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This is Gaggan 2.0.

All of us know that Gaggan Anand is the world’s greatest Indian chef.

It isn’t just the accolades (two Michelin stars, number one on Asia’s 50 Best four years in a row, his own Chef’s Table episode etc.), it is also that he broke into that exclusive club of great chefs in Japan, Europe and the Americas who had always thought of Indian food as no more than a chilli-filled, ethnic cuisine.


Gaggan was the first chef to demonstrate that ours was one of the world’s great cuisines and that it deserves to be treated with respect. Even now, he is the one Indian chef whose name means something to all of the world’s top chefs.


   So, how come we heard so little of him during the pandemic?


   Good question. And the answer is complicated.


   The pandemic could not have come at a worse time for Gaggan. He had just fallen out with his partners at the original Gaggan restaurant and walked out. The staff had followed him to a new restaurant (called Gaggan Anand rather than just Gaggan) and it seemed like he had pulled off a successful transition.


   Then, the pandemic struck and Thailand shut down.


  Gaggan was not worried. He thought it would take another three months for everything to return to normal. He had saved enough money to see him through, so he told his staff to treat the period as an extended holiday.


   Of course, it did not work out that way. Thailand stayed shut for nearly two years. The foreign foodies who flocked to the restaurant, lured by the star quality attached to Gaggan’s name, stayed away. And Gaggan’s savings ran out. (Though somehow, he managed to hang on to the building where his restaurant was located.)


   He continued to pay his core team but looked around desperately for ways to keep the show on the road. A New York project seemed promising and he spent several months in that city. But that fell through. So did all of his other plans and schemes. Nobody was prepared to invest in the hospitality sector during the pandemic.


   Eventually, a lifeline appeared in the shape of an offer of a pop-up at Singapore’s Mandala Club. Gaggan was not sure how his food would go down with a Singaporean audience but he accepted the offer anyway. His core team moved to Singapore with him.


   To his surprise (though nobody else was surprised) the pop-up was a huge success. Tables were booked out weeks in advance and his menu drew praise in a food-crazy city where standards were high and which had several three Michelin star restaurants. (Bangkok has never gone beyond two stars, which is what Gaggan had.)


    Though it is not in Gaggan’s nature to admit to being downcast or feeling defeated, my guess is that the Mandala Club pop-up and the huge success it enjoyed restored his confidence and convinced him that life was taking a turn for the better.


 "When the show did begin, the excitement among the guests was comparable to the sort of feeling that an audience at a concert by a big-name band exhibits."

   That’s when he decided he would go back to Bangkok now that the pandemic was winding down. But he would not re-open the full Gaggan Anand restaurant. Instead, he would re-invent the chef’s table area downstairs, which itself was a reinvention of the Lab he ran at the first Gaggan. Here, he would cook for only 14 guests five nights a week (he now does two sittings, so he cooks for a total of 28 guests each night). But he would make it a theatre-like experience and also overhaul his menu, throwing out many of the dishes that had made him famous.


   The economics seemed daunting. He would not make money (as other top restaurants do) from marking up a large wine list. He would offer just one reasonably-priced wine pairing with the menu: nine wines for his 25 courses. And staff costs would be massive: 18 chefs for 14 guests plus another eight to ten employees.


   It was such a gamble that, before it opened, Gaggan told me that he was very anxious. Unlike the Singapore pop-up, where he kept his anxieties to himself, this time he was worried enough to shed his confident exterior and admit it.


   He needn’t have been. The restaurant is a massive success, packed out for months. I had to book in August to get a seat at the end of December.


   Though the new operation occupies the G’s Spot space, it is significantly different. I went for the 9pm seating and for the first five or ten minutes after we sat down, before the lights came on and the service started, it was like going to a rock concert, with an audience full of anticipation, waiting for the band to come on.


   When the show did begin, the excitement among the guests was comparable to the sort of feeling that an audience at a concert by a big-name band exhibits. It helped that the room now has concert lighting with all of the spots focussed on the stage. Gaggan prowls the kitchen area like some midnight rambler moving in and out of the shadows.


   He has always been a great performer. One of the attractions of the old Lab was watching him hold the audience spellbound as he told stories, made jokes, explained the dishes and put Indian food in context for non-Indian guests. He still does all that but it is much more an ensemble performance: he let his other chefs explain many of the dishes.


   None of it would work, of course, if the food wasn’t good. In fact, it was brilliant. Perhaps because he was so anxious about trying out this new style of restaurant dining, Gaggan had spent a lot of time perfecting new dishes. Of the 25 dishes he served on the night I went, 18 were brand new.


   The others used techniques he had mastered earlier to create new flavours. The old Lick It Up, one of his most famous dishes, served while the Kiss song of the same name plays, is gone. But a new dessert works on the same principle. The classic ghewar with savoury ingredients is gone but ghewar re-appears in a new form with figs.


   There are astonishing new dishes including a momo filled with mushroom-methi malai. Another new dish is a witty take on Chicken Tikka Masala (“no Indian knew what the damn thing was when we first heard of it”). The showstopping paturi of old is transformed by a new choice of fish while asparagus is made to look like brain. Simple touches elevate traditional dishes. A pyaaz kachori is light and flaky, its stuffing enhanced with just a dash of Balsamico.


   Not everyone will approve of the changes. Supposing you went to see The Rolling Stones in concert and they did not play Sympathy For The Devil or Jumpin' Jack Flash? (Gaggan does still start the meal with Yoghurt Explosion, which is to his food what Satisfaction is to the Stones catalogue.) But great chefs can’t afford to keep replaying their old hits. They must create new hits. And Gaggan has successfully done that.


   The new concert-style Gaggan will continue. But the chef himself has other ideas, most of which were still in the planning stages when I ate there. There is talk of moving another of his restaurants, Ms Maria and Mr Singh (a Mexican-Indian hybrid though the Indian food, which is outstanding, powers the menu) to the first floor of Gaggan, above the space where he performs every night. That way he can oversee the food himself and meet guests at the restaurant. A Delhi residency has long been planned but until it is final, Gaggan does not want to talk about it.


   Of one thing however, there is no doubt. Gaggan is back. But this is not the old Gaggan. This is Gaggan 2.0.



Posted On: 06 Jan 2023 11:55 AM
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