Turning to the audience, having collected the winning trophy for Asia’s Best Restaurant for Bangkok’s Gaggan an incredible fourth time in a row, chef Gaggan Anand joked, modestly, to those assembled – the chefs, restaurant people and journalists who mark off Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna as one of the most important nights in the culinary year in Asia – that they had heard him speak from the stage “too many times.” Too many times, it seems for Anand.
“I want all the voters to stop voting for me,” says Anand, perched on an ornate sofa in a mirror-lined room in the five star hotel that will host the ceremony in Macau’s gambling mecca, several hours before his win. I’ve just asked him what he will do if he does win for a fourth time and he’s telling me that if he does, he doesn’t, in all seriousness, want to be in the running next year. “Finish it there, like Björn Borg at Wimbledon,” he laughs, but his mood darkens a little. “This is controversial, but this is honestly how I feel: over the past couple of days [in Macau] I’ve met so many chefs who are friends, behaving as if I’m number one and they’re number two or number three or number 10 or whatever. They’ve given up, what’s the point to compete? They’ve stopped smiling at me. I didn’t do any personal harm to them, I want my friends back, I don’t want to make 49 enemies, so I don’t want to be part of this misery … that’s part of fame, it’s fame’s curse and I think they all should get the curse,” he says, a wide grin returning to his face.
Of course, Gaggan is all set to close in 2020 anyway, with the Indian chef heading to Japan to open GohGan with chef Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama in Fukuoka, a 12-seat restaurant that will open one month, one month off. Goh was the only Japanese chef who was keen to collaborate when Anand first started asking back in 2014 and the idea is to carry forward the energy from the Lab at the restaurant in Bangkok, where a small number of guests eat around an open kitchen while Anand himself talks you through the dishes and the stories and inspirations behind them, and serves. Though they’ve yet to fully devise the cuisine, Anand is certain he doesn’t want it to be a restaurant that’s booked months in advance: “It won’t be like a members club, or VIPs only, it will be first come, first served … I want to open two or three days a month for reservations and then for that three days I will fill the next month,” he says. And the one month on, one month off thing? Well, he’ll do it because he can, but also, because he has to. “In one month you get bored. You come back, you’re revived,” he says. “I want to spend time with my daughter and my family and this will help me be a happy man. You enter a kitchen and you have no family life. I want to show chefs the art of living – we as chefs can live as normal people.”
The ever present fear of burn out is what led him to take the decision to close Gaggan he says – “I know that’s the end, I will burn out, so I want to control it. The candle is burning and now I’m reducing the flame” – and he wants to run the last year of the restaurant without the award that has given him so much over the last four years. “Without 50 Best I was nothing and I would like to be at the awards every year until I die, even if I’m in the backstage or the last row, its a family … but people should come [to the restaurant] for food and for me, and not the awards.”
However, actually extricating Gaggan from the list entirely might not, in reality, be possible, according to William Drew, Group Editor of The World's 50 Best Restaurants: "Restaurants cannot choose to be in the list – they are voted for – so by the same token they cannot choose to be removed, unless they closed or are closing imminently (within three months of the publication of the list)" he says. "The voters are anonymous and a minimum of 25% are changed each year. I think we can expect to see Gaggan on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019, whether it remains number one or not will only be revealed at this time next year." Drew expects to see Anand at The World's 50 Best Restaurants in Bilbao in June, with Gaggan currently sitting at number seven on the list.
Book plans and a Thai restaurant at Last
Incredibly, having resisted the temptation to pen a book thus far, Anand says he will sharing his first book online for free on the last day of Gaggan. “I come from a country with 1.3 billion people where every chef thinks that I’m their superhero. If I write a book, how many copies could I sell? Think about that, think about those numbers. I’ve decided my book will go online – because print media is dead – on the last day of my restaurant as a free gift to the world. I will not make money from Gaggan when it closes. I came from nothing. I’d rather give it free to people who deserve it.”
But then as a businessman too, Anand is the giving sort. Recent years have seen him begin to empire-build, adding financial clout to a number of restaurants in Bangkok, includingSühring which broke the top five of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants this year, and those from Gaggan alumni such as chef Garima Arora at Gaa and current Gaggan head sommelier Vladimir Kojic’s natural wine bar, Wet. He’s just about to open a tofu tasting restaurant in Bangkok and when Gaggan closes, he’ll be handing over the space to his current head chef Rydo Anton for his own project, with Anand’s backing of course. “You help talent, not with your fame, but with your experience,” he says.
And, he says, he plans to open one more restaurant in Bangkok, next year and this time finally, it will be Thai. “I won’t cook. I have two talented Thai chefs working with me and I’ve been building them up for the last two years, and I think it’s time to expose them next year. But the concept is the worst concept ever a chef can take.” Oh yeah, I ask, and what would that be? “Its a surprise!” he says, beaming.
This article was amended on 29/03/2018 to include comment from William Drew.