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It’s molecular and very, very spectacular

  • Bangkok restaurant Gaggan’s final pop-up in India is all about taste memories and pushing the form of ingredients
  • Anand, who has travelled, cooked and done pop-ups across the world over the last decade, chose to make this India tour his swansong

Gaggan Anand at ITC Maratha
Gaggan Anand at ITC Maratha

Athin membrane holds a subtly spiced liquefied yogurt heart. The flavours are reminiscent of some of the best dahi chaats in street stalls across India. The form, though it pushes the idea of yogurt in a box, is simple, elegant and undeniably sophisticated. Lick it Up, on the other hand is a drama in two acts. The plate is smeared with a mash of different vegetables and adorned with edible flowers. A cheeky green stencil on the plate tells you exactly how you have to eat this course and chef Gaggan Anand tells his diners to let loose and embrace their animal selves as the speakers belt out Lick It Up by American rock band Kiss.

The Yogurt Explosion and Lick it Up have impressed and shocked diners every time they have appeared on Anand’s tasting menus. They are unequivocally regarded as part of the chef’s greatest hits and a showcase of his molecular gastronomy skills. They are also a window into the chef’s creative vision. It is apt that they follow one another during a curated 15-course dinner held at the ITC Maratha, Mumbai—part of the chef’s The Last Experience across ITC properties in Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. Represented on his special emoji menu (a gimmick that actually works) as an orange sparkly explosion and a tongue, these set the tone for the food novelties that follow.

Anand, who has travelled, cooked and done pop-ups across the world over the last decade, chose to make this India tour his swansong for Gaggan. “Guests at my restaurant wait a long time to eat there and I want them to be able to meet me when they are there," he says. He intends to spend the next one year cooking exclusively in his kitchen at Gaggan, Bangkok, until it closes its doors for good next year. In 2020, Anand will make his way to Fukuoka, Japan, to open a small 16-seater restaurant in collaboration with Japanese chef Takeshi “Goh" Fukuyama.

Anand is a scientist, cook and performer rolled into one. At heart, he is a Kolkata boy with his food philosophy influenced by the city’s grain. His mother was an ace cook, and, thanks to her, Anand’s home was a bastion of some of the best Punjabi food. The streets provided him with favourites like jhalmuri and chop and then there was traditional Bengali fare like chorchori (mixed vegetable dish) and shukto (vegetable stew) to be had at the homes of friends and neighbours. All these varied foods made up his culinary inheritance.

“Now I can use those flavours and the memories of that food and give it a fine-dining spin. And in that sense my life in Kolkata shaped how I cook. In my menu, at Gaggan, there is a momo, a paturi and a phuchka even though they are my representation of these familiar items," says Anand. And indeed Gaggan’s versions of these dishes play tricks on both the palate and the eyes. A pani puri is interpreted as a chilli egg nest—a speckled white chocolate egg nestled in a nest of noodles and filled with tamarind and chilli water. A momo is like none other—the wrapper is a black garlic skin stuffed with a paste of flavour-packed lamb vindaloo.

Anand’s food journey began in an ordinary middle-class home in Kolkata, a city obsessed with food. He tried his luck as a drummer, went to a hotel management school, started and closed a catering business, worked as a food consultant and finally left it all and made his way to Bangkok in 2007 to work at a new Indian restaurant. Then came the turning point—a six-month internship at El Bulli in Spain under chef Ferran Adrià. This set the tone for the progressive India-inspired food that he wanted to present to the world, and, in 2010, he opened Gaggan to showcase his vision. Nine years, two Michelin stars and steady No.1 rankings on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list later, Anand is ready for the next phase of his life.

Although Anand has appeared on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and been widely covered in local and international media, he abhors the idea of a future as a celebrity chef. His background and struggles have helped keep him grounded as a guy who just cooks. He believes the rise of the celebrity chef can only be detrimental to talent. “I don’t want to be judging reality TV shows or become part of the mockery that it makes of the contestant’s emotions. I want to cook."

He is big believer in simplicity. “Take the case of one of my favourite dishes: moong dal cooked with green chillies, raw mango and salt. It is simple and wonderful. There is really no need for elaborate garnishes and I learnt that after trying them all out in my early days. The moment I was voted the best restaurant in Asia for the first time, the entire menu and the direction of the food in our restaurant changed," he says. Having tasted success, the chef is a self-assured man and acknowledges that Gaggan is an ever-evolving journey rather than a destination.

And this is pretty much his take on his growth as a chef. “Every band needs a new album and they can’t just make do with the greatest hits. I too want to be fresh and reinvent myself. I have peaked as Gaggan," says Anand, who sees his future divided into 10-year slots. He believes that his next project will give him the leeway to do all that he couldn’t in a large set-up and help him scale an even higher peak. Well, here’s looking forward to Gaggan Anand’s long game.

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