefully placed on cool shelves.

When Anand moves to Japan, he intends to leave his restaurant in Bangkok to Rydo “as a gift”, he says. What form the restaurant will take under Rydo, whether it will continue to serve Gaggan-style food, and the financial arrangements between him and Anand’s company have to be worked out. For now, Anand maintains that he will shut Gaggan but give the space and staff to Rydo.

With two Michelin stars and number one ranking on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, Gaggan in Bangkok is undoubtedly one of the most successful Indian restaurants in the world. Last year, Anand says, his top staff earned Rs 1 lakh a month in tips alone. That is personal wealth being created for all of his team as a result of his enterprise.

While this kind of mentoring is a way to give back to the people who have stood by him, as a sharp entrepreneur, Anand is safeguarding his own future, too, by investing in them. The Japanese restaurant, which will be set in a small 8-bed hotel, to be co-owned by Anand and a Japanese chef, Takeshi Goh Fukuyama, will take seven years to break even, according to Anand’s calculations. “An entire hillside” has been bought for the hotel and restaurant, meant for gastro tourists. While that ambitious project gets going, it is obviously Anand’s investments in other restaurants that are likely to stand him in good stead.

Anand’s restaurant empire in Bangkok now comprises of not just his most celebrated restaurant but others owned by people he has mentored. There is Suhring Bangkok, in which his company owns a 49% stake (the rest is owned by the Suhring twins who Anand befriended when they wanted to strike out on their own after working at other restaurants); Gaa, headed by Garima Arora, his protege (“she has been cooking better in the last eight months, which is why the restaurant is doing better now”), in which Anand’s company has an 80% stake; Metalicious (wood-grilled meats only) that is owned entirely by him; and Mihara Tofuten, a tofu-only restaurant that opened last year — where even the water is imported from Japan — and which makes no profit yet, though it breaks even. Then, there is Wet, which is on the anvil as a natural wine bar in partnership with Vladimir Kojic, his long-standing sommelier, “who sells 3,000 bottles of wine a month for me”. And then there is the eponymous restaurant to be passed on to Rydo, because the staff and his business partners have to be taken care of.

“It is a way to help everyone grow,” says Anand, who scorns at big fat Indian weddings. “I never cook at weddings. I have been offered a lot of money but cannot bear to do that. I do not even attend big weddings and didn’t have these kind of wasteful events when I got married — both times,” he grins.

His Instagram status also reveals his concern for others: “If you need help (not job or reservation), DM me, I will hear you.” The concern for his team comes across in many other ways too. As we stand inside the kitchen, we see through its glass walls the area by the swimming pool where tables are being laid for the night’s dinner. Mosquito repellent, necessary in Kolkata’s climate, is being sprayed, when Anand spots two of his team members outside. He screams expletives at them that cannot be printed here. But the message is paternalistic: “Come back or you will fall ill,” he tells them. Before this, he has already sounded a general warning in the kitchen that no one “hit” on his personal assistant, “she is my sister”.

It gives you an insight into the mind of a man and a chef known to speak his mind — blunt, irreverent but hilarious. When he is told that vegetarians that evening will be served “chenna paturi”, he makes a face. “Unko liya hi kyon?” he asks, sotto voce, expressing what chefs usually don’t say about having to cater to dietary restrictions in India.

Small rounds of ghewar are being lined up. These will be topped with cheese, baked, and served as one of the courses. This is an unusual combination, a newer dish composed by the chef and on his Bangkok menu now for a few months. It will prove to be a favourite with the diners that evening, too. The chef and I have been talking about Indian street food — not just ghewar, the traditional mithai from Rajasthan.
Cheese ghewar is among Anand’s newer creations.

Anand has been waxing eloquenton mughalai paratha, singharas and chillas at various places in Bengal that he ate while growing up here. “Gaggan is not an Indian restaurant. It is my journey and how I connect with various foods,” he says. We agree that if food is art, restaurants at the highest level of creativity are individualistic expressions and don’t just represent a particular cuisine.
Indian mithai

Then the argument begins. He rants against chowmein samosas, Chinese bhel and such that you find in India these days, as opposed to Europe where even street food recipes are “not tampered with”. While passionate foodies are expected to rant on these lines, it is ironical that Anand, inventor of ghewar topped with cheese and whose papdi-chaat-tasting yoghurt spherification has moved the foodie world, should conclude that the singharas of his childhood must remain intact. Does he not see the irony in this? It takes a while to explain this to him and the fact that his beloved chaat and singharas are a result of “tampering” or inventiveness too, as is the pizza in Europe.
Chocolate golgappa

We argue about “originality” in food, a concept that can be taken apart with the touch of a fork. Later during the meal, he will tell his audience how in India, we “add spice to everything” — like to babaganoush/baigan bharta that travelled here from Central Asia. In a way, these statements are dismissive about the careful art of layered spicing, important to so many Indian regional cuisines that foreigners often don’t understand. We do not just “spice up” indiscriminately, as Gaggan seems to suggest.

With the lack of nuance in sweeping statements about spicing and inventiveness, Anand seems to be looking at Indian cuisines with an outsider’s gaze. This comes across again in a dish like a lamb vindaloo dumpling based on his take on the restaurant-y vindaloo of curry restaurants in the UK. Anand’s dish is an individualistic expression of what the chef may have experienced but when people eat it, they do so without the full context: that this kind of generic “curry” vindaloo is far removed from the rich and complex Goan dish, whose flavours should really be celebrated by top chefs.
Eggplant pomegranate

When he finally sees this point of view, Anand is quick to explain: “Inventiveness should happen but only after studying a classic dish properly and in a way so that the story connects.” The ghewar, for instance, was carefully conceptualised. “I topped it with cheese and not palak paneer or something random because dairy, flour and butter and cheese are best friends in baking,” he says.

Despite my few objections, the overall sense that comes across when you taste Anand’s food today is that the dishes have got more detailed, with regional flavours built in. The spongy idli-dhokla (the dish is named idlisambhar) that I had eaten a year-and-half ago now tastes more nuanced with a podi. The paturi is truer to its regional roots than a similar generic dish he had earlier served.
Idli sambhar is a serving of spongy idli and dhokla.

“Put some smoke beneath the plate, people will like it,” he tells his team on how to plate a course. In the past, Anand had confessed to serving “food porn”, in an interview. His grandfather who saw that interview thought he had become a porn star, “so my mother called up to ask what I was doing. I told her, “Mother, your genes are not good enough for me to be a porn star,” he jokes, leaving us in splits. The audience will always eat out of his hands — but not just because of the jokes or “food porn”. As he keeps evolving, Gaggan Anand is only getting better.

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