If you haven’t done so already, you have three years left to eat at Gaggan in Bangkok, the reigning number one in “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants” list for three years in a row since 2015. The high-spirited Indian chef has announced that his namesake restaurant, which he launched in 2010, will close in 2020.
Gaggan is planning to move to Fukuoka in northern Japan. There, he will open a new restaurant with fellow chef and “Japanese brother” Takeshi Fukuyama (Goh). Already a popular figure in Fukuoka, Fukuyama is the brains behind La Maison de la Nature Goh, a French-Japanese omakase restaurant. In 2016, Goh’s restaurant was listed 31st among “Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants”, a list initiated by William Reed Business Media that involves 300 food experts across Asia.
The two chefs’ new collaboration is set to be something of a culinary breakthrough. After all, they both “love surprises”. Gaggan travels to Japan and spends time with Goh five to six times a year. “I’ve known Goh for two and a half years, and we’re like Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama. We’re very different people, but we complete each other,” he says.
The two have cooked together on a few occasions in Fukuoka. Those experiences made Gaggan feel confident about opening a restaurant in Japan, because when they cook together, “people get emotional”. Although the type of cuisine served there is yet to be revealed (all we know is that the cuisine is called “GohGan”), Gaggan says that the restaurant will be a 12-seater that only opens four or five days a week. “I want to be intimate with my guests,” Gaggan simply says.
Long waiting list is quite a sure bet at Gaggan’s next restaurant, seeing how his current 60-seater is always fully booked. In 2014, the restaurant, housed in a converted colonial building inside the neighbourhood of Ploen Chit, was renovated to slightly increase the capacity. One of the only ways to get a booking at Gaggan is through the city’s experienced hotel concierges. To secure a seat on Valentine’s Day, guests booked three to eight months ahead.
What does Gaggan get right to earn a vote among critics as well as foodies? “We get everything right, I guess,” the chef laughs. Gaggan serves “progressive Indian” food for dinner every night. A believer of molecular gastronomy, the tasting set menu consists of 15 to 20 different types of food. “There will be surprises in every
dish,” Gaggan promises.
The starting point for each of Gaggan’s dishes is classic Indian cooking, including a variety of curries that he reinvents in terms of presentation. “I decided that Indian food could be better than what people knew it to be,” Gaggan says about his decision to open his own restaurant, after gaining experience at Red, a contemporary Indian restaurant in Bangkok, and a few others.
“Food today is fashion. We need to adjust to the fast-moving life. People want changes. And food needs to be current. We need to be featured in Vogue, just like anything else that’s in season.”
Having said that, after a long day in the kitchen Gaggan appreciates a hearty bowl of noodles. “Noodle, in any form, is my comfort food,” he smiles. “It’s both the perfect breakfast and the perfect supper.”
When asked about closing what has become an institution in Bangkok, Gaggan believes that there is an expiry date on everything, including his namesake restaurant. “I never stop thinking about my next creation for Gaggan, but there’s a
saturation point where people get bored about a restaurant, no matter how hard you try to be innovative,” he admits matter-of-factly. “That’s why I want to close Gaggan at its peak, not when it’s plummeting.”
Perhaps the chef is inspired by his internship with culinary genius Ferran Adria and his research team at the institutional elBulli. Previously a restaurant with three Michelin stars, elBulli has now shifted its focus into becoming an academy that focuses on culinary research.
A dinner at Gaggan starts with an assortment of appetisers, often modelled after Indian street food that the chef loved as a child. Edible Plastic Spiced Nuts give out a surprising tang when bitten, while Papadam and Tomato Chutney tastes as you expect it to be, only slightly fancier because the Papadam (traditional crispy crackers) is airy and not oily like the ones sold on the street.
The food builds up with a variety of textures – from egg yolk, cooked at precisely 62 degrees Celsius, that swims inside a foamy vegetable soup, to “charcoal” – a crispy black lump made of dehydrated vegetables, filled with sea bass paste. One thing
that is consistent throughout the courses are strong, spicy flavours; a classic Indian quality.
“I think people in Southeast Asia use, and crave, spices like nowhere else in the world,” Gaggan says. “Southeast Asians want flavours, strong ones, and that’s what I’m trying to maintain in all of my creations.” Perhaps that is also the reason why his Indian cuisine receives just as much love from his relatives in India as it does from international food enthusiasts. “My success is incomplete without the recognition from my Indian fellows,” he says.
The love of spices, Gaggan says, is what brings people from all over the world to Asia. “Ten years ago, people travel to European countries to taste what is considered the best food, but nowadays, the trend has shifted in a major way. People, including Europeans, travel to Asia to eat,” the 38-year-old chef says.
Last year, six of Asia’s restaurants make it to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Gaggan is at number 23, down from its 2015 spot at number 10. It was also the year when Michelin launched its first Singapore edition, recognising 200 eateries in the country.
“Bangkok used to be known for its cheap eats – you could easily get good street food for two dollars. Nowadays, the city has grown to be a food destination. The restaurants here are very progressive.”
Although Gaggan is ready to leave Bangkok, a city he has called home for the last 10 years, the Kolkata-born chef has left permanent marks on the city’s culinary scene. Besides the namesake restaurant, Gaggan has two new food projects coming up. First is a venture with a “talented female chef”, initiated by Gaggan’s acknowledgment of the industry’s long-time problem, a lack of opportunity for female chefs. The restaurant is scheduled for opening in two months’ time, located just around the corner from Gaggan’s current restaurant.
Another is a collaboration with Gaggan’s Head Chef of four years – Indonesia’s Rydo Anton. Together, they are opening a restaurant called Raa. Besides, he is investing in a few other restaurants in Bangkok. Seeing his people grow is another of Gaggan’s passions, as well as reinventing food. “I tell myself that as long as I live, I have to make positive impact on at least 100 people,” he discloses. “My family, my staff, the people I meet … I want to see them happy and successful.”
What will happen to his people when the Bangkok eatery closes for good? “I’m still thinking about it,” Gaggan admits, “but I have promised myself that I won’t abandon them.”