ESQUIRE: Gaggan, we met once before not too long ago, when I attended your talk at Singapore’s Mandala Club (formerly known as Straits Clan). In all my time interviewing, I’ve never met a chef as…
GAGGAN ANAND: As [effed] up as me?
ESQ: I was going to say unconventional!
ANAND: Okay so, unconventionally [effed] up?
ESQ: There are many others out there with bold personalities, but you might just be the most unabashedly honest chef I’ve ever met. What do you think about that?
ANAND: I think I am an honest person and that’s where my honesty comes from even as a chef. Honesty is difficult to find in the fake world we sometimes live in today. I’ve always thought the only thing I could do with my success, is to be the same. It really goes back to our teachings as a Hindu, as a Brahmin, as a Buddhist or as a Christian or Muslim etc. Our religions remind of us of honesty and that the more dedicated to being as real as we can be, our mistakes and learnings too, will be a part of our growth. Honesty for me is in the ethics of being human, be it in business or anywhere else—and that’s what I practise on a daily basis.
ESQ: On your Chef’s Table episode (season 2, episode 6 on Netflix) you shared that at every crossroad you’ve faced in your career, you’ve always asked yourself if something felt authentic to you, before you made your next move. Is it important to you not to do things for the sake of it?
ANAND: Now more than ever I have this mindset. In the first five or six years of my career, I was always worried about being diplomatic or correct. I would worry about everything from how I spoke to how I stacked the dishes. Now I’m more concerned with pushing myself to be the best and most real version of who I can be.
ESQ: Are you surprised that people have embraced you as you are?
ANAND: I think I seem very normal to most people. I’m a very approachable guy and I want people to judge me for what I am. I’m always looking for ways to make the people around me happy. I find what appeals to them about me, is that they can connect and talk to me. There are of course, those who find me arrogant. To them, I sometimes ask—is it arrogance or is it just me keeping it real? That’s the thing, you know?
ESQ: Do you think people’s perception of your arrogance comes from the notion that they’re not typically used to seeing Indian chefs be as opinionated as you are in the mainstream media? After all, there are many chefs – like Gordon Ramsay, who are also outspoken but they don’t seem to be branded the same.
ANAND: It’s interesting, because for me, my arrogance starts more with my food than with my personality. That’s what it really comes down to. I have a dish called Lick It Up. Often, when guests come to my restaurant, they say, But we don’t know how to lick our plates. I’m like, It’s written there! You can read it. So lick it! (Laughs) Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, you have to lick the plate. My food reflects me and I reflect my food, and that’s really the personality of my restaurant.
ESQ: You’re known as a bit of a rockstar chef, in that a lot of your food is inspired by your favourite musicians—from Nirvana to Pink Floyd. Is this what makes you unique? Why have you managed to stand out amongst your fellow Indian chefs?
ANAND: I am very opinionated and that’s a problem. I have my opinions and I have lots of them. I have an opinion about life, about music; and I’m not shy about them. I, as a chef, have a choice to be capricious. Everybody has their own inspiration; I like to use lyrical lines as mine. You ask a chef who’s from Europe—he or she might say theirs is the village they grew up in. Or the cow, the cheese or the bread they had growing up. You know this—if you’re from India, you are born into the most chaotic country in the world. Everything from the streets to the people, is chaos. Yet if you look carefully, everyone is just looking for a good time and something good to eat. So, that chaos has made me become rock-and-roll too. Because guess what? Rock-and-roll is also chaos. And my chaos works for the people. Lots of stars live that sex, drugs and rock-and-roll fame. I don’t do drugs. Food is my stage.
"I am very opinionated and that’s a problem. I have my opinions and I have lots of them. I have an opinion about life, about music; and I’m not shy about them."
ESQ: Is that why you’re evolving Indian cuisine, so it’s not just all about a ‘curry and naan’ experience? Do you want to take people out of their comfort zones and into the chaos?
ANAND: Let’s say… let’s say my food is exactly like the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ [by Queen]. Right? It’s opera, it’s tragic, it’s emotional, and it’s loud. These are all the emotions you get from my food. It’s provocative, it’s objectionable, it’s tasty, it’s fun; it’s memorable because you can’t just get that anywhere. That’s why I’m now doing this ‘Gaggan’s Greatest Hits’ menu [currently available at his pop-up in Mandala Club] because this is the last time I’m going to give you all these memories. Nobody’s ever going to have to lick a plate again after this. This is it.
ESQ: After all these years of wearing so many hats—from chef to business-owner, to partner to media personality—does cooking still make you happy?
ANAND: There’s no other pleasure than cooking—the rest is just what surrounds it. Cooking is pure ecstasy.
ESQ: What is it that still makes you feel this way? Do you have a spiritual connection to food in some way?
ANAND: It’s my zen. When I’m in the kitchen cooking, everyone can see it’s my zen. We met a few weeks ago at the press conference and after that, we all had fun, right? We all hung out, we got to know one another, we drank some wine. It just happened—I didn’t plan that for you. That’s what food is for me—the zen moment that just happens.
ESQ: How do you handle criticism from people who say you’re misrepresenting Indian cuisine or that you’re moving away from what’s ‘pure’? Do you find more critique than acceptance or vice versa?
ANAND: I think it’s a mix, but I also do get a lot of acceptance. Because people love it. I’ve been able to make people believe that Indian food can also be small and beautiful and minimalist, and those aren’t always elements that you expect in an Indian restaurant. And it took me two years to get people convinced. But then once I got them convinced, it suddenly became this famous place. It’s funny because sometimes people will tag me in photos outside of Mandala Club and then I come to realise they haven’t even eaten there—they’re just tagging me as the location because they like it. It’s so funny, but I enjoy it.
ESQ: What makes it funny for you?
ANAND: I mean it’s like really interesting, right? I just think it’s funny. It’s hilarious that people—without eating in the restaurant—are posting about it. It’s like going to
a Justin Bieber concert and posting about Madonna instead. I still remember, about six years ago, a lady posted on Facebook that she went to my restaurant and that she absolutely hated the food.
She said it was horrible. I was like, oh [damn]. She’d tagged the restaurant, but the photos of the food didn’t look like mine. So I asked her, Did you eat in my restaurant? She then told me, No, I didn’t eat in your restaurant. I was like, Then why are you saying the food is horrible, when you never even went to Gaggan? It was really funny to me. Like I said before, we live in a very fake era, where people are happy to be fake around us.
"Every dish is an [eff] you. It’s [eff] you, [eff] you, [eff] you! Every dish tells the story that—everyone, I’m pissed at you if you’re a fake person and into fake fine-dining. If you want to come to my restaurant, be a real person."
ESQ: Is food part of the rebellion of how you feel about the world today?
ANAND: Absolutely. You can look at it and see it every day. Every dish is an [eff] you. It’s [eff] you, [eff] you, [eff] you! Every dish tells the story that—everyone, I’m pissed at you if you’re a fake person and into fake fine-dining. If you want to come to my restaurant, be a real person. Interesting for you to say that—because many would say that if you look at your price point for sale (a dinner at Gaggan costs SGD388++ per person without booze to match), how can you be against fine-dining when your minimalism, your price and your style of food cater so well to it? It’s a fine-dining format, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s still a crazy place. My restaurant is a crazy place. It’s not like going to any other nice place where you get dressed up and come and enjoy dishes. It’s not comparable to a classic French or Japanese place. It’s an experience that you can’t find elsewhere. And it’s not just because of the memory of the food or the quality, or taste. We are a [bloody] mad house. The only thing you’ll get is our madness, our people, our team; everybody will give you madness and that’s what makes it distinct. I don’t want people coming just for a great meal—I want them to come for a memory-building experience.
ESQ: Food aside, who are you as a person? Are you actually as unconventional as people say you are?
ANAND: I’m not afraid of anything—and I’m not unconventional. I just do what I want to do, and say what I want to say. I follow my heart, my Gods and my mouth. I always knew I’d be big in life; I always knew I’ll do something that is crazy. I’m just doing it. My soul is a hippie. I’m a global citizen. I do not need that comfort of my bed; I don’t need the security of being in my house and being safe. I want to travel and become my adventures.
ESQ: How would you like to be remembered as a person?
ANAND: I really want to be remembered as that person [who was] always honest and real with people. I want to be remembered as accessible—even though my food is not. My food is my art. Not everyone should be privy to your art. But me? You may not be able to get a table in my restaurant, but you can always meet and talk to me.
ESQ: You’ve done Bangkok, you’ve done Singapore. What’s next for you?
ANAND: I’m off to Coachella [the annual music festival in California] to cook for a sold-out crowd. Then in July, I’m going back to Bangkok. We may then go to Japan and Vietnam after. We’re going to be everywhere. What did I tell you? I’m a hippie.
ESQ: What should young chefs looking to follow in your footsteps not do to become as successful as you are?
ANAND: Okay, interesting as most people ask what to do. So I’ll tell you what not to do. First, do not take as many risks as I did. Yes, they paid off, but they could’ve all gone to waste. I don’t gamble in a casino, but I gamble with everything otherwise. Next, never listen to the wise people; because if you listen to the wise people, you’ll never become wise yourself. You’ll always make the right decisions and not know how to handle anything if it goes wrong. Thirdly, never cook what the standard requires you to. Only cook what you want to cook. Don’t worry about what others want you to do. You cook what you want to.
ESQ: Finally, where do you see Gaggan the person and Gaggan the brand in five years?
ANAND: We’re about to become a website. Our restaurant is going to be a website that people have to follow and use our social media to find out which locations and what we’ll be up to next.
ESQ: And Gaggan the person?
ANAND: Me? I’ll be the same way. I may have lesser, I may have more—but I’ll still be going ahead. I’ll be here, just the same way.
Gaggan Anand’s Greatest at Mandala Club runs until 30 June 2022. Bookings can be made at https://mandala.club/gaggan-anand. Lunch starts from SGD288++ per person, with dinner service from SGD388++ per person, excluding matching wines.