At the Asia Top 50 Awards held in Singapore on Tuesday night, there were two big surprises. The first was how badly Indian restaurants in India did. But the second, and more important one, was the triumph of Gaggan, an Indian restaurant in Bangkok. Chef Gaggan Anand, a Calcutta boy who moved to Bangkok a few years ago has risen steadily up the Top 50 list. But few people expected his Gaggan to be judged Asia’s top restaurant, dethroning last year’s number one, legendary Australian chef David Thompson’s Nahm (also in Bangkok).
The award means that this list rates Gaggan ahead of all the Japanese sushi masters, ahead of all the Michelin three-star restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau (Bangkok has no Michelin guide and hence, no ratings) and ahead of the Asian outposts of such celebrated chefs as Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Wolfgang Puck, Tetsuya and many others.
For Anand, this triumph represents a vindication of sorts. He worked in Calcutta with the Taj Group before leaving to start his own catering business. He left Calcutta to work as a chef with an Indian restaurant in Bangkok before falling out with the owners. At that stage, he met up with three wealthy Indians who lived in Thailand. They offered to set up a restaurant for him. But before that, one of them, Rajesh Kewalramani asked him if he had a dream. “Yes," Gaggan replied. “I want to learn what Ferran Adria does.”
Kewalramani and the others paid for Gaggan to go to Spain where he learnt the techniques of Adria’s molecular gastronomy at El Bulli, which was then rated as the world’s top restaurant. Having mastered these techniques, Gaggan returned to Bangkok where he opened Gaggan on Soi Luang Suan with financing from his new partners. The restaurant was an instant success with wealthy Thais who loved Gaggan’s molecular variations on Indian food. Soon Indian visitors to Bangkok began dropping in and Mukesh and Nita Ambani were so impressed by the food that they flew Gaggan and his kitchen brigade down to Mumbai to cook at their home.
Meanwhile, Western critics also began to acknowledge that Gaggan was doing something noteworthy and unusual with Indian food. As his fame spread, his restaurant made it to the Asia Top 50 and the World’s Top 100. At present, his is the highest-rated Indian restaurant on both lists.
Gaggan has often cooked in India. Last year, he ran pop-ups at Bombay’s Four Seasons and Delhi’s Maurya. But various plans to open a version of his original restaurant in Bombay have not yet come to fruition. Nevertheless there are always rumours that he will open something in India soon.
As for the Indian representation on the list, it continues to be pathetic. There is not one Indian restaurant (located in India) in the top Twenty. Indian Accent, which surely deserves a place in the Top Ten is the highest-rated Indian entry while Bukhara makes it at 41. Curiously, Bombay’s Wasabi is in the Top 30, a bizarre choice which puts it ahead of hundreds of far better Japanese restaurants in Japan and the rest of Asia.
Obviously the list has still to get India right. But at least it recognises Indian food as Gaggan's triumph demonstrates.