Gaggan On Gaggan

Gaggan tells all: the fallout, the new restaurant and what he really thinks about World’s 50 Best.

By Jessica Rigg

It’s an hour before service and Gaggan Anand is belly-up in an oversized bean bag. He’s on the third floor of the four-storey building that houses his new, self-titled restaurant, Gaggan Anand. “I am much more relaxed now,” he tells me. “More relaxed than I ever was at the old restaurant.”

It’s a different tone to the high-energy and impassioned delivery I and 13 other diners seated at the restaurant’s ground-floor chef’s table – otherwise known as ‘The G-Spot’ – witness the night before. “This restaurant was done in an act of vengeance,” said Anand during the meal. “It was done in anger. But today, my rebels and I are finally free.”

I sat down with the Chef’s Table star to talk about his new restaurant, his public reputation and what he really thinks about the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (World’s 50 Best) awards.

Can you tell me about the new restaurant?

This restaurant is something I always wanted but couldn’t create. Not so much the restaurant design, but the feel: the way the guests eat and have fun. It’s the ultimate experience. Everything is a fantasy and has a point of excitement. We are having more fun with everything we are doing. People come here and don’t want to leave. For me, it’s a total state of happiness.

What can people expect with the menu?

We didn’t bring anything from the old restaurant. Nothing. Including the dishes. The entire menu is completely reinvented. I’m cooking food that I couldn’t cook before. Here, we have greater technical ability, so I am able to cook all the things that I want. Dishes like the green pea, black onion seed and chili kachori, for example. Each one has to be fried one by one per table. We could not do this quantity at the quality we want [at the old restaurant].

What’s it like to plan for and open a restaurant in only two months?

When I said I was opening a restaurant in two months, people thought it was a PR stunt. Nobody believed I could do it.

It was the craziest fucking thing ever. On October 31 [the night of the soft-opening], I went back home, and I was crying inside. There were so many problems at the restaurant that still needed fixing. Nothing was working: even the air conditioners. I was thinking, shit, we’re opening a restaurant tomorrow and I don’t know if we can deliver the food or not.

It’s amazing that we did it, that we actually opened in only two months. Everybody gave 100 percent. Every single person on the team and all of the contractors. My architect and designer. My wife also played a really big part in making it happen. And Rydo [Anton: head chef at Gaggan Anand] was amazing, really amazing.

Now that the restaurant has been open and operating for almost one month, how are you feeling?

When I first closed Gaggan, I thought to myself, this is either the craziest or the bravest thing I’ve ever done. But today I know: it was the bravest thing. I’ll show you my bank balance. [Gaggan pulls out phone]. I’m not joking. Here, take a look. I have 25,000baht ($830USD). That’s my bank balance. To open this restaurant took everything I have. My whole life is riding on this restaurant. But I feel no pressure. I’m super confident. It feels like I am not owing anyone, that I’m not answerable to anyone. Finally.

Last night, you told diners in the G-Spot that this restaurant is an act of vengeance. Can you tell me more about this?

When I resigned, my business partner told Vladamir [Kojic: Gaggan Anand’s sommelier], “Gaggan’s time is over. Everyone has their peak, and once you reach the peak, the only way is down.” That’s what the vengeance is about. I want to prove them wrong. It motivates me. It motivates me to create something better. And if we succeed, I think it’s going to be a great message for so many people because in this industry, 99 percent of people are depending on investors. Ninety-nine percent of people are working hard for someone else. So I think what we’ve done here can set a good example to people that you don’t need to do it this way: there are other options.

What are your ambitions with the new restaurant?

My ambition is nothing. For me, the most important thing is that the restaurant is full every day and full with the right people.

Do you want this to be the best restaurant in the world?

Isn’t it now? I think it’s my new era. I could not have ever reached this peak without going through this experience. If you win a Grammy, people immediately ask, “What about the next album? Will you win another Grammy?” And that’s exactly what I’m planning for. I’m planning to beat all my past success with the success of this new restaurant. And I can guarantee you that within two years, this will be the most successful restaurant in the world. All I could not achieve – my three stars with Michelin, that World’s 50 Best number one spot in the world – I will achieve with this. I can tell you this. I have created this restaurant and it has everything that we didn’t have in the last restaurant.

What does this restaurant have that the other didn’t?

It’s all about the small details. Better valet parking. A better reservations system. No turning of tables. The guest is welcomed and invited to drink at the bar. They don’t need to sit and wait in a lobby or outside of the restaurant. The plates are warmed in plate warmers and chilled in plate chillers. These details were not there at the last restaurant and maybe that’s why I could not reach where I wanted to be. It’s not about the cooking.

We said, ‘Okay, we’ve done this for the past 10 years and we’ve understood what our strengths are and what are our weaknesses. So, let’s build on our weaknesses’. Our strengths are that we are really good at cooking and we have high-energy, super talented people. We are a dream team. I think our weakness is simply that we were doing too many covers [guests dining per night]. We were almost commercial. It was becoming too much about the numbers. So that’s why we made sure that all of the changes we made for this restaurant are about the customer, and all of the money we spent was on the things that people touch, feel, see and taste. 

There has probably never been a better time to be a chef. But this, at least, is an especially complicated one. How much of being a chef is about cooking?

There are two types of chefs. One is a chef who cooks in the back, and nobody knows about him. And then there’s a level of chefs which I happen to be in. It’s all about the persona, the charisma and the ideology. It’s about the brain, the mastermind and our leadership skills. It’s about the way we think about food. Everybody can cook. But to create an art of it? To take fiction and fantasy and turn it into food is what incredible chefs do. And I’m just a part of that league.

In 2018, Fool Magazine published the feature article “Welcome To The Food Circus” in which the author discusses the power that publicity has on a restaurant’s success, particularly when it comes to World’s 50 Best rankings. What are your thoughts on this?

First of all, there is no best restaurant. Let’s accept that. It’s like comparing my favourite song to your favourite song. And I don’t even have a favourite song. It depends on my mood. But I don’t think food is political. It might be at lower levels, but at our level, it’s all performance-based.

Do you think the fact that you brought in journalists – including paying for their flights and accommodation – influenced your position in the World’s 50 Best?

No, I don’t think it’s that actually. I’m in Bangkok. Who came to Bangkok 10 years back? Nobody. When Gaggan opened, Bangkok became popular. I mean, who went to Modena before Massimo [Bottura: chef of Osteria Francescana]? And people go to Noma because they go to MAD [food symposium in Copenhagen]. I think if you look at the top 10 restaurants in the world today, it’s about the persona of the restaurant and chef behind it. That’s what brings in the media. I think I’m famous because of Chef’s Table more than anything. And definitely more than World’s 50 Best. The problem with World’s 50 Best is the location of the awards. Last year, the awards were held in San Sebastian, so everybody went to San Sebastian and everybody ate at Etxebarri. And what happened? This year, Etxebarri was number three on the list. Higher than Mugaritz. It’s the same story in Singapore, and even in Australia. Like Ben Shewry, he is a great guy and Attica is an amazing restaurant. Attica was so high when the awards were in Melbourne, and then suddenly it fell off the list. So, things can go like this because of the location of the World’s 50 Best awards ceremony. But I don’t think that the results are driven mainly from a restaurant’s public relations spend.

Will you continue to bring journalists to Bangkok to eat at Gaggan Anand?

I don’t know. One curse is that I have brought in journalists before, so if I don’t bring them now, they’ll feel that I don’t care for them. At one time they have written about me. And at one time they have given me fame when I had no fame. I think at this stage of my life, I have to make sure that I take care of everybody’s expectations.

Everything has an agenda. But I want this restaurant to be above an award. I want the restaurant to survive without an award. That’s the only thing I want to achieve in life. Awards can come and go, but a restaurant should not survive on them.

Are the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards still important to you?

Now the rat race is not even with the top rat. So, if you’re number one, you’re not really number one in the world, you’re just the next best choice. But everyone, even if they deny it, wants to be number one.

There is a lot about the list that doesn’t make sense. I sent a message to Julien Royer [chef of Odette Restaurant, the number one restaurant in the 2019 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list]. I said, ‘bro. You’re number one in Asia, but in the world you are very behind [No.18], and that doesn’t make sense. But don’t feel bad about it – I still think you’re the best restaurant in Asia’. There are other restaurants in Asia ahead of him in the World’s 50 Best list, so it is really complicated and confusing for chefs. It’s exactly what I went through. Nobody taught me – I had to teach myself, and I want to make sure that the other person doesn’t feel the way I felt.  

But there is a positive way to think of the awards. Maybe a restaurant who doesn’t deserve to be in the list gets in and it changes their life. If you’re in the top 10 it doesn’t change a lot for you. But how about the chef who is at 49, or 51, or 50? Those are the numbers that change the game. It will push her or him to fight harder than ever before.

Do you think and feel that you are misunderstood?

Mostly. Because when you are famous you are misunderstood. It’s the cost of fame. The first day that I won Asia’s 50 Best, so many people commented, ‘no, not Indian food’, or ‘crap, it’s that Indian chef. Why is he the best in Asia?’ I felt so bad. I couldn’t hide it. I was crying. But I proved them wrong the second year. I always tell a joke. I say the first year was a fluke, the second year I tried to bribe them, the third year they took my bribe, and the fourth year I paid them. I say this because it is what they want to hear. They will never accept the truth. That I work fucking hard. That I fucking sacrificed everything. Last year I hardly saw my daughter. For one whole year. But will they listen to that? Try telling them.

Even in Bangkok, we have no unity. Except for one Thai chef, nobody came to my restaurant. Nobody. No other restaurant sent me flowers to say congratulations, because of fame. Because I’m number one. If I was number 10, they would have. It’s that simple. People say, ‘you’re arrogant,’ and I say, ‘okay then, I’m arrogant.’ If that’s what they want to believe, then let them.

You call yourself a rebel. What does being a rebel mean to you?

For me, it is to not agree to injustice. It’s about standing up against what’s unfair. I’m very fair, and I’m a giver, but don’t take me for granted. The fight with my business partners started over nothing. It started because I wanted to give more bonus and more service charge and better facilities to the staff – and for them, this was not the priority. They only cared for numbers. Today, we rebel against them.

Having gone through the experience you have with your previous business partners, what advice would you give to young chefs who dream of opening their own restaurant?

I would say make five tables less but make it yours. And do it when you are ready, because it’s not easy. Working in a kitchen is stressful. Working with a bad partner doubles that stress. I was exploited. I was abused mentally and physically. They took my name and registered it in 2013 without my consent. Without my approval. It’s fraud. So of course, I would suggest people do it themselves rather than go into a partnership. Save enough money and take the risk, but only when you are ready. Or struggle like me and then make your way out. Be smart. I learned my lesson at 40.

Article Published: Monday 25 November 2019

Learn more about restaurant Gaggan Anand at gagananand.com

To read Gaggan Anand’s guide to his favourite street food addresses in Bangkok, click here.

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