Going ga(a)ga

Bindu Gopal Rao

From being a journalist by profession to switching to cooking by passion, Garima Arora has come a long way. And with her restaurant, Gaa, in Bangkok receiving its first Michelin star, it seems the start of all things good for this 32 year old.

Past perfect

Born and brought up in Mumbai, Garima graduated in mass media from Jai Hind College. She covered pharmaceuticals for a while, but always felt something was not right. “I have watched my father whip up culinary creations ever since I was a child. He would travel a lot, and when he came home, he would recreate the dishes he had sampled abroad. Seeing his passion, I too developed interest in cooking,” she shares.

She too was to come home and dish up her experiences. “After graduating from college and before taking up a job in journalism, I took a trip to Singapore. When I returned, I gathered the family and cooked them a big hotpot. It was such a fun evening. I realised what I really wanted to do was talk to people through the medium of food. While I did take up a job in journalism, six months later, I knew it was time to make the switch. I joined Le Cordon Bleu Paris shortly after.” 

Culinary cues

Over the last decade, Garima has worked with several world-renowned chefs, including Gordon Ramsay in 2011 and René Redzepi from 2013 to 2015. In the fall of 2015, she moved to Bangkok and joined the Gaggan group.

“I have been very lucky to work with some of the most important names in the industry. Under René, I learnt how to think of food intellectually, and not just as a physical task. My take away from my time with him was that food should be meaningful. My experience with Ramsay is what I describe as the best first job I could have asked for. There, I learned to leave my ego at the door and really become a team player. At Gaggan’s, I was taught the beauty of Asian hospitality. In my opinion, it really is the best service in the world.”

In what was probably a case of serendipity, Garima was supposed to head Gaggan’s Mumbai restaurant when it opened, but the deal fell through. However, when the brand decided to go ahead and open a restaurant in Bangkok, they chose her to helm it and Gaa was launched in April 2017.

“At Gaa, we offer two menus — a 10-course and a 14-course menu. Through this, we strive to find a connection between India, where I am from, and Thailand. There are so many dishes on the menu that stand out, like our corn dish, which was also the first dish to make its way to Gaa’s menu when we opened. This dish is inspired by the Mumbai bhutta. We take young corns (not to be confused with baby corns), cook them on the grill and season with the same spice rub we use on the streets of Mumbai.”

On her menu, these corns are paired with corn milk. The idea, she says, is to elevate that warm fuzzy feeling of eating bhutta during the Mumbai monsoon to a fine-dining experience. “Another one that really deserves a special mention is our jackfruit dish. We grill unripe jackfruit until it is tender and juicy, much like meat. It is then served with roti, which has ripe jackfruit in it. This dish not only combines techniques and flavours, but also cultures,” she says.

Local connect

Garima is clear that using local flavours is very important. She believes these render authenticity to her food. Also, there is nothing better than using seasonal and local produce. “Gaa’s menu is a great example of how well Thai and Indian culinary cultures can come together. I think what is most surprising about the food here is how Indian and Thai food are more alike than one would imagine.” The Michelin Star, she acknowledges, is an incredible honour.

Ask her what the future holds and Garima says she will go ahead with a business-as-usual attitude. “The Michelin star (by the Michelin Guide Thailand) has definitely given wind to our sails, but there is so much more to do, and we have just begun. I think it is very important that everything I do paves way for the next generation to do better. I want my work to make it easier for Indian chefs to get on the world platform and that is what means more to my career,” she signs off.