In Conversation With Gaggan AnandView Slideshow
In the five and-a-half years since he left India for Bangkok, Gaggan Anand has trained at the famed El Bulli restaurant in Spain; launched one of Bangkok’s most celebrated fine dining restaurants, Gaggan; and became the global champion for the use of molecular gastronomy in Indian cooking (click the “View Slideshow” button to see a selection of his dishes). The 34-year-old chef, whose innovative use of ingredients has been documented in publications like Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal, is now plotting his return to India for the launch of a new venture in Mumbai. We spoke to Anand about his upcoming restaurant, the relatively affordable pricing of his menu, and the pretensions of molecular gastronomy. Edited excerpts:
It’s notoriously difficult to get into El Bulli’s training programme. Tell us how you managed.
When we decided that we were going to open Gaggan, we wanted it to be an Indian modern gastronomy restaurant, but the idea of following what was published in books or online wasn’t motivating for us. It had to be the real deal and for that I needed hands-on experience. My partner (and best friend) forced me to call El Bulli to ask if I could head there for brief training. After 15 or more calls, I got through to someone who spoke English, I put forth my case, and then there was no looking back. When I approached them, the restaurant was closed for a seasonal break, so I trained at their lab. It’s where I learned the real connection between science and food. Sometimes, you follow your destiny; I never believed I could be there, it just happened.
What happened at El Bulli to make you adopt your current style of cooking?
A huge change occurred, it was almost like enlightenment. I was never interested in science (the Indian education system is to thank for that). But all that changed in Spain. To me, the most important thing was understanding the philosophy and ideology of the chefs at El Bulli. They weren’t about copying what others had done, their style of cooking was about adaptation. Cooking is fun, but chefs seldom pay attention to the physical and chemical changes that occur in the process of cooking. When you become aware of these changes, you will be more respectful towards each ingredient in the recipe.
Your ten-course tasting menu is priced at about $50, which is a rare case of molecular gastronomy offered at a lower price point. Why then is it expensive everywhere else?
A well-observed fact, this is one of the main reasons why I chose Bangkok as the location for Gaggan. The stress of economics is lesser here; rentals are affordable, salaries are not killing, and food commodities are evenly priced throughout the year. Thailand is a very price-conscious market. On our streets, we get great meals for as little as $4 and $5, so we had to take into consideration that value-for-money is a great motivator here. Other big city restaurants may not have these benefits and hence their pricing is much higher.
You said in an interview that Bangkok was the ideal location for Gaggan because of the availability of high quality ingredients, which is lacking in India. How come you have now decided to open a restaurant here?
It’s true. I was thinking of opening a restaurant in London or New York next, it would be much easier to get Michelin stars there. But then I realised that I would get more satisfaction if I opened [a restaurant] in my country. India is challenging and growing in so many ways. If I don’t open in India now, maybe I never will. I took a risk by opening Gaggan, a progressive Indian cuisine restaurant in Bangkok, and now it’s the talk of the town. This has given me the daring to venture into India.
What are your plans for the Mumbai venture?
As of now, nothing concrete. I have lots of ideas and plans but nothing on paper. I’ve made a folder on my iPad, which I keep updating as ideas pop up. What I do know is that it will be avant-garde Indian cuisine. The focus will be on cooking that I haven’t been able to explore in Bangkok. The food will be experimental and wild. As for the concept, I think the location will be an old house with the most modern kitchen in India. I hope to open by December 2013, a date predicted by my astrologer.
Why did you choose Mumbai?
Where else? I think Mumbaikars are the most adventurous when it comes to food, they know what they want and they are ready for anything new. If you look at the big stand-alone restaurant openings in India in the last ten years, you will see that they all launch in Mumbai and then expand to other cities.
What is the craziest dish on the Gaggan menu?
The goat’s brain foie gras tossed with ginger, cumin and sour cream. I call it the Indian foie gras. Similar to goose liver, bheja can disintegrate quickly, so it requires a lot of care and precision. Also, very few restaurants serve bheja fry; it’s a real delicacy for those who appreciate its worth.
What inspires you to come up with these dishes?
My past, my memories combined of course with my madness. The goat’s brain foie gras was inspired by a memory of my dad going early to the market on Sundays to buy brain, which he would cook for lunch.
Some of the names of your dishes are quite inventive (and perhaps a little cruel, like Mary Had A Little Lamb). Who comes up with them?
I come up with the names. At Gaggan, food is art. Our menu looks like an 18th-century book, and we deliberately came up with poetic or funny phrases to describe the dishes. For instance, Mary Had a Little Lamb is made up of lamb chops with edible flowers, wild leaves, and garden cress. At the time of serving, we infuse the plate with smoke, which quickly disappears to reveal the meat.
Is it possible to offer molecular gastronomy without sounding pretentious?
It is. Gaggan never was or will be pretentious, it’s real food. My restaurant may have a fine-dining setting, but the service and our attitude makes all the difference. Many have criticised us for not laying table cloths or offering single-page menus, but what matters is that people come here for the quality of the food. No cuisine can be pretentious, what tends to happen is that the restaurant starts to reflect the character of the people involved.