Asia's best restaurant to close

Chef Gaggan Anand with customers at the chef's table inside the research and development kitchen at his restaurant in Bangkok.
Chef Gaggan Anand with customers at the chef's table inside the research and development kitchen at his restaurant in Bangkok.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Chef Gaggan Anand plans to shutter his eponymous Bangkok restaurant in 2020

BANGKOK • It was always tough to get a reservation at Gaggan, an inventive Indian eatery in  Bangkok.

Now, after its third straight win in the closely watched Asia's 50 Best awards, the wait can easily stretch to four months. A four-person team has been hired just to manage the roughly 500 booking requests that come in every day.

Chef Gaggan Anand's response?

Shut it down. "Every restaurant has a 10-year life," he said. "After that, it becomes a brand."

The plan to close his eponymous Gaggan in 2020 is highly unusual when celebrity chefs are more likely to emulate Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck and try to whip up a global food empire.

Not only that, Gaggan is also a safe bet to land a spot on the first Michelin Guide for Bangkok due in December. Using molecular gastronomy tools such as liquid nitrogen, Anand has redefined what traditional Indian food looks like while preserving flavours and tastes.

Still, he believes in an expiration date. He compares himself to a Champagne bottle that, once opened, will eventually fizz out.

He is taking a cue from his mentors at the award-winning El Bulli, which closed in 2011 when it was still immensely popular and charging €250 a meal.

The Spanish restaurant had won the overall World's 50 Best title five times and was a prime example of the star-making power of the list.

The ranking began as a publicity stunt and has grown into an event akin to the Oscars of the food world.

Gaggan came in at No. 7 on this year's global list. 

Anand, 39, was born in Kolkata and cooked his first dish at seven: instant noodles.

He recalled crying in frustration because the finished product looked nothing like the artistically garnished photo on the packaging.

He interned at El Bulli in 2010 before opening his eponymous restaurant later that year in December. It was at the Spanish eatery that he learnt to experiment with food.

These days, he spends the majority of his time in research and development. One of his most complex dishes is a coin-sized eggplant cookie.

Fresh eggplant is charred, skinned, cooled, freeze-dried, ground and moulded into a powdered compress with curry oil and Indian spices.

He then sandwiches two together with onion chutney jam. The whole process takes four days.

Diners are handed a 25-course tasting menu with no words - just emoji. The menu is a way to transcend language barriers, he said.

Once the meal is complete, diners get a menu with words to let them know what they have eaten. In true Indian fashion, 23 of the dishes are eaten by hand.

Even on nights when he is not in the restaurant, Anand runs a tight ship. He trawls social media and sends screenshots of unsatisfactorily prepared dishes to his chefs with feedback and criticism.

"Whichever part of the world I'm in, I can see how my food is and whether people like it," he said.

He is not concerned about winning another culinary trophy or a Michelin star.

"Don't judge Bangkok with French standards. We are not Le Gaggan. We are not French. 

"We are Asians."

Up next, he wants to move to Japan, drawing on Buddhist principles to challenge himself to avoid boredom and burnout.

With partner Takeshi Fukuyama of La Maison de La Nature Goh, he plans to open a tiny restaurant - called GohGan - that will be open for just 20 days a month.

He wants to keep prices down at 15,000 yen (S$186) a person.

That would bring in only a quarter of Gaggan's revenue. For cash flow, he will rely on investments in other restaurants in Bangkok.

These include Suhring, which serves modern German cuisine; Gaa, an Asian-European fusion restaurant that uses all-local produce; and his own steakhouse, Meatlicious, which is down the street from Gaggan.

Over the next few years, he also expects to open two restaurants - Raa and Sol.

Raa will be a Japanese-Indian izakaya or gastropub. In 2019, Sol, a bakery and dessert restaurant led by Gaggan's long-time pastry chef Solanki Roy, will be built.

"I will get my daily bread from all the other restaurants," he said. "Then, financially, I'm free."

Coming full circle from the first dish he cooked, Anand still loves indulging in noodles, his favourite food. But you will not find them on his menu. He is not confident about his noodle-cooking skills just yet.

"It's tough," he said. "It's not an easy job to challenge people who can cook amazing noodles."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2017, with the headline 'Asia's best restaurant to close'. Print Edition | Subscribe