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Gaggan has the guts to take his greatest hits and re-invent them

There was a time when chefs wanted to be called artists.

But now they all want to be rock stars. They grow their hair long, they throw attitude, they show off their tattoos, they ride motorbikes and inevitably, they attract groupies.


I have never been terribly convinced by this rock star persona. Most rock stars --- let’s be honest --- ride a wave. They are not necessarily great musicians and the swagger and image are often more important than the music.


   Chefs, on the other hand, require enormous skill. They don’t just have to create dishes. They also have to manage brigades in restaurant kitchens who must turn out remarkably consistent meals for hundreds (or fifty at the very least) of guests night after night. Chefs need to be precise and organised. Rock stars don’t have to bother with things like that.


   But over the last few days, I have begun to wonder if perhaps the great rock musicians and the best chefs have something in common, even if it is just an attitude towards their work.


   There are many chefs who invent great dishes, sit back and make big bucks as these dishes are served every night to guests. So it is with rock stars. When is the last time that Elton John wrote a good song? And yet his concerts are packed out with fans who want to hear him sing Daniel or Rocket Man again and again. Try digging up live recordings of Elton’s concerts from the late 1970s and comparing them to his recent performances. If you discount the fact that he can’t sing very well these days, the performances and arrangements are more or less the same. The songs haven’t grown. And neither has Elton’s sense of adventure.


   The great stars, I reckon, are the ones who are not content to be travelling juke boxes but always take fresh looks at their material and see how they can make their songs seem new or different.


   The obvious example is Bruce Springsteen. There are two Springsteens. There is the stadium rocker, the greatest live performer in the history of rock. And there is the thoughtful Springsteen of Nebraska, the Pete Seeger Sessions etc. Sometimes, he will jumble the two personas up and each song will sound different. Born to Run is a classic, both as a rock song and as a solo piece with just one acoustic guitar. When you go to a Springsteen show you are never sure how he will reinvent your favourite song till the moment he actually sings it.


   So it is with Paul Simon. When he performs the old Simon and Garfunkel material it always sounds fresh. There must be at least a dozen live recordings of The Sound of Silence and in each version, Simon has done something different with the song. I have been to concerts where the audience has taken two minutes to work out that he has launched into Bridge Over Troubled Water, his most famous song, because he rearranges it each time he performs it.


   I suspect that great chefs are the same. Some just play the hits. Some play them very badly. And some go back to the old favourites and make them come alive again.


   Consider Joel Robuchon, one of the world’s two greatest French chefs (Alain Ducasse is the other). When Robuchon died on Monday, people talked about all his great hits, from the Black Truffle Tart to the Mashed Potato. At the restaurant that made his name --- Jamin in Paris --- Robuchon was such an obsessive, terrifying taskmaster that his chefs would be reduced to tears each night by his demands for perfection.


   But at some stage, Robuchon got tired of the Michelin three star circus. He returned his stars, discovered Spanish food (heresy for a classically trained French chef of his stature) and opened more casual restaurants called L'Ateliers (the word means workshop) where people sat around a counter and ate simpler food (a few slices of Spanish ham, bread with tomato, a small hamburger, etc.).


   In music terms, the parallel would be MTV Unplugged.  Some of the world’s great rock stars have done their best work in front of small audiences without electric guitars and laser beams. I yield to nobody in my admiration for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but surely Kurt Cobain’s greatest live performance was when he offered his own version of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World on Unplugged?


   Layla is one of the greatest rock songs ever written and the opening guitar riff is a classic. But such is the genius of Eric Clapton that when he played an acoustic version on Unplugged (without the famous electric guitar riff), the song took on a new life. The last time I saw Clapton perform, he chose the acoustic version of his most famous song --- and the audience loved it. Or think of The Eagles going all acoustic for Hotel California on Hell Freezes Over --- it took the audience a while to realise that they were playing their greatest hit. But that version is now a classic.


   And that is pretty much what happened to Robuchon. Because he stuck to his L’Ateliers, Michelin came to accept that his more relaxed approach to food was as valid as the formal style of old. Eventually the L’Ateliers started winning back the stars that Robuchon had returned. By the time he died this week, Robuchon ran more Michelin starred restaurants than any other chef in history.


"But to me, he is a rock star not because of the music he plays or his performance skills but because, like the best musicians, he has the guts to take his greatest hits and re-invent them."

   Like the rock stars on Unplugged, great chefs can dispense with the culinary equivalent of the five minute electric guitar solo, get to the heart of the dish and make it seem fresh and pure again.


   Last Saturday, I went to eat at Gaggan Anand’s restaurant. I have been going there for a while so I know his food well. But this time I went with a very well-travelled friend who has eaten at nearly every great restaurant in the world. He was blown away by the food, of course. (“On par with the best meal I have ever had,” he said afterwards.)


   He had last been to Gaggan four years ago and was staggered by how much better the food was now. He was right, of course, but what struck me about the meal was how successfully Gaggan had revisited his classics.


   Only one course --- the most copied modern Indian dish in the world – his Yoghurt Explosion has remained on all his menus. When old favourites have re-appeared, they have been totally re-invented.


   Take Gaggan’s version of the ghewar, a Rajasthani sweet. Gaggan is fascinated by the dish because it tastes like a tart with its crunchy texture but it is made without any flour using only milk fat. He has used the ghewar technique for a variety of desserts. But this time, he took out the sugar, made a savoury ghewar and topped it with Camembert cheese. It was the lightest, most sublime cheese tart I have ever eaten – and it had no maida.


   Among his other innovations has been the many uses he puts the uni or sea urchin to. This is a fish that features prominently in Japanese and Mediterranean cuisine.  But few chefs have realised that its creaminess can lend itself to a variety of flavours. As far as I know, Gaggan was the first chef in the world to pair it with such fruit as the mango—- and the combination worked brilliantly. Now, famous chefs all over the world follow Gaggan’s lead – sea urchin with strawberries, for instance.


   But Gaggan has moved on. Sea urchin is still on the menu. But the dish is totally different; there are no fruit pairings.


   Then, there’s Charcoal, Gaggan’s second most copied dish (after the Yoghurt Explosion). Many years ago, when he first introduced it, I tried it and was intrigued by the crunchy, dark, charcoal-like exterior with its soft and spicy filling inside.


   It took me a while to work out that this was his take on the fish chop he had eaten while growing up in Calcutta. Charcoal has stayed on the menu. But while he has kept the exterior he has completely changed the filling. On one menu, it was white asparagus. On another, it was lotus root. And so on.


   Or take his most famous dish of the moment, Lick It Up, inspired by the Kiss song of the same name.  This consists of a puree of some kind, smeared on a plate. Guests have to lift the plate to their mouths and actually lick it while the Kiss song plays loudly on the restaurant’s speakers. It has been instagrammed hundreds of thousands of times. But what people don’t realise is that the puree on the plate changes with each menu.


   Sometimes the changes are subtler, like taking out a guitar part and putting in a keyboard solo instead. Gaggan’s curry-powderless curry is one of his iconic dishes. Originally he took scallop sashimi and put two different liquids on the plate: chilli oil and curry leaf oil. If you mixed it all, you got the flavour of curry, illustrating his point that the curry leaf (not garam masala, etc.) is at the heart of a curry.


   The dish is still there. But the thinly sliced sashimi is gone. Now he uses chunks of scallop and the fleshy texture transforms the dish --- rather like pumping out the opening riff of Smoke On The Water on a keyboard, not a guitar. Same song, new feel.


   People often use the term rock star to describe Gaggan because he plays loud music with the food and every night, when he is in Bangkok, he performs at his Lab (the counter section at his restaurant with only 13 seats which you can’t book – guests are chosen by lottery or on Gaggan’s whims) with all the panache of Bruce Springsteen on a good night.


   And yes, the parallels are valid. But to me, he is a rock star not because of the music he plays or his performance skills but because, like the best musicians, he has the guts to take his greatest hits and re-invent them.


   In 1973, shortly after Simon and Garfunkel broke up, Paul Simon went out on tour on his own. The audience wanted to hear all the old hits including The Boxer with its complex Phil Spectorish arrangement and rising harmonies.


   Instead Simon did a stripped down version that allowed the lyrics to speak for themselves. And to the audience’s surprise he added a new verse;


Now the years are rolling by me

They are rocking evenly

I am older than I once was

And younger than I will be

But that’s not unusual

No, it isn’t strange

After changes upon changes

We are more or less the same


   It has been eight years since Gaggan burst on the scene. And when I ate the new versions of his great dishes, I was reminded of that verse. Yes, there are changes upon changes to each dish.


   But it is still the genius of Gaggan that shines through. And the man himself is more or less the same.



Posted On: 10 Aug 2018 12:42 PM
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