One has to give it to Gaggan for a sense of occasion. Soon after Gaggan, his eponymous Indian restaurant in Bangkok, was named the top restaurant in Asia in the S Pellegrino and Acqua Panna list on 29 February, he announced before a stunned global media contingent that it would close down in five years.

It took the focus away from Gaggan’s second consecutive win in a manner that the chef— who prefers using only one name—hadn’t foreseen. In a way, though, this was typical of his career: From going down the regular five-star route in India after his graduation from the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology, Thiruvananthapuram, to launching an unsuccessful industrial catering business in Kolkata, his hometown, to moving to Bangkok and working at yet another failed restaurant consultancy, to finally stumbling upon his eureka moment during an impulsive stint at Ferran Adria’s el Bulli Labs in 2010, Gaggan’s trajectory has been anything but predictable.

At 38, Gaggan seems to have finally come to terms with both the volatility of his own nature as well as the vagaries of the global food industry. He will always love doing things on the fly; all he can do is try to anticipate the flight path.

Edited excerpts from a Skype interview:

We’re just four months into 2016, but it’s already been an eventful year for you. It started with Meatlicious.

That’s right. In January, we opened Meatlicious, a steakhouse, where we cook only with wood and charcoal, no gas or electricity. No one would have thought I could do this—which is precisely why I did it. We source meats from various countries, the head chef is a French guy, there’s a Latin butcher, a Colombian baker. It’s a very simple, comfort-food restaurant and it’s doing very well. We’ll probably break even in five months.

The Meatlicious Roast Chicken
The Meatlicious Roast Chicken

What was the thought behind it?

The concept is very simple. Gaggan is the kind of restaurant one can’t go to every day—it’s the place you would go once in your life or once a year, on a special day. Also, cost-wise, Gaggan is so expensive that affordability is becoming an issue—I can’t make money there any more. I needed a cash cow—and that’s what Meatlicious is. It’s been in the works since July last year. In August, we rented the place, and we launched in January. It’s a completely different concept from Gaggan; in fact, I’m there probably just once a week.

From the point of view of food, the idea was to exploit all the amazing flavours that charcoal and wood can yield. These are flavours that have been around ever since man discovered fire, yet they have been completely lost. When you have a wood fire and meat of amazing quality, you don’t need me around—all you need additionally is salt and pepper. It’s freestyle cooking. When our chefs at Gaggan get bored, I tell them to go to Meatlicious and cook there.

A Miyazaki Wagyu burger steak
A Miyazaki Wagyu burger steak
Grilled Lamb Chops.
Grilled Lamb Chops.

A meat and fish/seafood-focused restaurant at this point seems almost counter-intuitive—there are health concerns, environmental concerns...

I don’t think meat sustainability is a problem. The problem is overfishing. I don’t use varieties of tuna and other fish that are getting depleted. I source sustainable salmon from Australia. So far as meat is concerned, I sell hardly 25kg of meat per day. Our grain-fed beef comes from a cattle ranch in Japan that plays music to calm the cows: Happy cows equal good meat. I look at small producers, small products, good farming practices. I don’t use any American beef at all—and that is where industrial farming practices have given rise to concerns about viability and sustainability. My seafood is local, though the oysters come from France and meats (also) come from Australia, Argentina, Chile.

Meatlicious is housed in a converted mid-century home
Meatlicious is housed in a converted mid-century home

Yes. But that’s me. I don’t do what I’m told.

As with the surprise announcement that Gaggan would be closing down.

We opened Gaggan in 2010, so yes, we are at the halfway mark. Restaurants like ours have a life, unlike, say, a Karavalli or a Bukhara, which don’t come with expiry dates. I think it’s important to know when to stop. We keep abusing our cricketers for continuing to play even when they’re not in peak form; it’s the same thing with me.

Yes, I agree quitting Gaggan will be a big deal, but I believe life is about a journey, not a destination. We aren’t running out of ideas for Gaggan, but we are running out of infrastructure. We’ve got 24 chefs now, and there’s no space in the kitchen, which is only 30 sq. m. See, the thing is, when we started out, I never imagined that Gaggan would become so big. Which is why we’ve been betting heavily on the lab, where we experiment and fine-tune dishes. I have a team, I have the expertise, I have the ideas.... The lab is under construction, we’re spending half a million dollars on it. The lab is where we will continue to push the boundaries and make things happen.

And how does the restaurant in India fit into that journey?

Well, here’s the thing—the India deal has fallen through. I really wanted to do a restaurant that would change the industry in the country, but doing business in India is like wading into shark-infested waters. I’ve already been bitten and I’m not going back. It’s unfortunate, but there it is— they wanted my name, my skills, my money, but the percentage they were offering me wasn’t even in two figures. I don’t like tricky things. I don’t want to end up losing money. I don’t come from a super-rich background, so whatever I’ve earned has been from nothing. And I don’t think anyone in India really wants to get into business because of the food—they all want to do it for the money.

And the last inevitable question: Where does Gaggan the chef go from here?

He goes to Japan. It’s very important for me. I’ve found extreme love in the ingredients, the quality of life, the sheer perfectness of that country. Every three months, I travel to Japan; I travel around Japan. The professional world there is a perfect world. You drink a whisky, it’s the best whisky in the world. You drink water, it’s so clear and pure. From the toilets to the trains, everything is amazing. I feel myself fitting in there.

I, as a person, need to look for better pastures, though I probably won’t even make money if I open a 10-seater restaurant in Japan. It would be a weekend-only restaurant. I don’t know how much I would charge; that would depend on the actuals. But I’ve always been about value for money—Gaggan is actually the cheapest restaurant among the Top 10 in the world.

I’ve become a kind of local in Fukuoka in Kyushu, one of Japan’s southern islands. On one of my first visits there, I was told I must go to La Maison de la Nature Goh, which specializes in French-Japanese omakase dining. La Maison’s chef Goh has taught me a lot about Japan; with him, I’ve formed an alliance, which we call GohGan, a play on our names. As GohGan, we’ve already cooked twice in Japan, doing dinners according to seasons—something I really miss in Thailand.

Based on my current philosophy and skills, the cuisine that we come up with has made people emotional. In January, we did a mille crêpe, of uni (sea-urchin) with wild strawberries and amarula cream. And it worked. Every idea was a bizarre idea. We took wakame, and instead of maki, we took a kind of ice-cream cone and made a persimmon and foie gras ice cream and presented it like a sundae. We steamed fish with sake and served it with a green tea dashi.

I would call these my biggest successes. If I get to work with Japanese farmers—I’ve already made some headway there—I think my life would change. My ambition is to be happy at 45. So I have five years to run and then shut Gaggan and two years to relocate and open in Japan.

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