STORIES

Gaggan: Asia's No. 1 Chef on Emojis, Weed and Rock 'n' Roll

By David Jenison on March 29, 2018

Michelin-starred restaurants typically don't crank KISS tunes and ask people to lick their plates, but Gaggan is anything but a typical restaurant. The Bangkok-based food shrine is the reigning No. 1 restaurant in Asia (for four years running) and No. 7 in the world with cuisine that's often described as progressive Indian, for lack of a better term. It's difficult to categorize the dishes because chef Gaggan Anand has gone from culinary groundbreaker to full-fledged rule breaker. In addition to high-decibel rock anthems, a Gaggan experience includes a Minions-themed dessert, an elBulli-inspired Yogurt Explosion and a colorful emoji menu that looks like a sheet of acid. 

Raised in India under difficult economic conditions, the rocker-turned-chef became the first Indian to work at elBulli, and he emerged from Ferran Adrià's magical kitchen with a skill set rivaled only by his creative drive. He then opened Gaggan in 2010 with narrative-driven dishes that include playful names like Bong Connection, Magic Mushroom, Viagra, and Who Killed the Goat. Like the Beatles splitting up at the band's height, the chef will shutter his restaurant in 2020 to start a new project in Japan with Takeshi "Goh" Fukuyama of the French-Japanese La Maison de la Nature Goh.

Speaking with PRØHBTD from Bangkok, Gaggan spoke freely about his love for rock 'n' roll, culinary cannabis, motivational drunk dialing and what it means to walk away from one of the most famous restaurants in the world. 

How do you feel about the term progressive Indian cuisine, and what culinary cultures tend to play a secondary role in the dishes?

What is the boundary of cuisine now? If you go to any part of the world, a big cross-pollination of every cuisine has occurred, and not recently. Mexico sent us some mole, right? Out of the 25 to 28 ingredients that go into the mole, about 12 of the spices come from India. Those Indian spices entered the Latin world during the 16th or 17th century. [In the same way,] how did cinnamon end up in their coffee? When they got the spices, their cuisine changed. 

It's not about my restaurant and my cooking and "progressive Indian"—the world has gone progressive. I'm Indian. The philosophy of my taste is Indian, where you can get sweet, spicy, sour and salty in one bite. But under the progressive Indian umbrella, it's about the journey where I might use a Japanese ingredient as well. It's like if I'm Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, and I listened to Cream or the Beatles as a kid. At one of my concerts, I would definitely play a song by the Beatles or Cream because that is the music I understand. That's what I do.

You played drums in rock bands growing up. What skills did you learn from making music that you've been able to apply to presenting food in engaging ways?

Lick It Up is a perfect example. That's exactly how music turns something into a dish. It's this relationship that we grow between the inspiration of the song to the food. It's a bit of testing from the intention of that song to what you want to eat, but in the end, when people are given the dish and it says lick up the plate, it's so not expected that people love it.

(Editor's note: For this particular course, Gaggan plays the KISS song "Lick It Up" and delivers the dishes right when the chorus hits. Also worth noting, the "roses" in photo on the left are made from beetroot.)

The look on people's faces is priceless when they realize they're supposed to lick the plates.

The most social media shares we get at Gaggan is, one, Lick It Up, and two, the emoji menu. 

The Minions dessert must also be big on social media.

See, it's not about creating a dish and trying to make it look good on a plate. My idea is to create something different. It's about progressiveness. It's about the 17-minute song. It is a state of mental art where you push things to the level that people have not observed [before]. [Traditional] success is definitely the awards and the people who come after they see our fame, but our biggest success is when you leave Gaggan and go back [home] with the memory of a lifetime.

You're a huge Pink Floyd fan. If you were to pick a Pink Floyd song to turn into a dish, what song would it be, and what type of dish would you create?

Do you remember the album Animals? That album could be completely made into a menu because it has the most food-related words, and it could be fun! Of course, you could find inspiration from anywhere. "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" with diamonds or create a cigar for "Have a Cigar," but Animals is one of those old classics. 

What is the most creative way you've made a dish that played to all five senses at once?

I think it would be good that all courses have that. We don't want to take just one dish or two dishes or three dishes and create this philosophy. The idea is that 25 courses will be created with not five but six senses. I call it the "six tastes." One, salty. Two, it's sweet. Three, it's spicy. Four, it's sour. For the fifth taste, it's umami. Our sixth taste is surprise. We play in this six-taste format where there are at least four or five, but surprise is the most important. 

We call it sensory, and it's not just about eating. It's about greeting your mind's boundary of what you're supposed to find in a restaurant. Think of it like a really good spa, maybe a four-hand massage or one that's really tough. For the first 15 minutes, your body will protest. You will not like it. Then you give in, and you start enjoying yourself. This is exactly what I do with food. I break into your boundaries, and I don't just go on a sudden set of craves or highs or lows. It's about the whole experience, and the whole experience will definitely provoke, not only your food organs and sensory organs, but also your mind.

In what way does cooking allow you to tell personal stories about your life, and what moments of your life tend to inspire the most meaningful dishes?

It's really important because inspiration is all about my life. I'm very emotional. I really love the things around me—I get really inspired by what I do and where I go—so that really becomes a part of the restaurant for the next few months. Inspirations could come from here or there, and connecting the dots into a story is so easy because I think my real success is not just about cooking. It's also relating and storytelling that brings you to the journey and surprise. It takes you to this roller-coaster ride of highs and then lows, and you don't know what's happening next.

You previously served a dish called Bong Connection, and you had a cannabis-free version of bhang thandai. Were these items meant to be plays on...

Bong Connection is an old Bengali movie. It means that you're going back to your roots—not bong as in weed. I wish I could've done that in Thailand. If I was in LA, I'd have a whole 25-course weed-oriented menu. You see, the problem is that we live in a prohibited world where we try to control everything. The old Chinese stocks and soups, and in India, a lot of weed and hemp have been used, and this created better food. What we call energy and umami. Really, I would love to cook with weed. In India, there are so many recipes that are so ancient. It goes back to giving this food to the gods, and they all have weed in it. That's how you get your high, and that's how you create your Indian life body.

Have you ever tried to cook with cannabis before?

Yeah, in India you do. We do. In India, you're legally allowed to have bhang, which is a form of weed that can give you like a bad high for eight or nine hours. A super high. In India, it's legal—there's nothing illegal about it. It's in our religion. Forget about culture, it's in our religion. And that's what it is. The problem is food was never religion—we have made food religious. 

India also had a major historical role in cannabis because it brought indica to the world.

Yes, absolutely. It's growing wild. You can come and go and buy, and it's growing wild. It's all there. You can just crush it and use it.

If it became legal everywhere, would you ever do a restaurant or dinner that included cannabis?

If I ever get a chance to cook in LA, I will have to cook with a weed menu. I'll make sure that it makes…not to get high… but to further things. A weed tempura would taste fuckin' awesome. A weed tempura—it would just fuckin' kill it. Or using weed in a rich curry with coconut milk. That would taste amazing. Or a weed stir-fry. I used to have stir-fry chicken, and it had weed in it. Weed could just make food taste good. Why does weed have to be a narcotic?

If you came to Los Angeles, you would do a cannabis dinner?

I would love to do it. 

You also had a dish in the past called Magic Mushroom. Was that a reference to psychedelics?

Yes. I love psychedelics. I have very old memories. Magic mushroom… there's a two-way meaning to it: It's psychedelic, and it's referring to mushrooms being magical. I love mushrooms, and I love to go to Holland and do mushrooms. I wish I could do them in Bangkok, but I can't. Look at most of the things that grow up from the ground: truffles, porcini, amazing mushrooms like shiitake. And of course, when you get high on mushrooms, there are so many good pictures that come to your mind. 

Did you ever think of a dish during or after a mushroom trip?

Oh, the Magic Mushroom came when I was in Holland. It's got truffle, it's got mushrooms, it's got morels, and it came during a vision in Holland. 

Has anyone ever told you the emoji menu looks like blotter paper? Was that the intention?

No, no, no. People love the emoji menu, and they cannot smoke that. The people in my restaurants are global—they come from all over the world—so my idea was that the emojis would transfer the language of the whole world into one emotion for every dish. 

What is a dish you created with Goh Fukuyama that has you excited about your future collaboration?

We collaborate every three or four months. As chefs, we sometimes run out of choices, we run out of ideas, and then the food becomes repetitive. Un-bold. For all the restaurants you visit, you will definitely find some classics that remain as signature dishes, and that's why you go back there. But then you understand this is the comfort of [knowing] how the food will be delivered. This is what I want to avoid. 

I don't come from a glamorous food background. I don't come from France, I don't come from Italy, Spain, Europe. I'm not from New York, not from Tokyo. I come from humble India. The thing is, I don't want to fade away with my food and have it taste monotonous and similar for the rest of my life. That's exactly where Goh comes in. Goh has exactly those things that I don't have, and he doesn't have the things I have.

Food is a fashion today. It’s en vogue—like how you have spring, summer, winter and fall collection after collection. If food is fashion, what are you planning to do in fashion? What is your limited edition? A Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration that sells out in a few hours? This is why I am here today. We're blending our cuisine with Goh's cuisine, and Goh had no idea what I'd been doing until we met, and I had no idea what he was doing. We're seeing how it blends in and making sense out of it. 

That's why I took the risk of closing my restaurant—to create history in the world. No chef would ever dare shut his restaurant in its prime and join another chef, who is very famous in that part of Japan and shutting down his restaurant. Tell me, what chef in the world would dare do that? Which chef in the world would stab himself like a Japanese suicide? 

Not very many, if any.

Exactly. It's my personal belief in my personal future of food. I have cooked from 22 to 40 [years old], and this has become the future of my cuisine. Now what I think is, I am picking the restaurant, and that's the biggest yes of it. I learned from elBulli, where I come from, and elBulli shut off when it was at its prime, not when it was falling apart, right? 

Now I am shutting down in my prime. I don't know what will be my [50 Best Restaurants] ranking, I don't know whether I will have another Michelin star. I have no such stress or pressure. I would be so bored [if I just continued what I'm doing]. It would be so monotonous, and I would not create anything [else] wonderful in life if I keep doing what I've been doing in Thailand. I have to break the bondage, and that's the meaning of Gaggan. 

For example, 10 years back, 15 years back, who knew Louis Vuitton would become polka dotted? Nobody! And look at Louis Vuitton's collaboration with [artist Yayoi] Kusama that became polka dotted. The brand moved away from its classic dark brown leathery look and suddenly became super colorful. 

This is exactly what I do with food now. I understood that there's a better connect with people getting good, but the problem is, food has become fast fashion. And in this fast fashion age, we have to innovate. We keep innovating, we keep pushing, and that's the only way to be where we are today. That's the stress and that's the pressure we carry today. And that's why I think I need to relieve the stress and dance from the stress and all the energy that I get out of it and do something new and greater in life. That's why Gaggan will close in the next two years. 

You famously motivate your staff and your customers, but how are others able to motivate you? 

I don't need motivation. I think my life is my own motivation. I have this life and live it to the most. I love motivating my country, my team, the people around me, everyone. 

A few days back, I was quite drunk and pissed off, very frustrated, and then at six o'clock in the morning, I suddenly posted a message [on social media] saying, "If you need help, I'll contact you." Do you know how many people contacted me? More than 600 people direct messaged me. Out of 600, I think I made 50 calls all over the world, hearing them and hearing their problems. 

Our world is full of people who need help, and I understand I have this gift from all the struggles that I've got and that have made me not numb, not stubborn, not an arrogant and grumpy person. I want to use my success and fame to help those who need me to motivate them. I am living that. We need to help those who need our help, and everyone is born with a purpose. 

I believe in my life, how I lead my life and how I lead this team. They don't think of me as a boss or in a coworker-boss relationship. It's about family. The family that I've made is so big and so strong. It's a family where we live together and we die together. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Main image by Benya Hegenbarth. Inline images courtesy of Gaggan restaurant and Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.


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