As his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok comes top of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for the fourth consecutive year, Gaggan Anand talks about writing a book, closing the restaurant in 2020 and customers licking their plates.
Gaggan Anand paid tribute to his mentor Ferran Adrià as his restaurant Gaggan became the only one since El Bulli to win a 50 Best Restaurants title four times in a row, from 2015 to 2018. The legendary Spanish chef's restaurant in Roses, Spain, was No.1 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants from 2006 to 2009, having first topped the list in 2002. Fittingly, Anand worked a stage at El Bulli as a young chef.
"I was the first Indian to work at El Bulli and the second Asian," Anand said after the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants ceremony in Macao. "Ferran motivated me and I'm here to motivate the next generation."
While some restaurants take success as their cue to keep doing what they’re doing, Anand sees it as encouragement to experiment and try new things, particularly for customers who visit twice a year or more. He installed a new test kitchen a year ago and is playing with Japanese ingredients and incorporating techniques and ideas learned from visiting other 50 Best Restaurants around the world.
“Innovation is leadership. That is what I learned from El Bulli,” Anand says of the now-closed restaurant. “You have to constantly evolve and not just repeat your classics and your greatest hits. My yoghurt dish is the one thing that stays while the rest of my menu changes 80% every three months.”
Anand gives the sense that he is fearless about innovation, partly because he plans to close the restaurant for good in the summer of 2020, making way for a new restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan, with his friend and fellow chef Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama. He also plans to produce a book of his personal life stories to be released online for free on the day the restaurant closes, a fitting end to the chapter of his 10 years in Thailand.
“2018 and 2019 will be the peak of what we do,” Anand said. “My dream is the cashier closes the cash box on the last day of Gaggan and at midnight I release the book in as many languages as I can. It’s my life book, with stories of food, a very serious book. Cooking is love, and the greatest thing I need to inspire people in my book is to put love into food, not anger, not hate.”
As he gears up for the final two years of Gaggan, Anand is increasing the price of his menu by 15% and closing the restaurant one day a week from this month, so that it opens from Monday to Saturday – previously it opened seven days a week in order to break even financially. While Gaggan has always been a passion project, Anand has secured his financial future with investments in other Bangkok restaurants including Gaa by his former chef Garima Arora, the eponymous restaurant by German twins Matias and Thomas Sühring, a natural wine bar run by his head sommelier Vladimir Kojic, and new omakase tofu restaurant Mihara Tofuten.
Gaggan’s biggest innovation of 2017 was Lick it up, a dish – inspired by a Kiss rock song –that involves customers licking the ingredients off the plate. Anand says he’s only had one table refuse the dish – a 65-year-old couple who preferred not to lick the plate – and he sees the invention as a symbol of the restaurant’s transition from formal fine dining to something much more relaxed and fun.
“The journey from Yoghurt to Lick it up is exactly the journey of Gaggan,” he says. “We have become unpretentious. Since our restaurant is affordable, we bring people from all over the world and that dish makes them all equal.”
Lick it up is the most shared Gaggan dish on social media – a coup for the chef who wanted to create something unique that wouldn’t invite comparison with other restaurants. “With 50 Best, people will say one restaurant is better than another, so I wanted my restaurant to be completely incomparable. Licking plates, eating with hands, we wanted it to be fun. We’re very serious with what we do behind the scenes but we don’t force our ego onto the customer.”
Anand has learned to embrace the world of social media in recent years, using it to check the presentation of his dishes as well as to network with other chefs around the world. When Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants launched in 2013, he didn’t use Instagram, but joined after fellow chef Richard Ekkebus inspired him to quit Facebook. When Gaggan was first voted No.1 in 2015, he had 13,000 followers – now he has 117,000, and a recent post about his brother’s death a few years ago led to him receiving 800 private messages and supportive phone calls from all over the world.
“The first year, after the 30th or 40th photo, I was tired of smiling and fake posing,” says Anand. “But now I enjoy it. I tell my staff all the time that we should enjoy being The Best Restaurant in Asia. We don’t feel the pressure of it.”
After four years as No.1 in Asia, is there anywhere else to go? For Anand, the next milestone is The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, where Gaggan currently sits at No.7, having moved from No.17 in 2014 to No.10 in 2015, to No.23 in 2016. The new list will be announced in Bilbao on June 19th.
“My dream is to be at least once the best restaurant in the world,” he says. “That’s every chef’s dream. But if I reach there, that will be the end of my restaurant because I’ve reached my peak. I’m closing it because I know I’m peaking.”
Check out Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2018: the list in pictures: