The Fed-Up Chef

The meal cost $400 and came with rules. No. 1: No using cellphones, except to document the dinner and the chefs preparing it. “Please do the Instagram, the Facebook, the Twitter; give me the fame, I need the fame,” said Gaggan Anand, whose restaurant bore the same name. Clad in black, with a booming voice that suited his hulking figure, he stalked between a vast kitchen island and an L-shaped table for 14. “Those of you with good cameras, if you can take a photo of me scratching my ass, you get a bottle of Champagne.”

Rule No. 2: “If this is on your ‘Things to Do in Bangkok’ list, you’re in the wrong restaurant.” Anand wore his hair in a messy bun; he sounded like a principal scolding a group of wayward adolescents. “If you are here to judge me, you are in the superwrong restaurant, because we are [expletive] judging you.” He went on: “This is not a, what do you call it?” — his fingers curled into air quotes — “ ‘fine-dining experience.’”

More rules preceded each dish. (There would be 25.) No smoke breaks. “I’m not antismoking,” he said, “but my nose is very particular, and your smoke will change my nose.” Limits on trips to the bathroom. “The first hour is all belted in,” he said. “After that, we will not give toilet breaks” — the meal would last the usual five hours — “but if you have to, just go quickly and come back. Think of this as a nonsmoking flight with no Wi-Fi, no network, and it’s an Indian airline, so nothing works and it’s very turbulent. You might be crashing soon, so you’d better enjoy.”

Anand says it was around this point in his customary spiel that one evening last fall, a woman got up and walked out. But on the night I visited the restaurant last December, there were only nods of ascent and ripples of nervous laughter.

Anand, the most famous Indian chef in the world, delights in subversion. “Lick it up,” one of his staple dishes, looks like spray paint but tastes like India, a schmear of pulverized herbs and spices that, indeed, he demands you lick directly off the plate. Scallop “curry” comes ice-cold, sans gravy, with puffs of curry-infused ice cream. “Asteroid,” a charcoal-dusted morsel of sea bass with a molten core of roe, is his version of the fish cutlets he saw a woman frying in a charcoal-fired wok, on the street in the rain, the last time he visited India. Even his menu is outré: For years, it has been composed of only emoji, no text.

Last August, after receiving two Michelin stars and landing the fourth spot on the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Anand did something remarkable: Fed up with being micromanaged by his financial backers, he left the restaurant that made him famous, called Gaggan, and started over with the new one, Gaggan Anand. (His financiers had the rights to his first name but not the last.) “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says David Gelb, the creator of the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table.” “Traditionally, when you have a star chef, as investors, you support them.” Gelb’s show, in 2016, is what turned Anand from relative obscurity — an Indian chef in the middle of Thailand — into an emblem of defiance and a food-world antihero.

More twists followed. In February, Anand, who is 42, divorced his wife of seven years. (They have a 4-year-old daughter.) March brought the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown. Then on June 1, Anand reopened his restaurant with a new protocol for sanitization and social distancing; by mid-July, owing to Thailand’s relative success in responding to the pandemic, he was able to take down the plexiglass shields between seats. These days, he helms the chef’s table six nights a week, unmasked. “I ask the guests’ permission,” he told me in September, “but they’re also not wearing masks, so.”

Around the world, Anand’s peers have responded to the pandemic’s privations by dabbling in lower-cost, higher-volume spinoffs to make up for lost revenue. In Copenhagen, for example, René Redzepi transformed Noma, which formerly charged close to $400 for a tasting menu of gastronomic curiosities like edible soil, into a wine-and-burger bar. (The cheeseburger goes for about $18.) While Anand experimented with cheaper offerings, seeing others push comfort food intensified his commitment to haute cuisine. “I would love to open a fried-chicken restaurant or some stupid [expletive] like that and kind of survive,” he says, “but I don’t want to give up fine dining.”

He fired no one. He hired 10 new employees. “I’m still able to pay my staff,” he says. “We are not sinking, yet.”

Reality looms. Michelin devotees with money to burn and airline miles to accrue made up a significant portion of Anand’s customer base. Before the pandemic, 80 percent of his business came from international tourists; now, because Thailand requires foreigners to quarantine for 14 days, almost all of his customers are locals, and he has changed his business model accordingly, slashing prices by 40 percent, adding a $50 lunch and subtracting 90 minutes from the chef’s-table experience (“locally, they have less patience”). “That brought in people who thought we were unapproachable,” Anand says. But this month, he raised prices “because it’s not sustainable.” (Lunch now costs $100.) Fine dining the world over faces the same problem. International travel is severely limited, as William Drew, a director of World’s 50 Best Restaurants, points out — and it “will be for the foreseeable future.”

On that evening last December, Anand served crumbles of cumin and tamarind that looked like Pop Rocks. He made each guest at the chef’s table use a middle finger to eat a savory miniature doughnut; he described a dish of pork vindaloo as “a little Portuguese, a little Indian, and none of either.” “If you tell me to make a chicken curry and naan, I will tell you to get the [expletive] out of here,” he said. He poked; he prodded. In order to get a reservation at the chef’s table, you had to have filled out a questionnaire that included prompts like “Tell us about an embarrassing moment in your life” and pick one of five songs you’d sing with abandon if asked to do so (among the options: “I Want It That Way,” by the Backstreet Boys, and “Chop Suey,” by System of a Down). “You’re a gastroenterologist?” Anand asked one diner. “Can you tell me why my sous-chef farts so much?” On one wall, hot-pink tubes of neon spelled out Anand’s axiom: “Be a rebel.”

Toward the end of Hour 4, it was time to sing. The group consensus: “I Want It That Way.” Anand gave everyone the side-eye but obliged. A minute in, he switched to “Chop Suey,” turned up the volume and started playing air guitar.

If you are an Indian who lives outside of India, you get used to people casually disparaging your food: “too smelly,” “too spicy,” “too heavy.” Compliments are generally reserved for chicken tikka masala, a dish believed by some to have been invented by a Bangladeshi chef in Glasgow sometime in the ’70s. You get used to seeing your food in chafing trays and foam containers. You get used to eating one thing at home and something completely different at a restaurant, which probably charges $9.99 for its lunch buffet ($12.99 on Saturdays and Sundays), because what kind of person — Indians included — would deign to pay much more than that for Indian food?

At least, that was how it was for me, a first-generation Indian-American growing up in New Jersey in the ’90s. According to Khushbu Shah, the restaurant editor of Food & Wine, in the last decade, Indian restaurant food has undergone a renaissance, thanks largely to the Indian diaspora and the internet, which enabled the access to new sources of inspiration. At Melbourne’s Don’t Tell Aunty, Jessi Singh serves sea urchin biryani, a marriage of coastal Australia and his native Punjab; at Los Angeles’s Badmaash, the brothers Nakul and Arjun Mahendro offer chicken tikka poutine, a nod to their Toronto hometown, where their dad, Pawan, ran an Indian restaurant of his own.

Chefs in India have also evolved. In 2008, Manish Mehrotra persuaded the head of the hospitality firm for which he worked to let him do a tasting menu at a new space in New Delhi. “At least two guests a night would read the menu and walk out, saying, ‘We don’t understand, and you don’t have butter chicken on the menu,’” Mehrotra told me in 2015. Last year, World’s 50 Best named Mehrotra’s Indian Accent the best restaurant in India. Indian Accent also has an outpost in New York, where a $125, 10-course tasting menu might include blue cheese-stuffed naan.

Anand, however, does more than mash-up Indian standards and Western ingredients. He creates dishes that defy easy categorization, like his mango-infused pâté of foie gras dressed with Japanese oak leaves. “You don’t see Indian food the way that he does it,” Shah says. “You talk to any wealthy South Asian in that hemisphere of the world, it becomes a priority to get to his restaurant. Gaggan is one of the few that made it in the fine-dining world. There are really not that many.”

Anand grew up in poverty outside Kolkata. “That scene in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ where the guy would [expletive] on top and it would fall on the next guy’s head? That’s why I have dandruff,” he says. He watched his mother prepare simple dishes, like fish fry and chicken masala (without the cream found in chicken tikka masala). “My mom could have taken a cart and made money,” he says, “but women in India back then were not supposed to work, or she didn’t have the confidence to do it.”

He went to hotel-management school — culinary institutes are relatively new in India — and from there to jobs in hotel kitchens. He married, started a catering company that quickly flopped and spent a year delivering food on a bicycle, making 25 cents an hour, before his brother finagled a job for him in 2003, running the cafeteria of a telecom company’s office in Kolkata. “I learned how to use $1 to make a meal that will satisfy a person,” Anand says.

In 2009, he spent two months at Ferran Adrià’s Alícia Foundation in Spain. By this point, Anand had divorced his first wife and moved to Bangkok to do some consulting for an Indian restaurant there. That job led to his first fan, Rajesh Kewalramani, whom Anand says encouraged him to open his own place and offered to help finance it. Gaggan opened in 2010.

His stint in Spain inspired him to reimagine the humble food of his roots. He learned how to manipulate liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide, how sodium alginate and calcium chloride could turn olive juice into an opalescent olive sphere. “If Ferran could do that with an olive,” Anand says, “I figured I could change yogurt.” What the olive is to Spain, yogurt is to India: emblematic, iconic, a thing not to be messed with. The dish Anand came up with is now a mainstay on his menu: the “yogurt explosion,” a seemingly normal dollop of yogurt on a spoon that explodes in your mouth, a flavor bomb of cumin and dried mango powder contained by a layer of diaphanously thin gelatin.

Anand characterizes his food not as Indian but as “Gaggan Anand.” “If you’re from India,” he says, “you will feel either disgraced, like, ‘Why are you touching my cuisine?’ or you will say, ‘Wow, you really changed my food forever.’” Just as Mehrotra does, he thinks Indian cuisine has an image problem. “Indians have let their food be defined by what the world wants from them: chicken tikka masala because of the British, Goan fish curry because of the Portuguese,” Anand says. “As a chef, it’s a disgrace that I sit with Japanese, French and Italian chefs, and they talk about fine dining, and I’m like a donkey, just sitting there. They will always value a French dish more than an Indian dish. They don’t care what techniques you use. I get so angry.”

After seeing Anand’s “Chef’s Table” episode in 2016, I went to dine at Gaggan, which occupied a 19th-century townhouse about four miles from his new restaurant, a modern building draped with greenery. Sitting in the main dining room, I could not see Anand holding court at the chef’s table, but I could hear him (until he turned up a Foo Fighters song). At the end of the night, I saw him by the door and asked for a selfie; he obliged. I had come expecting the best Indian meal of my life, and it was moving to see the food of my ethnicity executed with such finesse. But more than the food, Anand himself left me in awe, an Indian chef with swagger, chutzpah and enough star power to warrant an 8,000-mile journey.

While the pandemic precludes this sort of pilgrimage, it has strengthened the pull of chef-performers like Anand, who, on Instagram, toggles between stylized photos of his greatest hits and unvarnished videos that show him making, say, a burger from refrigerator odds and ends. He has figured out how to be at once relatable and bucket list-y. “People still have a huge appetite, perhaps even more of an appetite, for special experiences,” says Drew, from World’s 50 Best. “It may take a while before they travel the distances that they may have in the past. They may be more discerning. But I don’t think they’re going to stop eating.”

For a certain type of gourmet, getting a reservation at a place like Gaggan Anand will always justify the cost of a trip. Last year, Truong Mai, an investment banker I met at Gaggan Anand, traveled from his home in Maryland to Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore, San Sebastián, New York, Belgium, Paris, the Netherlands and, of course, Bangkok. He’s eaten at Anand restaurants 20 times. “My first truly world-class meal was Gaggan in 2012,” Mai told me. “That’s why I hold him so dear.”

The second time I met Anand, in Los Angeles in May 2019, he had soured on Gaggan. For two years, he had been talking publicly about his plans to close it in 2020 and open a new one in Japan. (This plan has since been abandoned.) He felt he had to churn out the same dishes over and over again, to appease the Yelpers, selfie seekers and critics. “At my new restaurant,” he said, “there will be a sign: ‘We don’t make food for tires.’” He said he had no respect for Michelin and its rankings. “They will always send a French or a Brit to my restaurant who might have spent time in India but would not know India like an Indian would, and they will never give me a fair judgment.” Because of the Eurocentric palates of the reviewers, he said, “it’s impossible for me to convince them how good I am.” He claimed he no longer wanted the fame. “If this is what being a celebrity means,” he said, “I want [expletive] none of it. I’m tired.”

He was in town to headline the Los Angeles Food Bowl, a monthlong festival. Five hundred people came to the Wiltern Theater to hear him speak. On Memorial Day, he took over an outdoor bar in the arts district and posted an invitation on his Instagram account: “whole world welcome.” He and his staff had prepared enough pulled pork vindaloo and papri chaat nachos to feed 600 people, but two hours into the six-hour event, most of their supplies were gone. Anand emerged from the kitchen to address a line that wrapped around two blocks. “I [expletive] love you all for waiting!” he hollered. His fans hollered back, angling for selfies. He seemed to love it. It was hard to believe that he didn’t want this anymore.

Then came the rupture last July, when Kewalramani and his two financial partners apparently tried to oust him from Gaggan while he was vacationing in Austria. Once Vladimir Kojic, Anand’s head sommelier, informed him of the investors’ plans — “They called a town-hall meeting, like they’re Google,” Kojic told me — Anand gave his staff of 71 an ultimatum: Walk with me, and we start over, or stick with the suits. All but five went with Anand, effectively shuttering the restaurant. Anand says his investors objected to his practice of hiring top talent from abroad, which required costly work visas. “I’m from Serbia,” Kojic says. “We have chefs from Chile, Brazil, the U.S. Why did they come to Thailand? It’s not for the money. It’s for Gaggan.” Anand’s former partners did not respond to my repeated requests for comment.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, to leave your partners,” says Massimo Bottura, Anand’s friend and the chef of Osteria Francescana (three Michelin stars). But Bottura says he probably would have done the same thing. “My chefs are like my brothers and sisters. The team is more important than anything.”

The past seven months have given Anand an opportunity to immerse himself in a local market he took for granted. “We ignored our immediate 50 kilometers for a decade because we were in the fame run,” he says. “Our reservations were full; we didn’t give a [expletive]. We are now more connected to the community, to foodies who may not have been able to afford us. I’m looking for more Thai products and more local farmers.”

But he refuses to steer away from fine dining, no matter how unsettled the environment. Last December, he offered to drive me to the airport. He showed up an hour late. Though Bangkok thrummed with traffic, he ignored Waze. “It’s a calculated risk,” he said, adding that if that bet proved wrong, I’d see his “dark side.” I made my flight.

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