By Sourish Bhattacharyya
YOU KNOW a great chef when you see him at work. He makes even the most complicated operation seem like Cooking 101.
Most chefs of the stature of Gaggan Anand -- one-time acolyte of the Spanish maestro Ferran Adria and the lead chef/co-owner of the world's highest-rated Indian restaurant, Gaggan of Bangkok (Asia's No. 3 and the world No. 17) -- do not venture into an unfamiliar kitchen to feed 30 world-travelled, potentially hyper-critical diners, all carrying the most precious, and prestigious, strip of anodised titanium -- the American Express Centurion Card.
|Not many hours after the dinner, Gaggan Anand|
put up a cookery demonstration for journos. You
can see him assembling his Matcha Ice-Cream
Sandwich with his 23-year-old associate, Sergi
Palacin Martinez from the Basque country.
On Thursday, September 4, Gaggan turned ITC Maurya New Delhi's Executive Club dining room, which is essentially used for breakfasts and cocktail hours, into a show kitchen that provided these 30 diners a ringside view of the effort and imagination he invests in his art. From hand-crafted, 180-euro tableware custom-made for him in Spain to wooden sake cups from Japan with his name carved on them, to sleek liquid nitrogen dispensers and mini portable frozen teppanyaki counters, Gaggan and his team -- one Indian, two Spaniards, one Frenchman and two Thai nationals -- have come armed for eight consecutive meals to show India's high and mighty what the genius from New Alipore with the flying ponytail and shaggy beard means when he says it is his dream to do "everything unimaginable with Indian food". All team members were required to pack their clothes and personal toiletries into their carry-on bags, all within the seven-kilo allowance, because there were 260 kilos of ingredients to be lugged.
The highlights of Gaggan's evening of dreams were the 'Indian foie gras' with bheja (goat's brain) mousse, the faux steak tartare for vegetarians with liquid nitrogen-chilled baigan bharta, 'false egg yolk' and vacuum fried onions, the sponge-like deconstructed dhokla served with coriander chutney foam and coconut ice-cream, which made hotelier Ranjan Bhattacharya (Country Inn & Suites) comment in jest that Gaggan would put Haldiram's out of business, and the 4G version of the Kheema Pav with minced lamb curry mousse at the centre of two dehydrated buns.
Even the 'Bird's Nest' is a work of inventive art made with what Bengalis call jhoori bhaja (fried potato shavings), chutney and 'egg' created out of a potato mousse sphere. And the idea of eating with one's nose blew my mind. Gaggan's Poor Man's Porridge (jasmine rice ice-cream and pistachio gel served with almond and rose 'glass') actually tastes different when you eat it with your nostrils blocked. Reason? You don't get to breathe the rose-flavoured room freshener that is sprayed when the ice-cream is sprayed. What you breathe does make a difference to what you taste.
In Gaggan's repertoire, technique is not allowed to transform taste -- jhoori bhaja tastes just like it should, as does the aloo chokha that fills in for the 'Indian foie gras' for vegetarians. Form, likewise, doesn't intervene in the interplay of flavours, so the gunpowder (or milagai podi in Tamil) expresses itself with all its fierceness, and the curry leaf powder adds its zest, when put in the company of poached fish (basa, unfortunately!), Basmati rice porridge (actually, a curd rice, or thair sadam, mousse) and tamarind sugar.
The same authenticity of flavours is evident in Gaggan's Down to Earth 'soup' -- asparagus, morels, mushrooms and artichokes with 62 degrees C egg yolk (if it's 63 degrees, it gets runny -- that's molecular gastronomy for you) and truffle chilli air. And in his Khichdi, or risotto made with nine-year-old rice, forest mushrooms, morels and fresh truffles with a hint of chilli (Gaggan's only concession to carb cravings), the distinctive presence of each ingredient plays on your senses and gets your neurons on overdrive.
The lamb chops were the only disappointment -- they seem to have come straight out of Bukhara and Gaggan, with an honesty and a complete absence of arrogance that we have come to associate with star chefs, promised to take up the matter with the hotel and not repeat the error again. We were too overwhelmed by the evening to really care about the lamb. Gaggan is a magician. He has you in his spell -- each course came with a story, which he narrated with a dose of his impish humour before the dish was served, and was an experience in itself. And he wowed the guests by personally serving each one of them. He's not only the master of the back of the house, but also an efficient manager of the front end.