Chef Garima Arora gets candid about her trying to link India and Thailand through her cuisine.
Fueled with passion and skill, Chef Garima Arora, who started her own restaurant GAA in Bangkok, a dinner-only fine dining restaurant serving world cuisine, has become the first Indian woman to receive a Michelin star.
The coveted recognition in the culinary world came as a surprise to her on October 30. And more than two weeks down the line, it is yet to sink in.
Garima’s story is a classic tale of what resilience and willingness to traverse boundaries for dreams can lead to. She was in her early twenties and fresh out of journalism school, when she decided that if she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a chef it made sense to start early since the profession requires long hours and physical strength. Between mid-2000s to now, she’s covered the entire arc from studying at Le Cordon Bleu to working in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen to starting her own restaurant after a few months at Chef Gaggan Anand’s restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok.
And this is just on the professional front. On the personal, she also navigates the challenge of a long-distance marriage as her husband works and lives in Mumbai while she’s in Bangkok. No one can dispute that her dreams are made of hard work and sacrifices. “My dad has always been a huge influence in my life. From him, I learnt that cooking was actually fun. As a youngster I spent a lot of time with him in the kitchen and I think that stayed with me,” she said.
But cooking in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu gave her a worldview that a home kitchen obviously did not provide. “Leaving India you have so many things different. Just in terms of ingredients, flavour combination that we don’t have, that was something innovative for me. I studied classic French food and that gives you a very different perspective on cooking,” she said.
When asked what the name of her restaurant meant, she replied like a proud mama that it was derived from her name. Opening a restaurant in Bangkok was unplanned in a way, she said. She was offered a job at the Gaggan Anand group and after a few months their investors asked if she would want to open her own restaurant. “It was by chance that I moved here. I was supposed to go to India but I am happy here which is why I stayed back,” she said. A truly global individual, her life has taken her across the world and back.
Her restaurant serves two menus, the vegetarian one with 10 items and the non-vegetarian one with 14. “The idea is to find and explore the connection between India and Thailand through flavours and techniques. The smaller meal lasts about two hours and the long one lasts for around 2.5 hours,” she said. The evening begins with smaller dishes and then goes on to the main ones. “We look for unique ingredients. We work with the indigenous parts of Thailand and the North Eastern part of India, that is our primary concentration. So many ingredients get lost because nobody knows how to use them. We like to give the guest from any city flavours that they have never tasted before. During the meal it is possible that you are eating ingredients or flavour combinations for the very first time in your life. This is our signature. We do a strawberry and caviar dish mixed with a herb like lemon and pudina (mint) that is found only in the northern part of Thailand. The guests are always extremely surprised by the combination but it is one of our hot-selling dishes,” she said. They also have a large collection of wines and as the meal progresses so does the wine pairing with the food. When asked if she thought of her restaurant as a follower of the school of thought of slow food, she said that while she wasn’t sure about categorising it, her menu definitely made for thoughtful and deliberate eating.
After the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, multiple stories from the hospitality sector in the West have come to the fore. When asked about policies at her restaurant, Chef Garima said that they were very strict about workplace safety. Staff members are encouraged to report incidents of harassment by peers or guests that take place right away. “I take this very seriously. Any sort of misbehaviour within the staff or even from the guest towards my staff, is never accepted. And my staff has clear instructions that the minute it happens, they should let us know so that we can take immediate action. We don’t wait,” she said, adding that 50 per cent or more of her staff are women.
She believes that women need to stop pulling each other down and then they can help each other up. “If we don’t support each other and don’t pave the way for the next generation what’s the point of it all,” she said.
Did she face any harassment because of her ethnicity or gender? She doesn’t deny facing difficulties but said that she doesn’t know if her gender or being brown had anything to do with it. “I have worked with amazing chefs who have been particular about protecting their staff and taking care of them. I have not directly had any bad experiences but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen,” she said.
The chef, who has two homes — one in Mumbai and one in Bangkok — understood what made the latter city, as well as that part of the world, so special while working there. She says that the warm hospitality and the friendships she has built have left a beautiful mark on her. Her biggest takeaway from Ramsay’s kitchen was humility and learning to keep her head down and working, which is what you need to do in the beginning of your career, she believes. “Sometimes youngsters don’t understand that you have to put in the hours and go through the grind,” she said.
In an industry where there are no holidays and you’re cooking when others are partying, there is no way to survive it if you think of it as drudgery. “If you come into work and look at the clock to see when you’re going to get home you won’t last a month. It’s just something you do and it’s not just work,” she said.
Writer: Asmita Sarkar
Source: The Pioneer