Gaggan Anand

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As in 2020

Sheila Marikar, October 21, 2020: The New York Times

Gaggan Anand turned his Indian restaurant in Bangkok into a pilgrimage site for globe-hopping foodies. So why, even before the pandemic hit, was he willing to give it up?

The meal cost $400 and came with rules. No. 1: No using cellphones, except to document the dinner and the chefs preparing it. “Please do the Instagram, the Facebook, the Twitter; give me the fame, I need the fame,” said Gaggan Anand, whose restaurant bore the same name. Clad in black, with a booming voice that suited his hulking figure, he stalked between a vast kitchen island and an L-shaped table for 14. “Those of you with good cameras, if you can take a photo of me scratching my ass, you get a bottle of Champagne.” Rule No. 2: “If this is on your ‘Things to Do in Bangkok’ list, you’re in the wrong restaurant.” Anand wore his hair in a messy bun; he sounded like a principal scolding a group of wayward adolescents. “If you are here to judge me, you are in the superwrong restaurant, because we are [expletive] judging you.” He went on: “This is not a, what do you call it?” — his fingers curled into air quotes — “ ‘fine-dining experience.’”

More rules preceded each dish. (There would be 25.) No smoke breaks. “I’m not antismoking,” he said, “but my nose is very particular, and your smoke will change my nose.” Limits on trips to the bathroom. “The first hour is all belted in,” he said. “After that, we will not give toilet breaks” — the meal would last the usual five hours — “but if you have to, just go quickly and come back. Think of this as a nonsmoking flight with no Wi-Fi, no network, and it’s an Indian airline, so nothing works and it’s very turbulent. You might be crashing soon, so you’d better enjoy.”

Anand says it was around this point in his customary spiel that one evening last fall, a woman got up and walked out. But on the night I visited the restaurant last December, there were only nods of assent and ripples of nervous laughter.

Anand, the most famous Indian chef in the world, delights in subversion. “Lick it up,” one of his staple dishes, looks like spray paint but tastes like India, a schmear of pulverized herbs and spices that, indeed, he demands you lick directly off the plate. Scallop “curry” comes ice-cold, sans gravy, with puffs of curry-infused ice cream. “Asteroid,” a charcoal-dusted morsel of sea bass with a molten core of roe, is his version of the fish cutlets he saw a woman frying in a charcoal-fired wok, on the street in the rain, the last time he visited India. Even his menu is outré: For years, it has been composed of only emoji, no text.

Last August, after receiving two Michelin stars and landing the fourth spot on the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Anand did something remarkable: Fed up with being micromanaged by his financial backers, he left the restaurant that made him famous, called Gaggan, and started over with the new one, Gaggan Anand. (His financiers had the rights to his first name but not the last.) “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says David Gelb, the creator of the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table.” “Traditionally, when you have a star chef, as investors, you support them.” Gelb’s show, in 2016, is what turned Anand from relative obscurity — an Indian chef in the middle of Thailand — into an emblem of defiance and a food-world antihero. More twists followed. In February, Anand, who is 42, divorced his wife of seven years. (They have a 4-year-old daughter.) March brought the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown. Then on June 1, Anand reopened his restaurant with a new protocol for sanitization and social distancing; by mid-July, owing to Thailand’s relative success in responding to the pandemic, he was able to take down the plexiglass shields between seats. These days, he helms the chef’s table six nights a week, unmasked. “I ask the guests’ permission,” he told me in September, “but they’re also not wearing masks, so.”

Around the world, Anand’s peers have responded to the pandemic’s privations by dabbling in lower-cost, higher-volume spinoffs to make up for lost revenue. In Copenhagen, for example, René Redzepi transformed Noma, which formerly charged close to $400 for a tasting menu of gastronomic curiosities like edible soil, into a wine-and-burger bar. (The cheeseburger goes for about $18.) While Anand experimented with cheaper offerings, seeing others push comfort food intensified his commitment to haute cuisine. “I would love to open a fried-chicken restaurant or some stupid [expletive] like that and kind of survive,” he says, “but I don’t want to give up fine dining.” He fired no one. He hired 10 new employees. “I’m still able to pay my staff,” he says. “We are not sinking, yet.”

Reality looms. Michelin devotees with money to burn and airline miles to accrue made up a significant portion of Anand’s customer base. Before the pandemic, 80 percent of his business came from international tourists; now, because Thailand requires foreigners to quarantine for 14 days, almost all of his customers are locals, and he has changed his business model accordingly, slashing prices by 40 percent, adding a $50 lunch and subtracting 90 minutes from the chef’s-table experience (“locally, they have less patience”). “That brought in people who thought we were unapproachable,” Anand says. But this month, he raised prices “because it’s not sustainable.” (Lunch now costs $100.) Fine dining the world over faces the same problem. International travel is severely limited, as William Drew, a director of World’s 50 Best Restaurants, points out — and it “will be for the foreseeable future.”

On that evening last December, Anand served crumbles of cumin and tamarind that looked like Pop Rocks. He made each guest at the chef’s table use a middle finger to eat a savory miniature doughnut; he described a dish of pork vindaloo as “a little Portuguese, a little Indian, and none of either.” “If you tell me to make a chicken curry and naan, I will tell you to get the [expletive] out of here,” he said. He poked; he prodded. In order to get a reservation at the chef’s table, you had to have filled out a questionnaire that included prompts like “Tell us about an embarrassing moment in your life” and pick one of five songs you’d sing with abandon if asked to do so (among the options: “I Want It That Way,” by the Backstreet Boys, and “Chop Suey,” by System of a Down). “You’re a gastroenterologist?” Anand asked one diner. “Can you tell me why my sous-chef farts so much?” On one wall, hot-pink tubes of neon spelled out Anand’s axiom: “Be a rebel.”

Toward the end of Hour 4, it was time to sing. The group consensus: “I Want It That Way.” Anand gave everyone the side-eye but obliged. A minute in, he switched to “Chop Suey,” turned up the volume and started playing air guitar.

If you are an Indian who lives outside of India, you get used to people casually disparaging your food: “too smelly,” “too spicy,” “too heavy.” Compliments are generally reserved for chicken tikka masala, a dish believed by some to have been invented by a Bangladeshi chef in Glasgow sometime in the ’70s. You get used to seeing your food in chafing trays and foam containers. You get used to eating one thing at home and something completely different at a restaurant, which probably charges $9.99 for its lunch buffet ($12.99 on Saturdays and Sundays), because what kind of person — Indians included — would deign to pay much more than that for Indian food?

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