Editor’s Note: This month on CNN International we follow Gaggan back to his hometown of Kolkata, India, to explore and recreate one of the city’s most traditional dishes. Learn more about the show here: www.cnn.com/journeys.
Ask Indian chef Gaggan Anand to recall the biggest day of his career, and there’s no hesitation.
March 9, 2015.
Gaggan was sitting in a Singapore ballroom attending the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, waiting in agony to find out whether his eponymous Bangkok-based restaurant could hold onto the number three spot it grabbed last year.
Or, better yet, even top it.
“As they got to five, then four, and my name hadn’t been called, I thought ‘that means I’m three again … at least we matched our success, at least we’re on the right track,” he says.
“When they were about to call number two and I still hadn’t been called up, I thought ‘If I’m number one, I’ll try not to cry.’”
He didn’t try hard enough.
When it was announced that famed Tokyo restaurant Narisawa was number two on the list, Gaggan says he was already in tears.
It was at that moment he realized his restaurant had achieved what his doubters – and he says there were many — had conceived unthinkable.
“Even if I become number one again in my life, that moment won’t come back,” he says.
“It’s like delivering your first baby.”
Baby number two came earlier this week in London, when Gaggan landed 10th spot at the S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant Awards – a seven spot boost from last year.
What’s all the fuss about?
Though some in the industry have recently dismissed such high-profile awards for their judging criteria, it’s difficult to deny that Gaggan’s quick rise has been both rare and remarkable.
Barely five years ago Gaggan, now 37 years old, took a risk and opened a restaurant in Bangkok serving Indian cuisine reinvigorated by molecular techniques.
The opening followed a two-month stint with the research team at Ferran Adria’s now closed three Michelin star elBulli restaurant in Spain.
It was there the enthusiastic chef learned to take a deconstructive approach to cooking – creating dishes that appeal to all the senses.
Gaggan calls his food “progressive Indian” – a culinary nod to the music he was listening to when he started conceptualizing his ideas: progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.
Many of the dishes are modern takes on Indian classics – but with often comical and incomprehensible twists.
This includes the edible “plastic” bag of nuts made with translucent rice paper.
Or the “Magic Mushroom” – a gorgeous, psilocybin-free dish featuring forest mushrooms in the shape of a log with edible “soil” and a mini-garden.
The “Who killed the goat?” is a free-range, sous-vide grilled lamb chop accompanied by almond saffron oil that’s been splashed across the plate to look like streaks of blood.
“Everybody complains I’m in my own world all the time,” says the chef about how he comes up with his wild creations.
Not all that different from listening to “Dark Side of the Moon” or “The Wall.”
“When I drift away I really drift away. The ideas just keep coming.
“I’m also stubborn. If I think something is right I go with my gut feeling.
“I keep trying and I won’t put it on the menu till it’s good enough for me.”
“I want my curry!”
Just when you start to forget you’re in an Indian restaurant – the kitchen looks more like a science lab – along comes the classic “I want my curry!” – one of the final courses on the tasting menu.
Diners can choose from either chicken tikka masala, a mutton bhunna or a southern Indian fish curry accompanied by fresh naan – a familiar break from all the foam, mystery and smoke.
It’s also a great reminder that when you take away Gaggan’s liquid nitrogen the man is, at his core, a brilliant Indian chef who learned everything he knows about his homeland’s cuisine from his mom while growing up in Kolkata.
“My mother is the biggest inspiration of my life,” he says, adding that his success is a gift to her.
“She’s seen me on the cover of magazines, she’ll be seeing me on CNN or talking live on national Indian TV with all the big cricketers.
“That is the biggest impact what I’ve done has had. It’s giving her a happy, satisfying retired life.”
“Indian is not the most popular Asian cuisine”
Gaggan is quick to admit his recent global successes have also piled on the pressure.
“It’s been very stressful – but in a positive way,” he says.
“Everyday you wake up knowing you’re opening a restaurant that, according to some people, is the best in Asia.
“But Indian is not the most popular Asian cuisine compared to, say, Japanese or Thai. It’s always been a comfort food rather than a fine food.
“So there’s pressure but it’s a positive development as now we have a lot more confidence to do what we want. We don’t want to follow the trends, we need to constantly update and evolve.”
But his current popularity – since being named “Asia’s best restaurant” there’s been an overwhelming flood of reservations – also means he no longer has time to cater to his old fans.
“People used to come in here and ask for anything and I’d make it for them,” he says.
“But I can’t now, I don’t have the time – some people even accused me of being arrogant.
“That led me to decide to open a curry house. I thought ‘you can have your curries here and let me do what I want to do.’”
Gaggan says plans are now being worked out for the new restaurant, which will open in a space directly across from his current space.
No opening date has been set.
“It’s a risk. Maybe my curry house will be full and this restaurant empty.”
Given that diners now need to reserve at least three weeks in advance to get a table, we’d wager that’s highly unlikely.
Gaggan, 68/1 Soi Langsuan (opposite Soi 3); +66 (0) 2 652 1700; open daily, 6-11 p.m.
Love taking photos of food? Share snaps of your own Culinary Journeys on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood. For inspiration, check out this selection of food pics shared by CNN staff and readers.