With art comes madness

Talking to Gaggan is one of the most entertaining conversations I’ve had for a long time. I can recommend it. He vividly describes visiting the Sunday market in his home Kolkata with his dad when he was a child, and remembers the time when he first got satellite TV and watched an old Chinese cooking show—probably the first of its kind—and realised that cooking can be entertaining and involves passion, art, culture and expression. That, he says, was a path he could easily imagine to follow.

After school Gaggan went to hotel school and knew immediately that he was in the right place. Even his teachers at the time recognised that he had the skills to make it big. He says: “It was a gift that was in my blood. When I cook, I forget about being sad or happy—I’m in my own world.” In his final year he was hired by Taj Hotels and was able to gain experience in one of the most prestigious kitchen jobs in India. But within a year he realised that he was not made for hotels. He explains: “Cooking in hotels is very management-structured. And I am not a structured person. When you try to create something, when you are innovative, you are always thinking outside the box. Whereas in a hotel everything has to be inside a box. You can’t be a rebel. And I’m the rebel of my nursery.” In subsequent years Gaggan was working in the catering business—surviving and learning. He and his colleagues were on constant pursuit of the ultimate dishes and copied wherever they could. He explains: “We were not cooking like the Italians. They would cook their mum’s recipes, their grandmother’s Tagliatelle. Instead we were just replicating the good dishes from various restaurants.” Gaggan calls these six years his “grey time”. He was successful and earned money, had prestige, cooked for Bill Clinton, was the consultant for the president of India and supplier of all the top growing IT industries from 2001-2006. But he was not happy in his personal life. A bad marriage made him feel like a failure as a chef. He says: “As a chef, the line is very thin—either you want to be a capitalist, or you want to be an artist. I was a capitalist at that time. Now I’m an artist.” In 2007 he made a big decision that he still calls the best decision of his life: at 27 years of age he left his ex-wife, took $500, left his house, car and everything else to his ex-wife, packed one suitcase and left for Bangkok.

At first he worked in a restaurant, quickly becoming famous as an Indian chef in Bangkok. When he fell out with his colleagues about plans to open a restaurant in malls, so shortly after leaving his inner capitalist behind, he joined a hotel as their chef-de-cuisine and stayed for two years. By that time he became aware that food was changing. He realised the era of Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller had already started. He watched videos on YouTube and without having tasted the dishes, he thought he could relate these ideas to India. He though: “The whole texture and the taste is already in our country. We just need to exploit it. If they can do it, why not I?” On one frustrated night in September 2009 he got drunk, called a friend and announced: “I’m doing a restaurant.” After a week he had resigned and was looking for properties. The plan was to get a business partner and make a simple, clean restaurant with molecular Indian food. “Colleagues, chefs, friends… everyone asked if I was mad. They said a concept like that will be a Titanic—it will be a very good ship but it will sink. When somebody says no, I start saying yes. I need negativity to get challenged. It’s the weirdness of my life. To be a hero you need a villain.” But his partner believed in him and encouraged Gaggan to make his wish come true and work at elBulli for a month or two. After many calls he was off to Spain while the décor and interiors of his Bangkok restaurant were taken care of. “I said, ‘if you are the Vatican, then I want to be a sub-church in the Eastern world.’ So I went to Alícia, which is where all the research for elBulli was happening, and met Ferran. He was excited to see me as the first Indian in his world. He just told me one thing: ‘We want you to cook Indian food with our techniques.’ And I got the message.” Gaggan knew exactly what he had to do. Back in Bangkok, he opened his restaurant in December 2010. Its décor was kept in white with a colonial feel from British India and within three months he featured in every other magazine in India and Thailand. Gaggan’s modern gastronomy set the ball rolling with a culinary revolution—when ordering liquid nitrogen, the suppliers would ask him if he was opening a hospital. And suddenly his budget went through the roof. He insisted on using the same suppliers as elBulli for plates, ingredients and equipment—the kitchen budget multiplied tenfold.

Within two years, Gaggan was in the top 10 of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and ranked 66 in the World’s 50 Best. In 2014, it went from 66 to 17. Gaggan says: “It was the biggest shock of my life. At the event, Thomas Keller was standing next to me and asking, ‘How do you feel?’ My restaurant was higher in the list than his. A guy who watches this on the internet is suddenly among them. Jordi Roca follows me on Instagram!” No Indian has ever been to the top 20 of the 50 Best list and this year, Gaggan says, will be critical for him. “When you have walked all the way to the foothills, now it’s time to take the journey up.” Gaggan thinks he will peak in the next three years. What he is doing today is what he imagined three years back, and what he imagines now is what he will cook in the next three years. So what’s next? A restaurant empire, an advertising contract, a TV deal? For Gaggan it’s none of the above. “I get an email a day from someone asking to do a joint venture. I refused MasterChef India—I don’t want to be a TV whore, that’s not me. Unilever wanted me, but I don’t have time. These things are easy to get carried away by, but I want to be in the kitchen.” However, there are some events that he cannot refuse. He has been asked to do a presentation at the Culinary Institute of America. And since Gaggan has started the revolution of Indian progressive food and is Ferran Adrià’s most successful student from Asia, he is happy to talk about it and give back to society. “I’m a better talker than a cook,” he laughs.

Gaggan’s menu, as he proudly proclaims, is one of the cheapest in the 50 Best list. He is offering three choices, a Taste of Gaggan for $55, consisting of 12-15 courses, India Reinvented for $85, giving a thorough insight into Gaggan’s work, and Best of Gaggan for $122, adding luxury products such as lobster, Iberian pork and scallops on top of the regular menu. But, says Gaggan, the new notion of luxury is responsibly sourced products. “In our country, there is no chicken,” says Gaggan outraged. “How can we cook a good Chicken Tikka Masala?” Gaggan laughs at the irony and explains that in Thailand, chickens and eggs are under the monopoly of one massive conglomerate. Only recently did he find someone who tried to revive an old breed of chicken.

Gaggan is concerned about the lack of Asian chefs wanting to challenge the cuisine and push the boundaries. They go with the trend, follow the teachings of elBulli, but only want success. Additionally, he sees a major problem in Thailand, Singapore and Hongkong when it comes to losing the culture of cooking at home. “The further we go the more we are losing our tradition and our culture. The French are actually trying to get French Cuisine under UNESCO World Heritage. Aren’t we older than French Cuisine? But nobody is bothered. In Asia there were two cuisines: Chinese and Indian. The Portuguese pollinated the whole of Asia with their cuisine, then the Iranians, then the British. There is so much history teaches us—everyone’s future lies in our history.”

His kitchen team counts 22 people of seven nationalities. Together with his head of research and development, who is ex-elBulli and his head chef, who is ex-Gordon Ramsey, Gaggan travels to India every few months to eat their way through the streets, inspiring their fantasies. When they start creating, they follow the five S philosophy: salty, spicy, sour, sweet and surprises. “The surprise is what makes the memory in your heart,” Gaggan smiles. “You wouldn’t come back to my restaurant if you’re not thrilled with something. In 20 courses you would only be satisfied with two or three which will be good enough to bring you back. You can’t enjoy all 20—you’re not meant to be.” One such surprise is the White Chocolate Panipurri. Watching diners’ faces as they bite into it and get the most unexpected taste explosion will certainly stay in my memory.

Gaggan changes his menus every three months but some dishes are so popular that they won’t be taken off any time soon. For example the Yogurt Explosion: similar to Ferran Adrià’s spherified olives, Gaggan has spherified yogurt. Some recipes take him two minutes, some two years to develop. His deconstructed Samosa in the form of a bird’s nest took one year. The nest is the crispy savoury crust of the flour dough with fennel as the main spice and the egg inside holds the liquid mixture.

Gaggan is one-of-a-kind. He fantasises food, knows exactly what he wants and is not afraid to challenge or be challenged. In his kitchen he rocks to the tunes of loud music. “With art comes madness,” says the rebel. He makes his own rules—and he likes to break them.