We speak to the eminent chef about his long journey to the top and back down again, and discover his plans for a slightly more pocket-friendly menu.
It’s been a rollercoaster year for chef Gaggan Anand. Following the closure of his eponymous Asia’s 50 Best-topper in 2019, the eminent chef and Netflix “Chef’s Table” star went about opening his new, independent venue at breakneck speed. By last December, he and his team had unleashed their show-stopping 25-course tasting menus on Phrom Phong in characteristically raucous style. Then, Covid-19 hit, forcing restaurants across the world to close their doors. Though restrictions have eased, a continued curfew and ban on alcohol sales continues to cripple the industry in Bangkok. Despite this, Gaggan has plans to return. We caught up with him to find out about his journey to the top and back down again, and learn about his exciting plans for reopening.
“We have been pushed to our limits because of this pandemic, pushed down when we were at the top of the hill right to the foothill where we started our journey. Who is to blame? What are we supposed to do to overcome this? Where should we look for answers? Will we ever open again, and if we do, will we be able to go back to where we were? Climbing back up is always more difficult than the first attempt.
Before the pandemic, we were methodically creating a 25 course emoji menu with 70 permanent employees. We had a months-long waiting list. Where do we stand now? Will our fame give us back our fortune? I used to say “hug me I smell like curry,” now I can’t hug at all, argh!
When I started Gaggan in December 2010, the a la carte menu was B400-700 per dish, the tasting menu was B1,600. In our first month, we made around US$25k. We passed every hurdle, from political protests to curfews to floods to losing my brother. I kept going with determination to make it through.
As my fame and prosperity grew, I began to chase luxury. One time, I entered a famous French fashion store to buy a belt and a security guy followed me while I looked around. Initially, I felt very tormented, it hurt my ego, but today I have grown mentally and matured. I learned the lesson not to judge people by how they look and I still feel more pride in wearing my rock ‘n’ roll T-shirt than that uncomfortable belt. I was so possessive of the awards I had won at Gaggan when I left. Now, I think how childish I was to think in this way.
The journey from my B1,600 menu to B8,000 is one of awareness. Although the menu is created by the same hands and mind, the big difference is skills and knowledge and the talented young team that surrounds me, who challenge me along the way. There are many differences in the ethics and quality of my food now. For example, I use line-caught, seasonal fish to give them time to reproduce; I dry-age fish; I am aware of endangered species yet avoid farmed fish. By using the emoji menu, we do not have the stupid pressure of ensuring the fish matches a printed name on the menu, so we can use the catch of the day freely.
If I knew Covid was coming, would I have opened Gaggan Anand? I would. My team is my family. We will play the violin until the ship sinks and we will go down together, no one will be laid off. You can buy everything in life, except for self respect and dignity. Yet, if Gaggan Anand can’t open in the next 42 days, we do risk sinking.
In 10 years, I learned one thing: 'nothing is permanent, nothing is forever, no one is perfect,' but how to be content is something that I learned in the last few months. I used to talk to mom only one or two times a week, now it's one-to-two times a day. I am reconnected to all those I lost in this journey to the doom of fame and I have reconnected with my inner self. My temper, my ego, and my anger have gone into hibernation and I hope they won’t come back.
I give the middle finger to all those who think fine dining will be dead. My dream was to reach where no Indian had ever gone, and it still continues. We won’t die, we won’t give up and we won’t let this pandemic dampen our determination. Yes, we’re back to Ground Zero, but in the last month my amazing team and I have come up with some incredible ideas and innovations for the menu.
We won’t return with our B8,000 menu for many reasons. Everyone is financially hurt and in survival mode now and we only need to have enough money to pay full salaries to our team and survive until we can climb back up again. On top of that, we can no longer host our five-hour dinners due to social distancing and safety. Due to the practicality of sourcing ingredients with limited access to our farmers and fishermen, we will be using less expensive ingredients for now.
So, the new menu will be B4,000 for 15 courses and B5,000 for 18 courses. We will be open every evening, plus lunches on weekends, which will be B2,000 for eight courses. We will be doing 20 seats a day in June and we will plan our next steps depending on the situation.”
Expect Gaggan to be back in business from Jun 1.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.