Reclaiming The Culture: Chef Gaggan Anand On Asia’s Inevitable Culinary Takeover
On June 20, the Foo Fighters played the first full-capacity arena show in New York City since the start of the pandemic—a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden.
“It wasn’t bloody Justin Bieber or Billie Eilish, it was the Foos,” Gaggan Anand, the famed chef behind his eponymous Bangkok restaurant, says excitedly over the phone. He was there that night, and fondly recalls watching a teary-eyed Dave Grohl open the concert with the band’s 2002 hit, Times Like These.
“He sang, ‘It’s times like these you learn to live again. It’s times like these you give and give again,’ and that really captured the idea of life after Covid-19,” says Anand. “I’m an artist, and I haven’t been able to do what I want to do, what I need to do. I want to cook again.”
The spirit of rock and roll plays an important role in his purpose as a chef. For Anand, cooking is a balancing act of rebellion and respect. His respect is for ingredients, for the camaraderie of the kitchen. Yet he is driven by a desire to rattle the cage, to rebel against what the world thought it knew about Indian cuisine.
In his feature episode on Netflix’s Chef’s Table series, Anand says that if a country like India, which has “such a deep knowledge about food” isn’t represented in the world at the right level, it’s “a disgrace”.
“And that is our fault,” says Anand, who has spent over ten years showcasing India’s potential on the global fine dining stage. “What hasn’t been done in Indian food, is no one thought it lavish. It’s the lack of motivation, the lack of guts, where we’d rather focus on opening diner style curry houses that mass produce food.”
Anand opened his now-closed restaurant, Gaggan, in Bangkok in 2010, serving guests a lengthy menu of “progressive Indian” dishes in a theatrical, fine dining style that most diners were previously only familiar with in the form of French degustation or Japanese omakase.
Anand, who interned at Spain’s legendary El Bulli, helmed by Ferran Adrià, set out to do for Indian cuisine what Adrià did for Catalan cuisine. One of his signature dishes, the “yogurt explosion”, for example, was inspired by El Bulli’s iconic spherified olive.
“It was something fearless and out of this world,” says Anand.
Some hailed Anand’s style as a revelation, others simply didn’t care for it. Regardless, Gaggan was ranked No 1 among Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for four consecutive years, from 2015 to 2018. In August 2019, he made headlines when he abruptly closed the restaurant after parting ways with his investors. Just months later, he opened a new restaurant on his own, Gaggan Anand, bringing many of his original staff with him. In November, they travelled to Singapore to host a two-month pop-up restaurant, recreating the Gaggan Anand experience at the members-only Mandala Club (formerly Straits Clan).
“The way Gaggan cooks is very much an extension of his personality: larger than life. He’s an absolute dynamo in the kitchen and on the floor of the restaurant,” says Ben Jones, CEO and founder of Mandala Group. “I think after everything we’ve gone through in the last 18 months, people are hungry for a bit of fun.”
Originally slated for a two-month takeover, when reservations opened in September—first to club members and then to the public—all tables sold out in just two and a half hours. On November 1, it was announced that the pop-up would be extended until the end of March 2022 due to popular demand.
“I was shocked,” Anand says before a long pause. “That really gave me my confidence back after losing it during the pandemic.”
It seems even the best have their bad days, but it wasn’t so much that Anand had something to prove. Rather, he wanted to make a point.
“I wanted to show that I am an Indian chef, who has a restaurant in Thailand, who’s coming to Singapore and we, too, were able to sell out. That was my point,” he says. “For a long time, investors and diners only wanted Italian, French or Japanese when it came to fine dining. But the success of Gaggan and restaurants [like it], like The Chairman in Hong Kong, Indonesian or Filipino chefs who believe in their motherland and the colour of their skin and what they ate growing up. This is what’s changing the way the world sees our food.”
Anand’s status as a globally renowned rock star chef is a far cry from his humble beginnings growing up in poverty outside Kolkata, India.
“We were so poor,” he says, recalling times when his family couldn’t keep the lights on at home and food had to be reused and repurposed to avoid wastage. “We didn’t have money, but we had a big family, so we had to do things like take leftover rice to make congee the next morning.”
Anand then recalls the day, many years later, when he wanted to buy his mother a Rolex watch. “She asked ‘why would you buy a Rolex? It doesn’t tell the time differently,” he says, laughing. “When she saw the price tag, she said, ‘Are you mad? Buy me gold instead’.”
His upbringing, he says, ultimately shaped his approach to sustainability. Setting up for Singapore, which imports over 90 per cent of its food products, posed a unique challenge for the eco-conscious 43-year-old chef. “If we use ingredients from somewhere like Malaysia, less than 100 kilometres away, we will do that,” says Anand, who hopes he can inspire a new generation of chefs to take pride in showcasing local produce and flavours.
“Asia has become the powerhouse of restaurants. Chefs are establishing connections with local crowds. It’s a journey that’s still in its beginning stages and we have a long way to go to compared with other cuisines because we are evolving,” he says. “After all, evolution is a journey, not a destination.”
Gaggan Anand will host an exclusive pop-up restaurant at Mandala Club in Singapore from November 3, 2021. Find out more and join the waiting list here.