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Eating Out | His experiments with food

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-05-2014 Sumana Mukherjee

Ten minutes into the long-promised conversation, Gaggan Anand, 36, excuses himself and breaks off into fluent Thai. His tone changes, becomes more sibilant, pitches itself higher and unconsciously acquires a note of authority that is not to be disregarded. “A new consignment of tablecloths has just arrived,” he explains when he comes back to the phone, “and I have to direct the staff to use them tonight.”

It is about 5.30pm in Bangkok. Gaggan, the eponymous restaurant that snagged the 17th spot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2014 less than a week ago, is to open for dinner in half-an-hour. The phone has been ringing off the hook, the website has crashed at least once. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Gaggan. Somewhere, there is the dawning realization that this Punjabi munda from Kolkata has made history.

Let’s consider the ways: The first Indian restaurant in the top 20 since the awards were instituted in 2002. The highest-placed new entry, up from a ranking of 66 in 2013, an even bigger jump than the Lima, Peru, restaurant Central (50th in 2013, 15th this year), which displayed the maximum mobility in the top 50. And a reaffirmation of the recognition accorded by the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 list in February, when Gaggan was placed at No.3.

There are those who believe a worldwide ranking of restaurants is a fatuous exercise (right up there with, say, the Oscars). To experience, rate, sift and cull through categories and classes of restaurants in magnificently diverse cultures with any degree of fairness is a daunting task by all stretches of the imagination. However, like the Michelin guide, which introduced stars for restaurants as a differentiator for French motorists in 1926, or the Zagat survey, which began crowdsourcing ratings in 1979, the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants has, in far fewer years of existence, emerged as a hugely influential collation of fine restaurants across the world.

The ‘dhokla’ that was two-and-a-half years in the making. Photo: Sansith KoraviyotinPart of the reason lies in the professionalization of the processes. Unlike the Michelin guide, the compilation of which has been always shrouded in secrecy, the 50 Best methodology is transparent, at least to some extent. The list is drawn up by an academy comprising 26 regional representatives—chefs, restaurateurs, food journalists, gourmands—who head 900-odd members with voting rights.

Six years ago, Gaggan—he prefers going by one name—was one of them. “For four years, between 2006 and 2009, Ferran Adria’s elBulli topped the World 50 list. I was already in Bangkok by then, but a series of professional and personal crises had laid me low. I was intrigued by what Adria was doing so right and, on the spur of the moment, I took off for the elBulli Labs in 2010,” says the burly, long-haired chef. “Within seconds of first seeing and tasting Adria’s food, I knew this was what Indian food needed to move to the next level.”

Inspired? Definitely. Derivative? Not so much. To Gaggan’s credit, the application of Adria’s molecular gastronomy principles to Indian food was no cut-and-paste job but, rather, an intellectual appropriation. “Deconstruct and then reconstruct,” he says succinctly when I ask him what it is that he learnt from Adria. “Indian street food has always fascinated me. I knew straight off that I could treat a dhokla or paapdi chaat or gol gappa in this manner. But it took me two-and-a-half years to recreate the dhokla in a way that satisfied me.”

For the curious, Gaggan’s interpretation of the dhokla involves spraying the batter into a liquid nitrogen bath until it resembles flecks of snow. The paapdi chaat uses a yogurt spherification, laced with tamarind chutney and herbal foam. Another much-feted dish is the tandoori lamb chops, cooked sous-vide and grilled, and finished with coriander oil.

There will, of course, be those classicists who will rubbish the technological twists to all-time greats. Bangalore-based author and food connoisseur Kaveri Ponnapa, however, has a different take. After a lavish dinner at Gaggan a few months ago, she wrote: “The essence of food at Gaggan is this: It is truly modern in its use of techniques and ingredients, without the slightest loss of the traditional reference points. The flavours are twisted, distilled and intensified, rather than altered or compromised in any way, summoning up a host of taste memories and emotions.”

The question then follows inevitably: Why did Gaggan have to leave India to become Gaggan? And leading from that, why isn’t homegrown Indian cuisine good enough for the international listers?

The answers are as interconnected as they are separate. “Whenever I talk to my friends (from back in the day, when Gaggan graduated from the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology in Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram, and joined the Taj Group in Delhi, working under the legendary Arvind Saraswat), they say, ‘Hey, I’ve become a corporate chef/executive chef/I have so many people working under me’. Nobody has the balls to go and do their own stuff, set up their own restaurant,” Gaggan pauses his rant to take a breath. “And don’t tell me there’s no market for a different kind of Indian food. Twenty-five per cent of my tables are occupied by Indians every night. When I do my pop-ups in India, that’s the feedback I get: That Indian diners are ready for a change. But for that the hoteliers and restaurateurs need to change. All I see is one A.D. Singh and one Manish Mehrotra, who are trying new things.

Tandoori lamb chops with edible flowers. Photo: Sansith Koraviyotin “And then, of course, there’s the government. It cares nothing for the (food) industry, it hasn’t even bothered to set up a reliable supply chain. Most importantly, it has not managed to successfully project India as a tourist destination. If Manish was in New York City, he’d be a star. His location in Delhi is a challenge. To be in the Top 50, you don’t need the attention of the awards panel, you need the attention of the world. Bangkok is a great place for me because the whole world comes to Bangkok. And this recognition, while it generates publicity, also provokes curiosity. More people will now visit the city—that’s the way it works.”

Refreshingly, Gaggan is as candid about acknowledging that alongside being at the right place, he’s the right man at the right time in award season. “On that night of 28 April, I was standing on the dais next to Thomas Keller, whose iconic Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry came in at No.44, while his New York flagship Per Se dropped from the 11th position last year to 30. His ranking doesn’t make him a lesser chef; it only means Indian food is having a moment. And at the moment, I am India’s best bet. The organizers of World’s 50 Best said as much—they said they’d been getting criticized because no Indian restaurant was making it to the list!”

Food critic Rashmi Uday Singh, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy chair for Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, however, isn’t too worried about the Indian showing—or non-showing, to be more correct—in the list. “Of the seven votes given to each member of the regional panels, three must be used for restaurants outside their region. And the member must have visited the restaurant in the 18 months prior to voting. But how many people come to India (for the food)?” she asks.

“We don’t set out to make the ultimate list. Rather, it is a reflection of the current opinions of the well-travelled. In fact, I was rather pleased to find six restaurants from India (Bukhara, Indian Accent, Dum Pukht, Varq, Wasabi and Karavalli) in the Asia’s Top 50 list, when Tokyo has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world!” Singh says. “Nor do I believe that the dearth of cutting-edge restaurants in India is responsible for the poor showing in the World list—The French Laundry, for instance, is still very classical.”

With no serious competition rising from his home country, Gaggan, then, can be said to have the responsibility of placing India on the world fine food map. Having abandoned his plans for a restaurant in Mumbai after a fall-out with his prospective partners, all his focus is on Bangkok. “I made the highest debut in the world this year, I don’t want to make the fastest exit next,” he laughs. To that end, he is building a state-of-the-art bar, as well as a $250,000 (around `1.5 crore) laboratory, where he’ll continue his experiments with food.

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A lab in your kitchen

Want to cook like Gaggan? Here are four tools the chef believes will be essential in the home kitchen.

uSiphon: I believe it can revolutionize Indian cooking. I use my siphon to make everything from souffles to hot ‘gulab jamuns’. At home it can be used to make eggless mousses, cakes, ice creams, anything you want.

uVacuum fryer: India has a long history of frying food, but I am not interested in the regular methods. Instead, I use vacuum fryers, which are available in India. They use oils at lower temperatures, almost distilling the essence of the product.

uSous-vide machine: In the next 20 years, sous-vide machines will be like microwaves. Everyone who can afford it will have one.

uAir-dryer/dehydrator: As a people, we dry everything from ‘papads’ to pickles in the sun. In the process, we expose it to dust and pollution. Dehydrators remove water and prevent the growth of bacteria and extend shelf-life.

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