Gaggan Anand is showing me his socks.
One leg hoicked up on a chair, he’s grinning, eagerly, waiting for me to see the giant red “F*** You” encircling his calves.
So far, so Gaggan. The chef is well known for being a provocateur par excellence, delighting and frustrating diners in equal measure (just see the many articles arguing for and against his alleged brilliance). Now in Singapore to helm Mandala Club’s second fine-dining pop-up, his outsized reputation led to all 5,000 seats selling out within three hours of release. Anand’s residency will now be extended to the end of March 2022.
“We discussed everything online starting in March this year, and then things in Singapore were going through this roller coaster and Ben (Jones, Mandala Club’s founder) and I just said, ‘Either we do it or we don’t’,” says Anand. “So we started planning, mobilising people, getting the designs done, and we just created this fantasy world.”
And will this fantasy world be different from his restaurant in Bangkok, I ask?
“Singapore can be very stiff,” says Anand, “with all the bankers and lawyers. But at Mandala Club, you get both sides, like you have the cool guy with the Star Wars shirt and then you get the guy with the latest luxury watch. It’s like the difference between Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Brooklyn. I wanted to bring both worlds together.”
Anand, 43, has certainly seen both sides of success. The upside is well known — his star went supernova after he was featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and instantly became the most famous Indian chef in the world. His Bangkok restaurant, Gaggan, became a vital stop for deep-pocketed foodies the world over. He continues to be divisive, sounding off enthusiastically on veganism (“It’s a fad, like the Manson family”), truffle fries (“It’s crap, it’s abuse”) and chicken tikka (“It’s a disaster”). Love him or hate him, the one thing you can’t do is ignore him.
At his restaurant, Anand forcefully collides the worlds of food, art and personality, making diners lick food off their plates in his famous “Lick It Up” dish, eat off cones mounted on their middle fingers and read menus entirely composed of emojis. His Gaggan Anand restaurant debuted at fifth position on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, earning the Highest New Entry award. The coffee-obsessed chef has also just launched a new cafe called CDGRE in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon, for which he’s in charge of sourcing the world’s best beans.
But for all his success, Anand knows business disappointment all too well. He closed the original Gaggan after an acrimonious falling-out with his investors and was also forced to shutter his beloved tofu restaurant in Bangkok, thanks to a double-whammy of unappreciative diners and Covid-19.
“I brought in tofu milk, water and yuba from Japan. It was adventurous, right? And then people only want sushi because it represents social status. And then I lost because I got hit by the logistics — my US$150 ($205) tofu meal cost me US$220.”
“I keep making mistakes,” says Anand, shrugging. “But everything I do, I learn by mistake. I love mistakes. Every dish here is a mistake against the whole idea of fine dining. Why? Because I’ve never worked in a fine-dining restaurant. I’ve never worked in a French restaurant. I don’t know the rules. And I don’t want to be ruled.”
It’s precisely this refusal to sit down and shut up that got Anand out of his early days running an office cafeteria in India, the memory of which makes him go uncharacteristically ruminative.
“I still remember asking myself what the f*** am I doing with my life? How am I making just 20, 30 rupees a day? What have I done wrong? And that day, I flipped, made the switch,” says Anand, who eventually moved into a stint at El Bulli’s lab, where he says he had to “unlearn everything he knew”.
While he says Indian food “can’t be generalised”, every plate at his pop-up is designed to bring diners, especially Indian diners, on a “time machine”, where they will be delighted by flavours they’ve tasted before. Anand says he could have charged an additional $200 per meal and “gotten away with pure profit”, but he didn’t because he wants the experience “to be more approachable”.
“A fine meal is a fine memory,” says Anand. “Fine dining should not only be for a certain class of people — no one is born with a ‘fine-dining tongue’. Everyone here is treated as a VIP. I just want them to not compare and judge, because we’ve done plenty of that over the last two years. Just keep it as a happy memory. And if it was a bad memory, come back and we will try our best to give you a better memory.”