For someone fairly new to Bangkok’s dining scene, Garima Arora, executive chef and co-owner of Gaa in Bangkok, is already making waves. Hot on the heels of receiving her first Michelin star in 2018, just 18 months since opening Gaa’s doors, the 32-year-old was recently named Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2019 by S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants — making her the first Indian female chef to achieve these prestigious accolades.
You’ve just been named “Asia’s Best Female Chef” – did you see this award coming, given that recently you received your first Michelin star?
No, absolutely not. That was never our intention or focus when we opened. So the win came as a complete surprise. It’s great to get this award – we’ve only been open for 18 months – and to be recognised by my peers and my colleagues. I think it’s a big achievement for me and the team.
In the short time that you have been in the dining scene, you have made a huge impact. What does holding the title of “Asia’s Best Female Chef” mean to you?
The way I look at it is that it is a great platform for me to tell people what I am passionate about, what drives me as a cook, where I come from and what we do here at Gaa.
This win also makes you the first Indian female chef to have this accolade… does this put any pressure on you to push yourself even further?
We continue to do what we do, every day, so winning the award doesn’t change that. We always want to get better and keep pushing. But I do hope I am not the last Indian woman to get this award.
Speaking of your Michelin-star win, which made you the first Indian woman to receive this accolade – how do you see this inspiring next generation of female Indian chefs?
I think my win is both for men and women. We do not have Michelin in India, so the first step of ever wanting one is to leave the country and go someplace where they have this system. Winning this also ties me back to my country. The fact that I am not in India, but then I became the first Indian female chef to win, strengthens the roots to my country a lot more than I thought it would. The biggest thing I have taken away from this win is that I am Indian, there is no denying that and I am proud of it. There is no special recipe for success here, except for hard work and dedication. If I can do it, so can others.
What are some of the biggest challenges female chefs face today?
I don’t think there is any big conspiracy against women in this industry. Both men and women have their fair share of struggles. Whether you are a restaurant owner or even a line cook, you spend a lot of time in the kitchen – its time you spend away from your family – and that is regardless of whether you are a man or a woman. Being in the service industry you have to be open to receiving constant criticism… this is something we all have to deal with.
Tell us about what you are doing at Gaa, and what kind of dining experience can guests expect?
The idea is to create something that is completely new and different, that nobody has tasted before. The element of surprise is what we give our guests; in terms of flavours, textures, combination of ingredients, etc. And we are able to do this by drawing from traditional Indian techniques, such as pickling, cooking on charcoal, food pairing, etc – we use all of these techniques to create a modern tasting menu, but in spirit they are Indian. Guests should come with an open mind; it’s not Indian food and it’s certainly not fusion. Don’t expect curries or naans – that happens a lot because I am Indian, and people expect I will be cooking a certain way. That is probably one of the things that people had to get over about me.
Where do you get your drive from?
For me, it’s the joy of eating something for the very first time – that’s what drives me and what I am passionate about. Be it a new flavour, a new technique, a new ingredient… there is a child-like joy when you taste something new. This makes you think, because your mind makes connections and strives to understand it. That for me is fun. While dining at Gaa, you will be intellectually stimulated as much as your palate is… that’s what I enjoy.