Gaggan Anand's progressive Indian cuisine is inspired by prog rock
This month Indian molecular gastronomy chef Gaggan Anand undertakes his first "pop-up" tour, which takes him from his Bangkok restaurant to Delhi, Mumbai, and Hong Kong, where he will be at Landmark Mandarin Oriental from September 22 to 24.
He will not be travelling light. "My 300 kilos of excess baggage will include psychedelic Gaggan pop-up T-shirts and uniforms, a lot of equipment and ingredients like secret spices and a whole lot of excitement," he says.
After making his way steadily up to third place in the list of Asia's top 50 restaurants, and 17th on the list of the world's top 100, he says he feels "it is time to go out into the world and see how good we are".
His parents came from north India, but Anand was born and raised in Culcutta. As a child he cooked with his mother, and he says he never wanted to do anything except become a chef. His career began with studies at India's best hospitality school; soon after graduation, he cooked for former US president Bill Clinton. He also travelled with Abdul Kalam, former president of India.
By 2007 Anand knew that what he calls "industrial cooking" was not for him, and he jumped at the opportunity of working in Thailand, first at the helm of contemporary Indian restaurant Red Bangkok, then as chef de cuisine for Bangkok's Lebua Hotels and Resorts.
He enjoyed working there, but remained determined to open his own restaurant. So in 2010, Anand and three friends found a beautiful old Western-style house in an obscure little lane close to the diplomatic area.
Anand knew exactly what he wanted - an uncluttered, modern environment retaining the feel of a private home.
While the food is definitely 21st century, there's nothing avant-garde about the comfortable chairs, Italian-style cutlery, giant, soft muslin napkins and posies of fresh flowers on the tables.
"When we were planning the restaurant, I knew I wanted to do something different although I didn't know what," Anand says.
"The building was over 85 years old and it required extensive and time-consuming renovation. I took the opportunity to intern under Ferran Adria in the laboratory at elBulli. That changed my life, and helped me to grow into what I am today," he says.
The first Indian to take a culinary apprenticeship with the Spaniard, Anand returned to Bangkok equipped with new skills and a new vision of the direction in which he wanted to go. Molecular wizardry, foams, liquid nitrogen and a playful approach to deconstruction now create dishes that appeal to all the senses. "Ferran gave me the best advice, which was not to copy his recipes, but to follow his philosophies," he says.
"Indian chefs are bound by the past," says Anand. But even though he's aware of this, he still draws most of his ideas from his culinary heritage. He reworks his mother's recipes to combine futuristic cooking techniques with a surprising presentation.
Ask him to describe his style of cooking and he will call it "progressive" Indian cuisine, a tribute to the progressive rock music that keeps him company on long stints in the kitchen.
Whatever the label, Anand's take on familiar spices and ingredients brings Indian cuisine into the 21st century.
There have never been secrets in this restaurant, where the most sought-after table has a window directly into the kitchen. Anand says that most products used in the restaurant are organic, including all the spices.
The menu constantly evolves "every time I make a trip. Travel is an inspiration. Ideas are sparked by street food, by familiar dishes, and sometimes by pure fantasy," he says.
"When most restaurants succeed, the next step is usually to open another restaurant. But we are investing in our existing restaurant.
"The interior has recently been redone to increase our seating from 53 to 60. We have added a chef's table inside the new kitchen, and we also found space at the side to construct a big lab which will help a lot," says Anand.
"A lot of chefs want to work with us: three to five new applications come in every day from all over the world," he says.
"We now have 10 chefs in the restaurant, as we aspire to reach a new level of excellence. Prices have risen, but it is still among the cheapest food of its category in Bangkok," he says.
Modern Indian cuisine has been around for a while, but it is generally limited to using less ghee and oil.
When Anand prepared to launch his progressive cuisine, everybody advised him against it. But he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.