At just 32 years of age, Garima Arora is a rising star on high cuisine's global stage. In the space of just four months, she became the first Indian female chef to earn a Michelin star and was awarded Asia’s Best Female Chef 2019 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Down a leafy street in downtown Bangkok sits her bright yellow three-story restaurant Gaa, where she combines local ingredients with Indian techniques to chase “something new and something different.”
“Tasting something for the very first time – it could be a product, it could be a combination of ingredients or flavors… that’s what Gaa is about,” Arora told EFE in an interview at her restaurant.
“Every bite you take, it makes you think, it surprises you. It pokes you a little bit intellectually.”
Gaa’s tasting menus include unripe jackfruit and pickles, blue swimmer crab with long peppercorn and macadamia milk, spicy duck donuts, and chocolate betel leaf.
Influenced by her father’s cooking at home, where he would recreate dishes he’d sampled on his travels, Arora left her fledgling career as a journalist at age 21 to move to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu.
She then went to Gordon Ramsay’s Verre (Table 9) in Dubai before moving on to the renowned Noma in Copenhagen, where she worked alongside René Redzepi, whom she still considers as her mentor.
Arora then arrived in Bangkok in 2016 to work at Gaggan, voted No. 1 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants four times in a row, before launching Gaa in 2017.
Arora spoke to EFE about why she’s “done with curry,” why food chains are “broken,” and how there’s “no conspiracy to keep women out” of top kitchens.
Question: You've been around the world and are now in Bangkok with Gaa, which has had kitchen staff of around a dozen nationalities. With everybody sharing techniques and ideas, how do you think globalization is having an effect on cuisine?
Answer: It gives you the resources to make something new and something different. There’s no point in trying to redo Indian food, for example. Deconstructing Indian food, something so steeped in history... it’s better to leave it alone.
I think we have to look beyond the normal curry and the rice. We’re done with curry. It’s not been our own food but what the British made of it. Our food goes way beyond that.
We have to stop trying to reimagine, reconstruct, deconstruct – once you move away from that, pure and genuine creation happens.
Q: What you and Gaggan are doing with Indian cuisine, is that something also happening in India?
A: Absolutely. There is a whole crop of chefs that are going back to their roots, going into regional Indian cuisine.
There is a beautiful phenomena in India called “home restaurants,” especially in a city like Bombay, where the real estate is so expensive and not anybody and everybody can open a restaurant. These are legitimate and genuine businesses where they sell tickets on websites and you can go to peoples’ homes and eat a Bohri Muslim meal or Saraswat Brahmin meal. They are cuisines that nobody else has heard of – even in the cities.
Q: How do you come up with your ideas to create new dishes?
A: We travel a lot to different parts of the country. We use 100-percent local produce, so we push ourselves a little bit more and do justice to the indigenous produce that’s available.
Today it’s easier to get uni (sea urchin) from Japan than it is to get this beautiful plant called ling lao (from the asparagus family) that we found in the mountains in Chiang Mai. That shows that our food systems are broken. It means we aren’t eating the way we should be eating. We aren’t looking at our environment the way we should be. But it challenges us to make newer things and amazing things with produce nobody else has and that nobody has tasted before.
Q: What are your favorite parts of Thailand from which to source ingredients?
A: To me, Isaan is a very, very interesting region, because it’s a very dry, arid land. They have a lot of root vegetables and a lot of dry herbs that are super interesting. The border regions between Laos and Thailand, they have some amazing produce there.
The country opens up its borders for what they call jungle markets. So the tribes from the other side feel free to come on this side and sell whatever they have. This exchange of culture is really amazing, the produce and ingredients are super cool. Suddenly, when you have no borders, what is local anymore?
Q: You were the first Indian woman to be awarded a Michelin star and recently awarded the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef in an industry that seems dominated by men. What is it like working in this environment?
A: It’s dominated by men because it’s been a blue-collar job. There’s no other reason. In a blue-collar situation, not a lot of women would choose that profession. Men and women are different.
Having said that, this blue-collar job is now becoming more of a white-collar industry, and that is why you see so many more women coming in. There is no conspiracy to keep women out. In fact I think we as women sometimes have had it so much more easier than men.
You have to look at the industry as a whole, not as a man or as a woman, but as human beings. Are we making better working conditions, are we giving better insurance, are we having better work-life balance? If we can give it to everybody, women will also benefit. Q: You were saying men and women are different. What do you think women are bringing to the high cuisine industry?
A: To say all women do this or all women bring this, that is not true. I think chefs, depending on their personality, where they come from, where they grew up, bring something to the kitchen and their work environment.
When we hire somebody, we hire them for their abilities. We need people who show up every day, who are loyal, who have the right attitude, and honestly we don’t care if it’s a man, a woman or a third gender.
We have more women in my kitchen right now, but that is purely by chance. They are better workers right now. But if tomorrow we had two applicants and the man was a better fit, I would definitely give the job to the man.
Q: What advice do you give to women who want to be chefs?
A: I’ve heard this from so many women where they think that “Oh this didn’t happen to me because I’m a woman.” Stop making a martyr out of yourself. As long as nobody is bothering you or harassing you, so what? You’re there to cook, you’re there to learn, you’re there to work. Men also have their own set of challenges that they face, so just to attribute everything to gender inequality is not fair.
Obviously, sometimes being a woman in a situation like this can be difficult. If something wrong happens to you, speak up right away. Be mindful, be respectful, but never let anybody take you for granted.