Chef Garima Arora has been awarded the Best Female Chef Award 2019 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. This is a new feather in her cap after winning the first Michelin Star for her restaurant last November.
We are all a product of our childhood. Lucky for Chef Garima Arora then that she grew up watching her father constantly experiment with different cuisines. “As a kid I would get to eat all these amazing things he’d cook, and he used to have a lot of fun when cooking. That stuck with me somewhere and opened up my palate as well. A combination of both made me more adventurous.” The idea stuck, grew, and prospered, eventually paving the way for Arora to become the first Indian woman to bag a Michelin Star for her restaurant Gaa in Bangkok. What’s even better is that it has happened within two years of her opening it.
In this short time, Arora has come to be known for her play of local ingredients and global cooking techniques, to create something that’s unique to Gaa. “Every time we cook, we ask the questions why are we doing this, why are we putting this on the plate, does it make sense, to what end.” Creating cerebral culinary experiences is key to Arora, and one of her favourite techniques is fermentation. “We pickle everything! So how do you come up with a new flavour or flavour profile using the same elements, or how do you make a new word with the existing letter? Fermentation lets you do that; you can make new words, new prose through fermentation.”
The technique is evident in her favourite dish on the menu – the Unripe Jackfruit, Roti, Pickles. There is also the Blue Swimmer Crab, Long Peppercorn, Macademia Milk, which embodies the essence of Gaa. “When you look at it, it’s completely white. But when you eat it, there’s this punch that suddenly comes in and then the macadamia milk takes over, it just surprises you completely. It’s something so unique and that doesn’t exist outside of Gaa,” she says.
Arora graduated in Mass Media and pursued journalism for a short period, but soon turned in the pen for chef whites. “I understand that it is a young person’s game. You have to start when you’re younger, that’s the only way to get ahead in this industry, so I decided to do it then and not later.” Off she went to Le Cordon Bleu, and after concluding training there, Arora managed the rare feat of working with some of the top chefs of the world — Gordon Ramsay, René Redzepi, and Gaggan Anand. “I learnt a lot from each one, and it all contributes to the one restaurant that I have today.” Working at Noma with Chef Redzepi influenced Arora’s approach strategically, “He is extremely intelligent, and has a very cerebral approach to cooking. Working with him at Noma changed the way I think about food and cooking, i.e., more as an intelligent exercise than just a blue collar job.”
As she continues to take her craft forward, Arora feels the industry would benefit with a more equal playing field for both men and women. Not a typical 9-5 job, being a chef for a woman often means choosing between motherhood and the profession. “When you’re always required to be present, your family life takes a backseat, and that is one thing every women in the kitchen has difficulty coping with. Applauding them when they make this very difficult choice, which is against their very nature, is not the right thing to do. Our workplaces are not built to accommodate women.”
As one hopes for that change to come about, there is no denying that the F&B landscape has undergone a perception change over the years. “Cooking was a very blue-collared job. Today, it is attracting people with Harvard degrees! From 10-20 years ago, when there were basement kitchens with crazy hours, to now show kitchens and chef’s tables — the shift is tremendous.” But there’s a flip-side. “It’s almost become like a shortcut to becoming a celebrity. Which is not what cooking is about. To me it’s not about how many followers on social media. There are young chefs today who feel entitled. You have to work hard, there are no shortcuts here.”
With her finger on the pulse of what people want, Arora is set to go from strength to strength. Although she’d like to open a restaurant in India, for now the focus is Gaa, “We’ll continue what we’re doing. This (Michelin Star) is a great stamp of approval that we’re in the right direction. I hope we keep moving in this way.”
All images: Courtesy Gaa