On November 14, the day Mumbai-born chef, Garima Arora, clinched the much-coveted Michelin star, the bar table at her Bangkok restaurant, Gaa, was fashioned into a ground for beer pong. The honour, hitherto conferred solely upon male chefs of Indian origin (Vineet Bhatia, Sriram Aylur, Vikas Khanna, Srijith Gopinath, among others), makes Arora the first Indian woman to receive the star on behalf of her over-a-year-old restaurant. “The first thing I did after receiving a call from Michelin, was call my father. To be honest, the news took time to sink in,” she says, adding pragmatically, “We celebrated on the night of the 14th but got back to work the next day. It’s business as usual. The star drives us to push harder.”
Arora, 32, landed in the Thai capital in 2015 to work at now-partner, Gaggan Anand’s eponymous restaurant, jettisoning both her position as chef de partie at Copenhagen’s Noma (considered one of the world’s finest restaurants) and the opportunity of a step up the ladder to sous chef — as revealed by the chef and co-owner of Noma, René Redzepi, on his Instagram account. “My time at Noma changed me not only as a cook, but also as a person. Working with René taught me that cooking is a cerebral exercise, not just physical work. There’s a lot of thinking involved in coming up with something new and meaningful,” she says.
Her other culinary instruction includes a stint at Gordon Ramsay in Dubai, and her education at Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. “While my education gave me a strong foundation in French cooking, which enabled me to work in professional kitchens, at Gordon Ramsay, I learned to be a team player. When you start off, you just need to show up and do your job and that kitchen taught me humility,” she says.
But her dream to “one day open my own restaurant” only materialised while working with Anand, who moved her to Mumbai to start a restaurant. That one never did come to pass but the investors offered to back her own. “I was looking for creative ways to express my cooking,” she says, adding that Gaa, “came out of a journey of self-discovery, which means that it is ever-evolving”.
The menu at Gaa is centred around locally-sourced ingredients but employs eclectic cooking techniques to create plates such as Chilled Blue Swimmer Crab served with long peppercorn and macadamia milk, Duck Donut, and Crayfish with Khakhra, among others. Her current favourites from her own menu are, “unripe jackfruit cooked on the grill until tender and juicy and then served with roti and pickles. Our signature dish has got to be Corn. Young corn (not baby corn) are cooked on the grill and served with corn milk. It is inspired by Mumbai’s bhutta but we elevate it to a fine-dining experience”.
But the route to a professional kitchen, for Arora, was a circuitous one, marked by a digressive education in mass media at Jai Hind College in Mumbai, that she followed up with a job as a pharma journalist. “Six months into journalism, I decided to give it up to become a chef. I always knew that I wanted to do this. Cooking is a young person’s game, as it is very demanding, especially physically,” she says.
Why didn’t she, then, open her first in her home country? “I find the bureaucracy of it all very daunting. There is no other place I’d rather do it than in my own country but the reality is that it is not very easy to do so at this moment in time,” she says.
Introductory training for Arora, as for most, started in her parents’ kitchen and she traces her earliest interest to her father, who’d return from his travels abroad bearing “exotic recipes – from hummus to rum baba”. Her parents, Arora adds, “were an integral part of my becoming a chef” but beyond the confidence that indefatigable encouragement instills, she puts her success down to “consistent hard work”. A typical day starts with a spin class, before her supplier arrives between 10 am – 12 pm. “We prepare all day long for dinner service and finish by 5 pm to have a staff meal together. Service normally finishes by midnight and sometimes we get ramen before heading home,” she says.
But the industry has been one that suffers from a chronic paucity of leading female figures, skirting the ones at the helm away from well-deserved limelight and creating categories based on gender to laud their accomplishments. Arora looks to the brighter side, asserting, “I just hope that the recognition we have received from Michelin opens doors for both women and men to pursue their dream,” adding, “I’ve worked with some of the best chefs in the world who made it a point to make me feel welcome in the kitchen. However, being a woman definitely has its own set of strengths and weaknesses and I’ve never had such encounters myself but that is certainly not to say that it doesn’t exist.”
For now, she’s focussed on Gaa, where she hopes, “everything I do paves the way for the next generation to do better. I want my work to make it easier for other Indian chefs to get onto the world stage. Ultimately, that is what will give meaning to my career.”