Gaggan Anand is the man who has revolutionised Indian cuisine. With his progressive take, he has brought Indian food to the limelight, breaking perceptions and searching deep to reinterpret Indian cuisine by looking for its traditions.
The Indian chef, who has set his base in Bangkok, Thailand has made a name for himself with his restaurant Gaggan, voted the best Asian restaurant in the World in 2015 and 2016 and 23rd in this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
He was on the brink of disaster at least two times in his career, first when he nearly lost everything when his partner in business ran away and then when riots broke out in Bangkok, just as he was about to open Gaggan.
His story is an inspiring one for those who are looking for the secret to success. Gaggan has not only followed his passion but he has done so amid hard work, sacrifices including not being able to go to his brother’s funeral and also a persistent goal to be the best Indian chef.
This episode in Chef’s Table on Netflix is really a must watch not only because of Gaggan’s story, the excellent visuals and storytelling but also because it will help you to change your perception of what you think is Indian cuisine.
“In India food is our religion. There are deep roots in food. Food changes every 50 kilometres. We die for food. We had riots because the Muslims will not eat pork and the Hindus will not eat beef. There was a beef ban in the country so those who like beef were protesting and those who hate beef are saying wow, finally we don’t have beef. And if that country which has a deep knowledge of food is not represented at the highest levels, it is a disgrace to me,” Gaggan says.
The Indian chef says that when he was young he was told that that Indian food was not fine dining. “That would really piss me off. Indian cuisine is very good at comfort level. Our chicken tikka masala tastes fantastic, with naan bread it is very good. When the comfort food is so good, it is very difficult to change people’s perception. And that is why Indian chefs have not excelled. They never served proper indian food, with finesse. If Pink Floyd can make a 20 minute song sound good, then I can make 23 courses without serving more than one curry. That is a challenge, that is a challenge I take,” he says.
One of the things that pushed him to work hard was receiving a letter from his mother saying that she could not stay in the house because they had no electricity. At the time electricity cost four dollars so he could not understand how bad the situation was. “I decided on that day that I wanted to be the best chef in India.”
After working in a hotel and experiencing shocking behaviour from his bosses he quit to set up a catering company. He recalls the hate and frustration and quit when he was humiliated in front of 100 people. But he hit a low when he ended up cooking staff meals for Pizza Hut a few years after he was considered as one of the most promising students in India. When he was running his business he said he ended up being a businessman and not a chef ending up negotiating contracts instead of cooking.
He explains that while everyone thinks that curry comes from India, there is no Indian word for it. “Chicken tikka masala is not an Indian invention and neither is tea.
He got noticed when he was working for a restaurant called Red in Bangkok and it was here that he learned about el Bulli. He sent a letter to Ferran Adria after a particularly bad night and when he decided to open his own restaurant and within days got a reply that he could go for an internship there. This was what changed his fortunes.
“I wanted to learn from the lion how to hunt and wanted to go to el Bulli. When I returned I wanted to be the el Bulli of India and I saw answers in history. One of the dishes that changed el Bulli’s fortune was the spherified olive. To conquer India, he needed to do the same thing and he used yogurt which is their mother sauce to the same effect.”
On the brink of disaster because he could not open the restaurant as scheduled because of riots in Thailand’s capitay city, Gaggan was desperate. He started cooking as much as possible forgetting his dreams when disaster struck. He lost his brother and that came as a big shock. He received a parting letter from his brother telling him to push on. Gaggan says that letter gave him the strength to come back and it was then that he became fearless. “I was cooking what I wanted to cook and the restaurant became very successful. Within two years he and his partner broke even.”
While he used to serve a curry at the end of the meal to keep traditionalists who did not want to eat progressive cuisine in their comfort zone, he has now decided not to serve any more curries of chicken tikka masala and no more naan breads. “It is about having the confidence to do what you want to do rather than what guests want you to do. I am the lion of my jungle in Thailand. Now I want to be the lion in the country where I come from. So I want to go back to India, create a restaurant and challenge India. Now I know that Indian food can conquer the world.”
This is another amazing documentary by Chef’s Table creator David Gelb. Don’t miss it.