It’s only early afternoon, but the small alley off Langsuan Road where Gaggan Anand’s eponymous restaurant is located is a hive of activity. Trucks file in and out, off-loading ice, vegetables, meats and laundry.
A man is busy sweeping the driveway clear of fallen leaves while a woman wipes down the rattan furniture that frames the restaurant’s entrance.
A steady stream of kitchen staff move between the restaurant and the building across the alleyway, donning Gaggan’s signature black chef’s jackets, smoking cigarettes, chatting amicably.
“Hey! Come, come!” Gaggan calls from the external staircase leading up to the office on the second floor. He is wearing bright pink shorts and a T-shirt with a print of Michelangelo’s David.
His long hair is tied up in a bun, revealing prominent facial features, and the combination of his greying goatee and the clear-framed statement glasses gives him an air somewhere in between mad scientist and understated fashionista.
In his hand is an almost empty Starbucks take-away coffee drink that he volunteers is caramel macchiato. “I’m diabetic,” he says, “I shouldn’t be drinking this, but it’s so good, I can’t help it.”
“This Year Was Different”
“This year there was no stress compared to last year,” he says. “Last year was very stressful, I thought we were going down to fifth or sixth place, so when we became number one it was a huge relief. This year was different for the simple reason that I was more confident in our food. We didn’t just sit on our victory, we took the opportunity to become more serious and more dedicated.”
Winning the top spot for two years in a row has its obvious benefits. The restaurant is full every single night and there is a several-weeks-long waiting list.
The new title has also made Gaggan more confident and focused, and later this year his longterm dream of having his own research and development lab in collaboration with the University of Barcelona will come true.
“The Feedback Tends to be at Extremes”
Yet the accolade also has its downsides. It opens you up to scrutiny and criticism. Some think Gaggan has become arrogant.
“Do you think so?” he wants to know. “I don’t think so. I have changed in that I have become more outspoken, more blunt perhaps. Before I daren’t say my honest opinion, but now I do. But being blunt and being arrogant are two different things. People might misjudge me as arrogant, or people who don’t like me will say I’m arrogant, but those who know me think I’m the same person as I was before.”
There are very few middle-of-the-road reports on Gaggan, according to Mason Florence, Academy Chair for Southeast Asia North, Diners Club Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, the mechanism used to create the list.
“The feedback tends to be at extremes,” he says. “Either love it, or leave it. I’ve heard many say it was among the best meals they’ve ever eaten, while others – in particular some South Asian food purists were offended at the thought of an Indian chef stepping even an inch away from classical curries and nan bread – beg to differ.”
The academy chair thinks Gaggan owes his success to a number of things. “To begin with, the concept of ‘progressive Indian cuisine’ is unique, and since opening, Gaggan and his team have done well to keep pushing the boundaries, and to keep the menu innovative and exciting,” he says.
“And We Still Won the Award”
Criticism or applause, Gaggan refuses to let the hype change the attitude or focus of his staff.
A couple of hours before service he gathers everyone in the kitchen for a pre-service pep talk. More than 18 chefs, cooks and stages stop what they are doing and listen. Front-of-house staffare here, too.
“How long has the restaurant been open?” Gaggan asks. They tell him five years. “And what has changed in those years?”
It’s a group exercise to remember the details; much of the equipment remains the same, the uniform is the same, the speakers – which Gaggan once proclaimed to be the most important item in his kitchen – are the same
“And we still won the award,” Gaggan reminds the staff.
Gaggan attributes his continued success and his progress in the kitchen to the growing number of staff fit into the small 30-square-metre kitchen.
Everyone works with concentration on one particular task, moving around in a relaxed yet effective manner. There is no shouting or stress.
Just after 7pm, by the flick of a switch, the transparent screen between the dining room and the kitchen is turned on and guests at the chef’s table are allowed a view of the action.
The afternoon’s hard work has paid off and everything runs like clockwork. Service is timely, polite, knowledgable and efficient. The food is everything people say it is: perplexing, experimental and surprising – but also unique, creative, clever and, most importantly, delicious.
An Answer to the Critics
Gaggan’s critics say his food has become too far removed from Indian tastes and that his use of uni and miso are proof of that. Not so, says the chef.
“In terms of presentation, yes, I get a lot of inspiration from Japan. In taste, zero. The food is still very much inspired by Calcutta. You can draw a map of the city and I can tell you exactly where the inspiration comes from.”
The criticism doesn’t bother him as much as it used to.
“It’s a challenge I don’t need to meet,” he explains. “If I have 100 guests and 95 are happy, I’m happy. Five will say ‘This is bullshit’ and I cannot make them happy even if I produce the best food in the world. There will always be criticism but I’ve learned to live with it. I’m much happier now.”