Anand, however, does more than mash-up Indian standards and Western ingredients. He creates dishes that defy easy categorization, like his mango-infused pâté of foie gras dressed with Japanese oak leaves. “You don’t see Indian food the way that he does it,” Shah says. “You talk to any wealthy South Asian in that hemisphere of the world, it becomes a priority to get to his restaurant. Gaggan is one of the few that made it in the fine-dining world. There are really not that many.”
Anand grew up in poverty outside Kolkata. “That scene in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ where the guy would [expletive] on top and it would fall on the next guy’s head? That’s why I have dandruff,” he says. He watched his mother prepare simple dishes, like fish fry and chicken masala (without the cream found in chicken tikka masala). “My mom could have taken a cart and made money,” he says, “but women in India back then were not supposed to work, or she didn’t have the confidence to do it.”
He went to hotel-management school — culinary institutes are relatively new in India — and from there to jobs in hotel kitchens. He married, started a catering company that quickly flopped and spent a year delivering food on a bicycle, making 25 cents an hour, before his brother finagled a job for him in 2003, running the cafeteria of a telecom company’s office in Kolkata. “I learned how to use $1 to make a meal that will satisfy a person,” Anand says.
In 2009, he spent two months at Ferran Adrià’s Alícia Foundation in Spain. By this point, Anand had divorced his first wife and moved to Bangkok to do some consulting for an Indian restaurant there. That job led to his first fan, Rajesh Kewalramani, whom Anand says encouraged him to open his own place and offered to help finance it. Gaggan opened in 2010.
His stint in Spain inspired him to reimagine the humble food of his roots. He learned how to manipulate liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide, how sodium alginate and calcium chloride could turn olive juice into an opalescent olive sphere. “If Ferran could do that with an olive,” Anand says, “I figured I could change yogurt.” What the olive is to Spain, yogurt is to India: emblematic, iconic, a thing not to be messed with. The dish Anand came up with is now a mainstay on his menu: the “yogurt explosion,” a seemingly normal dollop of yogurt on a spoon that explodes in your mouth, a flavor bomb of cumin and dried mango powder contained by a layer of diaphanously thin gelatin.
Anand characterizes his food not as Indian but as “Gaggan Anand.” “If you’re from India,” he says, “you will feel either disgraced, like, ‘Why are you touching my cuisine?’ or you will say, ‘Wow, you really changed my food forever.’” Just as Mehrotra does, he thinks Indian cuisine has an image problem. “Indians have let their food be defined by what the world wants from them: chicken tikka masala because of the British, Goan fish curry because of the Portuguese,” Anand says. “As a chef, it’s a disgrace that I sit with Japanese, French and Italian chefs, and they talk about fine dining, and I’m like a donkey, just sitting there. They will always value a French dish more than an Indian dish. They don’t care what techniques you use. I get so angry.”
After seeing Anand’s “Chef’s Table” episode in 2016, I went to dine at Gaggan, which occupied a 19th-century townhouse about four miles from his new restaurant, a modern building draped with greenery. Sitting in the main dining room, I could not see Anand holding court at the chef’s table, but I could hear him (until he turned up a Foo Fighters song). At the end of the night, I saw him by the door and asked for a selfie; he obliged. I had come expecting the best Indian meal of my life, and it was moving to see the food of my ethnicity executed with such finesse. But more than the food, Anand himself left me in awe, an Indian chef with swagger, chutzpah and enough star power to warrant an 8,000-mile journey.