Some chefs cook for praise, but we know the best cook to please. And it doesn’t take much to discern which of the two groups Gaggan Anand (of Gaggan in Bangkok, No. 7 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and Asia’s Best Restaurant 2017) and Daniel Chavez of Ola Cocina Del Mar, a casual hotspot for inspired Spanish-Peruvian fare, belong to.
It is also easy to appreciate how quickly the two have bonded, after collaborating just four times in the last two years, starting with the first GGGOLA, a four-hands dinner and brunch in August 2015, that was followed by GGGOLA 2 the following year, which took place at Meatlicious in Bangkok.
“It was love at first sight,” Anand exclaims, when asked about the reasons behind their collaboration. All while Chavez blushes like a teenage boy.
The third edition, GGGOLA 3, sees Anand returning to the humble kitchen of Ola for a weekend culinary jam session, starting with a four-hands dinner on Saturday (July 29).
Diners here were treated to a rocking menu of signature pleasers spread across “five rounds”—each featuring four dishes—peppered with timely inclusions of truly intuitive dishes. From Anand’s signature “yoghurt explosion” to start, to Chavez’s re-imagined serving of the ceviche (via a cevichito y lechita), to a beautifully simple pork vindaloo. Of course, it takes two to come up with the pollo a la brasa—a serving of tender roast chicken served over quinoa and a Peruvian black bean sauce, piqued with curry leaves and a gentle, surprise hit of banana.
It just goes to show how comfortable these toques are with each other. In spite of Anand’s infectious sense of humour, marked by an affinity for a well-timed facetious remark over the straight fact. “I would rather cook with a guy who has a humble heart than one with a bigger name,” Anand tells us. “I’m already successful in what I’m doing, he is already successful in what he’s doing. We are both seasoned chefs, not kids.
“You won't find us both drunk at a party abusing other chefs; you’ll find us at a rock show (concert) … smashed,” he quips.
What was your first impression of his food?
Gaggan Anand (GA) Completely crap. Like it was the worst food ever … it was so bad, it made me cook with him! I don’t know what’s wrong with Singapore, why they have chefs like him.
Daniel Chavez (DC) I appreciate the honesty. Honesty is what this industry needs.
GA But, honestly, the most important thing is that he cooks food that we have lost. The problem is that we are getting superficial with food, we are not honest with the food. His kitchen still uses fire; it still has cooking that is simple, humble and you will come back every week to eat here.
DC I ate at Gaggan for the first time after we were finished with the promotion at Meatlicious. It was crazy and amazing. I’ve tried some of his food when we cook here, but I think it’s different when you have it at Gaggan. When you add something that I think few restaurants can generate, which is a good energy … I enjoyed the food a lot but I’ve never been to a restaurant when I, for four hours straight, didn’t stop laughing. Most fine dining restaurants are stiff and boring, and you don’t feel comfortable.
How did you come to the decision that collaborating on a menu featuring two contrasting cuisines was going to be a good idea?
DC The idea obviously came for Gaggan, he came and asked us. Now if I had asked Gaggan…
GA It was not a one night stand, it was love at first sight.
DC No, because you need to understand, right? Gaggan is so popular. He came to ask us and for us, this is an honour. At that time, if I had asked him, he’d probably say, no way. We are a very small restaurant. So, we took the chance and took on the challenge, and it was great to see how our teams bond.
Do you play up the contrast in styles or find a middle ground?
GA It’s more about mixing and matching. Peru is a country of cross-cultures; it has Japanese influences, Chinese influences … Daniel told me that the most famous ceviche chef is a Chinese guy. So, it is a country that is already influenced by so many cultures. And I come from a country that is equally cross-cultured. Peru is also famous for introducing ingredients we eat today; avocados, quinoa, ceviche as a cuisine, and potatoes. India is famous for giving (the world) spices. And both of us have the habit of giving each other the independence to put what we want in each other’s dishes. We don’t even have time to print the menu because the menu is changing ….
DC To be honest, this is not a fine dining restaurant. We’re a coffee shop!
GA No, it’s not a coffee chop.
DC Well, that’s how we see ourselves.
GA Your coffee sucks so it’s not a coffee shop.
DC But what he said is true—I think one of the things that have been lost in fine dining is flavour and sincerity. And for a while, before I met Gaggan, I was a little bit down. And I stop going to fine dining places.
GA What is fine dining today... Is it about French guys serving food from the right side, or is it about a Japanese sushi (restaurant) where five people are seated, and who don’t dare to ask for salt? Fine dining has completely changed from this. Yes, (these examples exist) but it is about fine food. Fine dining can be a finely prepared burger. The difference is that some people (are offering) over-the-top experiences, which are inaccessible. We have made fine dining more accessible.
What about the unique challenges?
GA The good things is, from 2015 to 2017, the kids that we grew up with us—our chefs—have grown up. We are more relaxed and they are taking care of the problems. These kids have grown so responsible in two years that we both can sit and relax and talk to you while they do all the hard work. This is our achievement.
But I heard there we some last-minute changes to the menu late in the game. What happened?
GA That’s us.
DC Greatness (happened). What I like most about our collaboration is that (it’s different) from what I see most chefs do—they do a menu for the restaurant and then they travel with it. What I like about Gaggan is that every time, it’s different. It’s the spontaneity that’s lost in many places. Our customers appreciate it because the food is meant to be spontaneous.
GA Why do we have to cook in our comfort zone? Why do we have to cook things in the way they are expected to be cooked? Why not cook in a way (that’s provocative)? Where we intimidate the people; intimidation is a kind of seduction. Food is seductive, no?
What is it like trying to cook your best in someone else’s kitchen?
GA This (Ola) is my kitchen. I behave like it is my kitchen. He behaves in my restaurant like it is his kitchen.
DC I feel at home. And I hope they feel at home.
GA He (Daniel) is more comfortable freestyling, he’s not the guy who comes with one dish and create twenty-five different elements for the dish; just simple, spot on, great flavours, good food. Now, that chef needs the right place, where he can be comfortable. In Gaggan, the problem is people come after booking months in advance, and they want that experience. And at Gaggan, we don’t collaborate—it has become a museum. It is. It’s so difficult to get a table there, so it’s a museum. In Gaggan, I don’t do collaborations anymore. It’s more at Meatlicious and Suhring that we do, because these are more accessible.
Gaggan, if you were a progressive Spanish or Peruvian dish, what would it be?
GA I would be a ceviche, a tiradito, and for the leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), I would try to bring milk from a tiger, actual tiger’s milk.
Daniel, what progressive Indian dish would you be?
DC The last time I ate at Gaggan’s was the best meal I’ve had in my life, and it’s not because we are buddies. But the part that impressed me the most was when he turned a huge signature (crab) curry dish into this tiny crab chawanmushi dish that was delicious, and perfect.
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