Food by VICE

Why the Chef Behind Asia's Best Restaurant Wants to Shut it Down

We spoke to Gaggan Anand about his upbringing in Kolkata, his brief career as a rock musician, and why he hates when chefs becomes "brands."

by Mayukh Sen
Nov 16 2017, 5:00pm

Bangkok's Gaggan has been christened the best restaurant in Asia for three years straight. Gaggan is nominally a "progressive Indian" restaurant known for a shapeshifting menu informed by the principles of molecular gastronomy. It's spearheaded by Gaggan Anand, a Kolkata native who came up through Ferran Adrià's elBulli in Catalonia, Spain and opened Gaggan seven years ago.

Anand, 39, has plans to shut down Gaggan by the end of the decade. We're a ways away from Gaggan's closure, which won't happen until 2020; when the time comes, Anand will be decamping Bangkok for the hamlet of Fukuoka in Japan, where he'll mount a different project entirely in partnership with Takeshi “Goh” Fukuyama of La Maison de la Nature Goh.

Still, his decision to close Gaggan initially confused some onlookers: Why would a chef who's been riding a wave of such consistent, high-profile success walk away from it? Especially when he seemed to occupy that pretty envied position for chefs, wherein he could easily harness the goodwill he's accrued for the past few years and harvest it into an empire?

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Well, Anand isn't much interested in furthering any tired conceptions of the male chef as a "brand," especially the kind who commandeers a global food empire with tentacles that touch every continent. It's just not his style. We caught up with Anand during his recent visit to New York and spoke to him about his upbringing in Kolkata, his brief flirtation with pursuing rock music as a career, and what lies ahead for the restaurant he'll open after Gaggan closes its doors.

Gaggan's facade.

MUNCHIES: Hi Gaggan. How’s it going?
Gaggan Anand: Good. You know, I had a friend in Kolkata named Mayukh! Are you Bengali?

Sweet! I am. Tell me a bit more about your upbringing in Kolkata and how it influenced your cooking.
In a big way. Kolkata has one of the very elaborate cuisines of India. I don’t mean Indian cuisine in terms of curry houses. Food in Kolkata, as you also understand, is completely different from a lot of other Indian cooking, from using oils other than your convention oils—Bengal's is mustard oil, for example—or having milk in desserts. A lot of the dishes are fish-oriented. A lot of vegetables—greens—stay green. They are not turned into browns or blacks. It's such an elegant, light way of cooking. When I'm in Kolkata, I can have salt, spice, sugar, and sour flavors in the same bite.

What did you typically eat for your meals growing up in Kolkata?
In my house, there were two rules: lunch was mom and dinner was dad. My mom, who was born in Delhi but brought up completely in Kolkata and fluent in Bengali, would always cook rice and my dad would make roti. The staples changed according to the meal. My dad was very Punjabi. My mom was Punjabi, but with a Bengali touch. So lunches would be more easy and comfortable, while dinners would be more elaborate. We would rarely eat out.

So I’ve heard this story about the first dish that you made on your own being a cup of instant noodles when you were seven years old.
You know, the biggest tragedy is that in India, a cup of instant noodles is called Maggi. It doesn’t really come instant. It’s not like instant noodles from Japan where you just add hot water. In India, you have to cook it for a few minutes. When I was six or seven, I made some Maggi when my mom was very sick. I followed the recipe [on the packaging] and I overcooked the noodles. I was a little pissed because the food that I cooked did not look like the food on the package. It was kind of disappointing.

READ MORE: Why This Bengali Chef Says There’s No Such Thing as Indian Food

Did it taste good, at least?
It tasted okay, but, in the end, it was just a boiled lump of carbs.

That’s no good. So let’s fast forward a few years: You used to be a drummer before you were a chef.
I started doing music at the age of 13 and kept at it until I was 19 or 20. At 17, I was already very famous—my band drew good crowds. But at that time, in Kolkata, we had no money for music. It was such a sad thing, because I was in Kolkata a month back and I met some musicians struggling in the same way I once was. We were from the same era. Their hair was graying, and my hair was a little gray, too. And the funny thing was that they're still there making music. I’ve changed my life completely. [Seeing them] is like a reflection of myself 20 years ago when I decided not to be a musician and instead became a chef. They’re still stuck in their miseries, these rock and roll strugglers in Kolkata.

Talk to me about that pivot from music to food.
Music was like my teenage frustration coming out. You know, me banging on the drums. I had to be practical, because my family was going through a bad time. I knew that if I kept drumming, I would not be able to make what my family expected out of me. Cooking was the second best thing in my life.

I saw being a chef as being a performer, really. It’s like a concert. The thing is that I saw this program called Yan Can Cook in the early ‘90s. This guy was, like, amazing. He would dance and people would talk to him—he was such a charmer! The seduction of his cooking was amazing. He was like a rockstar in the kitchen. I see chefs as today’s rockstars. A piece of art needs passion, and that’s what I am doing with my food. It’s a conversion of music to food.

Changing gears—you’re closing Gaggan in 2020. Tell me what motivated that decision.
I think I’m reaching my prime. 2018 and 2019 will be the prime of my food. I think I need to end it there and start something new. It’s not just renovating the restaurant and launching a new brand. I’m not doing that because when I started the restaurant, I was 31 or 32. I’m 39 today. This restaurant has carried from my 30s through to my 40s. The next one will carry me from my 40s to 50s. Your mind changes a lot every ten years. The way you’re thinking in your 20s isn’t the same as when you think when you’re 35. I’m tired of doing what I’m doing right now and I feel like I need to stop somewhere. I’m not quitting cooking. I’m just going to adopt a different philosophy.

Right. You told Bloomberg that, after 10 years, a restaurant becomes a brand. What did you mean there?
I mean, see, I’ll tell you examples. I am a chef and now I’m becoming a restaurateur. But I’m not opening Gaggan 1, Gaggan 2, Gaggan 3, Gaggan 4. Nor am I opening more Indian restaurants. I could have easily done a New York or London Gaggan. But I'm not.

Right. So when was the first time you went to Fukuoka?

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What brought you there?
A friend of mine who knows Goh, who’s one of the most famous chefs in Fukuoka, took me to his restaurant. It had a two-month waiting list. I went to the kitchen and two of us could fit in the kitchen. The food was amazing, incredible, simple. It’s a French-Japanese restaurant. He was amazing.

When will you two be opening the restaurant with Goh?
I think August 2021. I’m thinking it'll be a year and a half break between when Gaggan closes and when the new one opens.

What attracts you to Fukuoka?
It’s a less competitive market compared to Osaka or Tokyo or Hokkaido. It’s pretty inaccessible, too. Not too touristy yet. It’s also got one of the youngest soils in the world. Everything that grows there has a completely different taste. It has four seasons, so I can create more food with a more philosophy and more depth. Bangkok is very tropical. Fukuoka will be a fool’s paradise.

Exciting. Thanks for speaking with me, Gaggan.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Indian Food
Molecular Gastronomy
Gaggan Anand