Culinary maestro, chef Gaggan Anand doesn’t mince his words. Ask him about his take on progressive Indian cuisine and he’s quick to admit, “I don’t think that Indian food is still yet progressive. I wish it was. But what I see the chefs doing is mostly what has been done before.” Given the rage of progressive Indian cuisine, often regarded as sacrosanct in the name of innovation, someone had to say it, and who better than the Kolkata-born chef who is widely recognised for pushing the boundaries of the fine dining experience for more than a decade now.
The recently -concluded weekend witnessed the much-awaited homecoming for the Michelin-star chef at JW Marriott, Kolkata. At his two-day immersive epicurean experience, a masterclass titled ‘Eat, Cook, Play’ patrons were acquainted to theatrical cooking and taken on a multi-sensory journey of touch, sound, lights, smell, taste and the sixth element of surprise, combined together and served as an artistic production. “The entire experience was an orchestra and as the conductor, my role was just making sure everyone plays the right note,” says the chef, who’s been the Numero Uno on Asia’s 50 Best for four years in a row.
1. You come from Kolkata, any culinary anecdotes you would like to share from your childhood?
Kolkata, my hometown, holds a special place in my heart as I return to its culinary roots. My palate's foundation was laid growing up in the lively streets of Kolkata. Bengali cuisine, with its unique tradition of initiating meals with bitters to awaken the taste buds, significantly influences my cooking preferences. Bengali cuisine is all about balancing sweet, sour, pungent and spice. The earthy, light, sweet, sour tastes dominate the food largely based on river fish, vegetables and rice. I have so many memories of the markets, the ingredients, aromas and flavours that are unique to this region and these memories continue to shape the chef I am today.
2. From becoming a rebel in 2019 to picking up the Highest New Entry Award, Asia’s 50 Best in 2021 and being voted No.5 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023, how has the journey been?
I just believe in continually challenging myself and keep innovating. Food is my passion and I’m fortunate to have the support of a team that is equally dedicated and together we are on a constant pursuit of pushing culinary boundaries.
3. What's your secret behind maintaining the number one position on Asia’s 50 Best for four years in a row?
I think it’s our commitment to innovation, pushing the limits of what's possible and a passionate pursuit of excellence.
4. Is there anything new that you're working on at the moment?
In 2024, I will be opening an extremely luxurious restaurant in Bangkok. I can't tell you more details. But this will be one of the biggest things I have ever done in my life.
5. What are your favourite ingredients to work with?
My favourite ingredient is the chilli. Of course, I am an Indian, and I think that one chilli can make a difference to any cuisine. Imagine a world without chilli. I think chilli is the essence of every kitchen.
6. What has kept you from opening a restaurant in India? Can we expect one sometime soon or in near future?
I don’t think the Indian industry is rigid, but I don’t think it's still not ready for the fine dining we do. Where it is very customised, very small groups, not very big. But small restaurants are dedicated where the chef has the liberty to cook whatever he wants on the plate they want and it will be accepted. I think we are far from there. But yes the restaurant industry is really booming here and F&B and hotels are having much better restaurants than we had a few decades back.
7. What's your take on the progressive Indian cuisine and preserving indigenous ingredients and culinary traditions?
I don’t think that Indian food is still yet progressive. I wish it was. But what I see the chefs doing is mostly what has been done before. So I want to see more innovation in the future which reflects India in a progressive way. Progressive means to learn forward from what is existing. Progressive Indian cuisine is about pushing boundaries while preserving indigenous ingredients and culinary traditions. It's a delicate balance of innovation and respect for the roots, creating a culinary narrative that evolves while staying true to its origins but aiming to craft art.
8. You have been pushing the boundaries of the fine dining experience for more than a decade now. What does it need to disrupt and reinvent fine dining?
Now India thinks truffles and caviar is luxury which was luxury 20 years back in the world. India should focus on what is very Indian. Like the best Sarson Da Saag in season. Or not just Gajar ka Halwa but Beetroot Ka Halwa. Things like these. They are very precious in our domestic day life but we don’t value them. I think bringing luxury from there is what India should focus on.
9. It's been 15 years for you in Bangkok. According to you, what makes Bangkok a culinary paradise?
Bangkok has a diverse and vibrant food scene. From street food to fine dining, the city seamlessly blends traditional Thai flavours with global influences, creating a melting pot of culinary delights.
10. If you had to take someone on a food trail in Bangkok, which restaurants/street food joints would be on your list and why?
I would include the street food joints that showcase the diverse culinary landscape of the city. Each spot would offer a unique culinary experience, from traditional flavours to modern interpretations.
11. Food trends that will rule 2024?
I love using Indian ingredients in India. I often find it saddening that we give importance to imported ingredients and we do not encourage our farmers to grow better and grow finer. In the years to come, I hope that in India we don’t try to give Japanese fruits or Thai mango or Thai melon or things like that more leverage rather than the humble sweet lime or guavas from India or seasonal fruits from all across India and showcase them and try to encourage the farmers to grow them better and preserve them better and the freshest logistics to be sent to the hotels so we can use the best.