I’VE HAD this date with this meal for a while. It would always be when I would be in Bangkok or the chef would be in town. He was in town last year, but I missed his specially-curated dinner. So when I got the opportunity to check out his food on a friend’s invitation to an event hashtagged ‘#gagganmadeinindia’, I bit. As it turned out, this first bite was one of the few times I would be ‘biting’ into anything at the 18-course dinner prepared by chef Gaggan Anand and his team of six chefs, which had flown down from Thailand.
Rated as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world, this eponymous restaurant (one I am yet to visit) came into existence because of Anand’s frustration with people in the food business not wanting to do anything different. It’s been five years since and it has made this whimsical chef a celebrity. He wears this fame well, just as he does his clothes. Interestingly, my first conversation with Anand was not about food, but clothes—a deviation I owe to my dining partner Nikhil Mehra of the Shantanu & Nikhil designer label. Anand professed an affection for sneakers and wore a pair with streaks of pink on our night of fine dining. No chef’s clunky clogs for him, the sneakers had him sliding along the restaurant, ferrying food over to our table. His taste in fashion veers towards Japanese labels.
He loves Asia, where he lives and beyond. Bangkok is also a couple of hours from Kolkata, home to this former drummer, who moved into food. But like most things about him, Anand is a man who seems to hold on to things even as he boldly goes forth into unchartered territory. He calls his cuisine ‘progressive Indian’ influenced by his taste in music. In his restaurant is a statue of lord Ganesha installed by his mother and on her instruction, he doesn’t serve or cook beef at Gaggan’s. It’s this quirkiness in his persona, his fashion, his approach to dining and guests and, most importantly, to food that defines the ‘Gaggan experience’.
This brings me back to the food, or the 18 courses. It’s tempting to go down the list one by one, but in the interest of the word count, I will highlight the ‘exceptionals’ for me because it was all very good. It’s clear that Anand likes to mix things up. His time at El Bulli has left its mark—there is spherification and you often find yourself ‘shucking’ as opposed to biting and chewing. Eating Anand’s food takes less effort and I mean that literally.
For the first few courses, he denies you silverware, saying, “Use your hands, use your hands”. So you toss your napkin aside and do because his food is a bite-size explosion of flavours. Take, for example, the golgappa, a burst of chilli in a white chocolate puchka. Who knew it could work together? But it does. Or take Charcoal, “a guess what this is dish” that he does give you a fork and knife for, which you use to eat and prod. We all get it wrong, but for one. And the one who does get it right tells us that it’s something you used to find outside Delhi schools on thelas. Of course, it’s the humble sweet potato.
Anand has brought Delhi to our table for this meal. It’s his nod to the city and its culinary diversity. He pulls things off the streets and on to your plate in his own style—there is even a ‘Sarvana’ idli with rasam froth. The tamatar chaas makes its way to the menu and is deconstructed: served hot and cold. A cold salad of tomatoes is followed by a hot clear soup that’s taken 30 hours to get to the right consistency (the tomatoes having been hung in yogurt cloth).
It’s details like these and how he shares them—not because he’s making a point about the rigour involved, but because he’s almost a little surprised at the many ways in which one can make a recipe work—that’s infectious. I don’t think I’ve been at a table where we talked about food so much. And it wasn’t because it was molecular or clever—I’ve done those before—but because it was simply fun. And at the risk of busting my word limit, a shout-out for the Bird’s Nest, an aloo and methi chutney powder concoction. Which Delhi-walla can resist something reminiscent of the aloo tikki, even if it does look just like what the name suggests: a crunchy twig-like jumble of a Delhi favourite.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad.