Asia’s Top-Ranked Chef Is Serving Tasting Menus Written Entirely in Emojis
At Gaggan in Thailand, some of the emojis are informative, such as an eggplant, while others, including a tiny turbaned man’s face, are mystifying.
"Welcome to Planet Gaggan," a server whispers as I step into a colonial mansion off of Bangkok's posh Langsuan Road. It's a refrain I'll hear repeated several times over the course of the evening. As my friend and I take our seats at the chef's table upstairs, waitstaff dart back and forth fussing over place settings while Top 40 radio blares from a tinny portable speaker. "Things are a little different here."
This isn't my first time, but rather my third, at the restaurant, although when I last visited, the place hadn't quite achieved "planet" status. Critics have always fawned over Gaggan, the self-described "progressive Indian" restaurant with all sorts of molecular-gastro bells and whistles, but the past few years have seen it rocket to global superstardom, hitting No. 1 on the San Pellegrino Asia's 50 Best Restaurants List for the third time in a row.
As his eponymous restaurant continues to rake in accolades, Gaggan Anand has become a bonafide celebrity chef, walking red carpets as a GQ India Man of the Year and appearing on the Netflix show Chef's Table. Perhaps because the restaurant's days are numbered—he plans to pull the plug in 2020 to start a new ten-seat venture in Fukuoka, Japan—or perhaps to keep up with its raised profile, the place has seen some dramatic changes in the last few months. For starters, diners can now order a tasting menu written entirely in emojis. Some are informative, such as an eggplant, while others, including a tiny turbaned man's face, are mystifying or deliberately misleading. Spoiler alert: there are goat brains in one of the dishes, though you'd never know it by looking at the corresponding emoji.
"I came up with the idea while I was stuck in traffic," says Anand. He looms over the range looking purposefully disheveled.
Before the show begins, I find myself sitting through a staff pep talk in which the chef paces up and down the floor, switching from wisecracks to furious rebukes with a mercurial speed that borders on manic. One minute, he's passing out cash as a small holiday gift, joking with recipients not to "spend it all on drugs and prostitutes;" the next, he's waxing about a conversation he just had with his good friend Ferran—Adrià, naturally. After that, he lashes out at the room for spilling the beans about a particular course to a blogger.
Once the meal kicks off, the courses arrive with dizzying speed. "I hate those boring tasting menus where you sit around for three hours," he says as the waiters deposit the first offering: a pair of hot-pink lips made of lychee gelée, perched on a Gaggan-branded box and all puckered up for their social media close-up. It's hardly the only eye-popping presentation. From undulating steel mesh to what appears to be a mound of freshly molded magma, each of the plates is a custom-crafted work of art.
"Before we design the dish, we design the plate," he says. While I'm not sure how I feel about the dinnerware dictating my food rather than the other way around, the aesthetic effect is impressive.
If the goal is to avoid the more tedious tropes of fine dining, then mission accomplished. Many items come with their own set of eating instructions, designed to convince everyone to loosen up and bust out of social conventions. On a number of occasions, we eat with our fingers because "it's a more sensual experience." Admittedly, it's also a fun one. Some dishes, such as fat slabs of uni curled up in miniature ice cream cones, elicit gasps of delight, while others result in more of a collective "huh."
A few courses appear out of order, possibly because as one person speculates, "He isn't in the kitchen that much these days." There may be some truth to this, although the same could be said of many of chefs with such gilded names. When I stopped by a few years ago, Anand was omnipresent, chatting amiably with guests, offering up cocktails, and acting every bit the part of a gracious host. I couldn't say if this is still the case, but judging by his demanding travel schedule, it seems unlikely.
Regardless, Anand knows how to work a crowd, shouting in the third person about one dish, "Gaggan will bet anyone a bottle of Champagne that they can't guess what it is!" No one volunteers, because guessing is an exercise in futility. Over the course of the meal, I swallow what appear to be a golf ball, a lump of charcoal, and a whole plastic packet of MSG. Nothing is quite as it seems on Planet Gaggan and to my relief the packet dissolves on the tongue into a rubbly nut paste. It's a pleasant surprise, though not one I would want to eat every day.
Other trompe l'oeils are more successful, especially when there's some sort of story to ground the gimmick. A fried "chicken" drumstick on a dainty, ivory bone turns out to be the most convincing vegan approximation of meat I've ever encountered.
"The kebab was invented when there was vegetarianism and the king was a very funny guy," he says. It's one of a number of dishes that still have distinctly Indian roots, others including a spin on pork vindaloo cooked for five days and a disarmingly soulful crab curry served in a nostalgic tiffin box with coconut rice. "We used to pack our lunches in these," says the chef, though I doubt your standard lunchbox in Kolkata contains anything as fine as this. Waiters ask if anyone wants seconds and I raise my hand, because, incredibly, despite being 18 courses in, I'm actually hungry. Turns out foam isn't very filling.
Just over an hour after we began, we're ushered downstairs so the next dinner service can kick off. In lieu of tea, we wind down over an empty cup topped with a translucent chai-flavored disk. I chat with a couple sitting near me, who are reaching the tail-end of a three-week trip. The self-professed foodies planned their travels around hitting big-name restaurants. They've been to Alinea already, of course, and were disappointed not to make it into Noma. "We've been meaning to come here for a while—he's very famous," the woman tells me. All of the 22 courses are already running live on her Instagram Stories.
Did she like it?
"Yes, I think so," she says after a slight pause. "It was definitely entertaining."
By this point, we've received the keycodes to help decipher our emoji menus, a final dramatic flinging back of the curtain. Laid out in writing, the range of dishes and the ground they cover is alarming. There's a facsimile of sushi and a tuna tartare taco on Indian bread and other bites that remind me of the chef's recurring triumphant exclamation:
"That is not Indian! That is not Japanese! That is Gaggan!"
That's the only real definition of what you'll find on this planet, a place where the restaurant rules of physics bend and warp under the gravitational pull of a single star.