Eighteen months after opening her first restaurant, Indian chef Garima Arora was anointed with her first Michelin star at Gaain Michelin Guide to Bangkok.
A proud and defining moment in the emerging career of any young chef, yet, this professional milestone catapulted the Mumbai born chef into global headlines for a more poignant reason.
On 14 November 2018, chef Arora become the first Indian female Michelin starred chef in the world. A title placing her into the global spotlight and on the same culinary ladder as a handful of fellow countrymen, like Gaggan Anand, Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar.
The 32-year-old chef running Gaa, located in the same street as Gaggan's eponymous Bangkok restaurant, is garnering critical acclaim for her "modern eclectic cuisine" in tasting menus that fuse Thai ingredients with Indian technique. Le Cordon Bleu trained, she has honed her skills in some of the best kitchens around in Europe, including time spent under Gordon Ramsay and Rene Redzepi before finally joining the Gaggan group in Thailand.
We spoke to Garima at her Bangkok restaurant, a few days after the news landed:
Now the news has had a chance to sink in how does it feel and what’s the response been?
Honestly, the whole thing just kind of exploded. We’re much busier, that’s for sure. The staff are completely pumped, they’re so happy and excited. It’s practically the same team that we started the off restaurant with. For them, a year and a half later to get this means a lot. Other than that, it’s business as usual, we still have leaky air conditioning, supplies not showing up and so on. But no, we’re all better off!
Was winning the star a professional ambition or a happy coincidence?
I think it’s definitely the latter. I don’t think at any given point in time, even when we were sitting and talking with the team that we ever said this is what we want and this is what we need to do. It was just doing what I’ve learned to do all these years and I wanted to make a restaurant for my own self. It was never the intention, but we’re happy it happened!
Why did you choose Bangkok to open your first restaurant?
I think it kind of chose me. I was spending a couple of months at Gaggan Anand’s kitchen and hoping to head up his restaurant his restaurant in India. But then it fell through and the same group of investors had space in Bangkok and I decided I wanted to do something on my own. It had already been nine months at that point since I’d been in Bangkok and I fell in love with this place and I was so happy and I think it worked for the best.
How would you describe your culinary style?
I get asked this question a lot and I think once people have eaten at Gaa they never ask this question again! It’s not one cuisine. I draw heavily from Indian techniques because I’m Indian. It reflects who I am, that’s Indian, and where I am, that’s in Thailand. Obviously, I also take a lot from my previous experiences, but the end result is something totally new and unique and different, which is what I want or what we all set out to do. To give our diners an experience that doesn’t exist outside of this restaurant.
What’s your signature dish?
There’s this crab and macadamia milk dish that we have on the menu that’s been on the menu a couple of months. But that embodies what Gaatruly is.
It’s a blue swimmer crab which is locally sourced product (everything in the restaurant is locally sourced), it’s then paired with a macadamia and a super luxurious macadamia milk and served in ice. So when you get the dish at the table you just see it’s completely white. White macadamia and a white plate on ice and white crab.
On the bottom, there’s jaggery emulsified together with a long peppercorn oil. No body’s expecting it because it’s just so white, you expect it to taste a certain way. When you bite into it you get this punch of sweetness and spice and then the milk completely washes it over. I think it’s an experience and combination of flavours that I don't think exists outside of this restaurant. I think it embodies everything that we do.
How easy is it to combine Indian technique with Thai ingredients?
I think it comes pretty naturally to me. I mean it’s not Indian food, but drawing on techniques from India. It’s very personal to me. I could never do modern Indian food because the whole idea, to me, is silly. There are so many reference points in Indian food. A simple thing like Indian bread, a roti, is done differently in every household. So how do you make the best anything Indian, you can’t, it’s silly even trying to do that.
Instead of trying to re-construct already existing Indian dishes, what is to be taken from a cuisine like Indian food is to take techniques and why they do what they do instead of what they are really doing. So instead of trying to re-do a curry, understanding why that's what's happening and taking away from that and doing something new with that, to me that's what modern food should be like.
Who has been your greatest culinary influences?
It has to be Rene Redzepiand my time spent at Noma. These formative years of my career, they changed me not only as a cook but also a person. I took away a whole new way of thinking from that restaurant and I think it shaped everything I did after that.
You are the first female Indian chef to win a Michelin star, it's a defining moment, also considering it's 2018. What, if any, were the barriers to achieving success?
Obviously, not for me, as here I am and I did it. It’s very difficult to say it. The way I look at it every chef that tries to open a restaurant faces their own set of struggles. How many of these arise from sexism it's difficult for me to say this, because I've never been a man, so I don't know what they go through. I've had my fair share of struggles. I don't think I would attribute this to being a woman or being of a certain origin or of a certain race, definitely not. I believe that if you work hard, things happen.
Why do Indian chefs have to leave India in order to become more widely recognized?
It saddens me. I think its just the ease of doing business. Just to set up a restaurant or get small things like getting a liquor license is so difficult. I think that’s why talent leaves the country and does well abroad because our country is so rich in food history and cuisine there’s no reason we shouldn’t be producing better chefs or one of the world’s best chefs. I think we just lack the opportunities in terms of ease of business in our country.
As of yet, there's still no Michelin guide to India, why do you think that is?
Yes, that again surprises me quite a bit. But I guess these things take their own time and course and I hope something good comes out of this whole thing and we can push our government to do something more for this industry.
How does it feel being an ambassador for Indian cuisine and female Indian chefs?
I don’t think I’m that important, I think it would be very vain if I thought I had anything to do with it. Like I said, in 2018, calling someone a female chef alone can be cringe-worthy sometimes. But I understand what this means for all the other girls and women in my country who have never had the opportunity and never even thought this was possible.
What advice do you have for a young female Indian chef starting out?
I think women in my country need to stop apologizing for the choices we make, in any industry. This is something I find we do a lot. We always feel guilty about choosing or doing things which are not necessarily the norm. I think it’s time we stop doing that and make our own decisions and we stand by them. It’s something we as Indian women need to start doing, also supporting each a little bit more.
What does the future hold for you?
I think we keep doing what we are doing, keep our heads down, keep moving keep doing what we’re doing I think it’s going in the right direction.
Any ambitions to enter Asia or the World’s 50 Best list?
These are all co-incidences and stamps of approval. I think within our team and within ourselves all we want to do is keep working hard, even if it doesn’t happen, it’s all ok.