Asia's best (and most outspoken) chef
Asia is a big place. Yes, that is an understatement, but it is important to stress the accolade that current hangs around the neck of chef Gaggan Anand, the Head Chef of Gaggan - Asia's best restaurant for three years in a row. What makes this even it more impressive is that Gaggan is a progressive Indian restaurant based, not in his hometown of Calcutta, but in Bangkok.
With a very rock 'n' roll attitude to life, chef Gaggan's stock (pun intended) has been on the rise in recent years (he was the focus of an episode of the Netflix show Chef's Table), and it was only a matter of time before he submitted to the bright lights of Dubai, where he will run a three-day pop-up restaurant at Celebrities at the One&Only Royal Mirage.
Ahead of the takeover, Esquire Middle East spoke to the infinitely cool chef about fame, Emoji menus and Guns 'N' Roses.
Pop-ups aren't really your thing. What changed your mind with this event in Dubai?
Every year that we get more fame and success I tell my team that we have to say more No's than yes. It's more difficult for us so finally after 3 years of attempts finally we agreed to do a pop-up in Dubai and I'm not trying to increase my relationship with One&Only Royal Mirage, but they were the only hotel who could convince me to do it. They agreed to my tantrums. Just the tantrum of getting things fresh and not frozen that if I don't like this I wont use it, it is a tantrum but I believe in that, even the water I said "I want this, not that".
What is your underlying food philosophy?
If you can't convince, then confuse. In today's world it's all about confusion. Why not take a dish, destroy it and then rebuild?
What do you mean by that?
I believe that out of destruction always comes something new. I want to build something from the blocks of something that may have already existed, but to do that it is best to pick something with a good foundation.
With the pop-up in Dubai we had to think: do we cook Middle Eastern food or Indian? Or do we give people the full Gaggan experience? If so, is that the experience from 2012, 2013, 2014 or 2017?
It's like at the Guns 'n' Roses gig the other night in Abu Dhabi - people come to see their hits but sometimes they want play the new stuff too. People come to try the dishes I'm most famous - like my yogurt - but I also want to show them the bizarreness of Gaggan.
What are you preparing?
I am doing an 18 course menu - 16 of which are eaten by hand, with no cutlery. There are only three dishes from my menu in Gaggan. It would be impossible to do the whole 25-dish menu!
So is there a Middle Eastern dish you are going to 'destroy'?
Hummus. I want to use the same ingredients - chickpeas, parsley, olive oil, tahini, lemon juice - but I want to present it in a different way, playing with presentation and texture. It's a double edged sword, people will either kill us or we'll kill them!
Do you ever get difficult customers?
I had a request from one couple the other day saying that they were allergic to chilli, spices and curry, I was thinking "Why the hell are you coming to Gaggan?!" It's like going to the best sushi bar when you hate raw food!
What is your comfort food?
Anything really. I just love food. When in Dubai I want to eat Arabic food. I want to have the best hummus, the best pita. I do love Japanese Izakaya. I try to go to Japan every couple of months, because although I specialise in Indian food, the art of Japanese food has become the core of my ideology. As I progressed I decided that I didnt want to be a slave to plate presentation. The real hero has to be the food.
So how much of Calcutta is in your cooking?
27 years! It's 27 years of eating. Calcutta is where my taste buds come from. It's where my humility comes from. How do I ignore that? That's what I want to represent.
One of your quirks is that you're not afraid to experiment...
I like to add some rock 'n' roll to my food. For example, I have a menu all in emojis. People don't really know what to expect when all you see is a little 'explosion' emoji!
Are you targetting Millenials?
It's important to learn from that youthful energy and creativity. Someone once translated my menu into emojis, and it inspired me to try it the otherway around. Yes, it is a gimmick, but the philosophy of progressive Indian cuisine always remains the same. Today, because of the success we've had, people come to Gaggan looking for a miracle, but all we can do is stay true to who we are and not let the "fame" get to us.
The world is different from when I grew up. Nowadays a 21-year-old will have had the opportunity to eat at the world's best restaurants all across the globe. He'll then talk to arrogantly to a 45-year-old about his knowledge of food. The world changes and you need to change with it.
How do you balance traditional and progressive cuisine?
Life is about inspiration. I've reached a point where I feel like I'm an artist, where as before I didn't believe I was. My food is my expression of my life, and that develops the more I grow and learn. There's no standing still.
Do you like being famous?
It's weird. Before the fame, I found really struggled with wanting to be recognised for the work I was doing. It was suffocating because I would put in so much and it felt like people didn't appreciate it. I would think: "What the f*ck is wrong with people?!" I knew that I was making some of the best Indian food. I would eat at the "best" restaurants and know that mine was better! Fame changes everything. Today, I will serve the same dish to people and they will gush about how good it is. I ate at Salt Bae's restaurant two years ago - back when there was no salt throwing - nothing has changed, but it's hard to get a table there now. Today it's more about fame than anything else.
Are you saying that fame can't buy you happiness?
The way I look at it is that if I can't win the hearts of 120 diners with the food I create then I've lost my game. At the end of the day what is important to me is the food I make.
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Adnan Gaggan's pop-up restaurant will be at Celebrities (One&Only Royal Mirage) from March 3 to 5. To book, click here