In 2018, Chef Garima Arora made history. She and her restaurant, Gaa, were awarded the prestigious Michelin Star, making Arora the first Indian woman in the history of the nation to ever win the distinction. With Gaa, Arora also set another record: she is the first Indian woman to helm a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. In an industry that is still high in masculine energy, Arora stands tall and proud as a culinary creative bringing Indian cuisines, techniques and culinary heritage to the global scene. Here’s what we found out about this truly inspiring woman during our chat with her.
The Making Of A Michelin-Starred Chef
Arora’s life story spreads across many parts of India and the world, and the fact that she’s learnt from all her experiences is evident in the work that she does. Born in Hyderabad, Arora’s parents moved to Delhi, where all her extended family is from, then moved to Mumbai, where she lived until the age of 20 years. That’s when she moved to Paris to study the culinary arts. From there, she moved to Dubai, to Copenhagen, and finally to Bangkok.
It was at Copenhagen that Arora found the mentor she still really looks up to: Rene Redzepi, the three Michelin-starred chef and co-owner of Noma, the expert of Nordic cuisine who revolutionised the culinary world a few years back. “I think what he has done is tremendous,” she says. “His ideas, his philosophy, the way he’s taken that into the restaurant and his food is truly special. I always think ‘What will Rene do?’, and then I realise I probably can’t do that, and then I just end up doing what I want to do.”
Mentoring Women In The Food Industry
Following Redzepi’s example, and initiating her own as a woman, Arora says having a mentor is crucial in any and every industry. “It’s always good to have someone with a little bit of wisdom and hindsight to play it out with, because I think generation after generation, we all go through the same thing,” she explains, adding that this is especially important while facing failures. “Sometimes you just need a voice to tell you that it’s not the end of the world. This happens, it’s not the first time, and it’s not the last time. It’s going to happen a lot many times. Just pull yourself up, and get on with it,” she adds.
And that’s something she tries to tell her staff as well. But for the women in her team, Arora adds one more piece of advice: “One thing I always tell them is to be financially independent. I think that’s extremely important. I don’t undervalue the importance of having a partner, I think it’s essential that you have a partner and a family. But also, maintaining your own financial independence and stability is the best advice you can give young women.”
Here Is Indian Cuisine For The World
In November 2020, even as the world was recovering from the immense first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arora opened her second venture, Here. Unlike Gaa, which is entirely driven by age-old Indian techniques and Thai produce, Here is completely about Indian flavours. “The idea with Here is to show to the world that Indian food is way beyond curry and naan. That we don't eat curry for breakfast. We don't eat it for lunch, and we definitely don't eat it for dinner,” she laughingly adds. “We have so much more that we eat back home, and it's those flavors of home, I think, is what real Indian food is, and that's what we share at Here.”
But Here and Gaa aren’t the only works that engage Arora. She is also a part of a group of Indian culinary experts behind the project, Food Forward India, which aims to catalogue, preserve and learn from the vast and intricate cuisines of India. “It's a mammoth project that somebody would have to sit and, you know, catalogue all of that. It's a lot of work,” she says. A key part of the project is to travel to different parts of India, explore and record local cuisines, and then help future chefs learn from this huge treasure trove so that Indian cuisine can evolve.
And what role do Indian women have to play in this project? Arora says that these are the demographic who have the biggest role to play in preserving and taking forward Indian cuisines. “You have all the men in the kitchens professionally, but at home, it's always the women. And this is where our cuisine is evolving, this is where our cuisine has always been: in home kitchens,” she says. “And so who would be the purveyors of Indian cuisine, if not these women?”
Arora reveals how the very basics of cooking she learnt were not only from her own mother, but also neighbourhood aunties—one of whom taught her everything from the khandvis she serves at Here now to the khakhras and theplas she enjoys making. “There are so many other women who must have so many other little tricks up their sleeves that they know, but only they know,” she says. “And it’d be nice to share that knowledge with everybody.”