Executive Chef Garima Arora walked away with a double accolade at this year's Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in Macau last week. Presented with the title of Asia's Best Female Chef for 2019, her restaurant, Gaa, also hit the top 20 for the first time this year.
The awards come after Gaa received a Michelin star in November 2018, just over a year after opening – making Garima the first Indian woman to receive the honorary badge for her restaurant.
The Asia's Best Female Chef award showcases culinary masters whose passion, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit serve to inspire the next generation of chefs.
"Garima Arora has had a huge impact on the dining scene in Asia in a short period with her brilliant blend of Indian traditions and Thai ingredients," Asia's 50 Best Restaurants' Group Editor, William Drew, said.
Even though she tells The CEO Magazine she doesn't quite feel like a role model, Garima is indeed paving the way for the future generation of the restaurant industry. "The way I see it is, if I can do it, so can anybody else," she says.
"I am honoured to be recognised by my peers and the industry with Gaa having opened for less than two years," she muses. "It has given me the opportunity to tell the story of Gaa and what drives me as a cook."
"Garima Arora has had a huge impact on the dining scene in Asia in a short period with her brilliant blend of Indian traditions and Thai ingredients." – William Drew, Group Editor, Asia's 50 Best Restaurants
Gaa is not your typical Bangkok restaurant. Taking her Indian roots and adding locally sourced ingredients and Thai flavours, Garima serves up small plates that are eclectic and unpredictable.
The restaurant embraces Indian traditions, from cooking on fire and extracting umami from vegetables to pickling and encouraging diners to eat in the traditional Indian way – with their hands.
Blending these centuries-old Indian cooking techniques with fresh Thai produce, Gaa plates up multi-course tasting menus which reflects Garima's cultural heritage, paired with wines (or juices for those going alcohol-free).
The modern and playful fare includes spicy duck doughnut, unripe jackfruit with roti and pickles, organic burnt coconut sugar ice-cream with crispy shallot and chocolate betel leaf.
The Gaa story
Working briefly as a journalist before pursuing her interest in the culinary arts, Garima graduated from Paris's esteemed Le Cordon Bleu in 2010, to then work at Le Quartier du Pain in Paris and the now closed Verre by Gordon Ramsay in Dubai.
On deciding to change the direction of her career, she says "it had to be now". "Cooking is a young person's game. It's very demanding both physically and mentally and I want to do it while I can," she says.
"My heart was always in cooking. I always looked at cooking as something that is fun and enjoyable. It is the joy of tasting something for the very first time that drives me, always."
Her journey in cooking took her to work alongside legendary chef René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, an experience she says forever changed her approach to the trade.
"I learned how to think about food more intelligently," she reflects. "I started looking at cooking more as a cerebral exercise, thinking about what you do, why you do it and understanding your place in a community."
Garima relocated to Thailand in 2016 – which was meant to be a short stint on her way back to India. But she stayed to work as sous chef at Gaggan, the award-winning Bangkok restaurant that consistently holds one of the top positions on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list and is currently sitting at number five in the world.
She was there when Gaggan was the number one restaurant in Asia, which it was for four consecutive years until 2018. It now holds the number two spot after Odette took the winning title this year.
While developing a richer connection with the culinary offerings in Thailand, the chef then opened Gaa in April 2017, a three-storey restaurant located opposite Gaggan.
"My heart was always in cooking. I always looked at cooking as something that is fun and enjoyable."
It only took two years to claim the highest new entry in Asia's top 50 list at number 16, but the 32-year-old chef reflects that it has come down to hard work – and stands by those words as her advice on the path to success.
"Hard work, time and time again, never fails me," she says. "Keep your head down and work hard, believe in your vision, and never apologise for your choices."
Garima says her father was her biggest influence when it comes to all things culinary. A proud and humbling moment for her, she says, is when she has her parents dine at her restaurant.
"I watched my father cook all throughout my childhood," she reflects. "He would travel a lot and when he came home he would recreate the dishes he had sampled or experiment with new combinations."
She also looks up to various chefs in the industry, from Chef Palash Mitra of New Punjab Club in Hong Kong, with his simple, classic and thoughtful take on Indian food, to Chef Num from Samuay & Sons in the Northern part of Thailand, who is championing Isan cooking and culture.
""Hard work, time and time again, never fails me," she says. "Keep your head down and work hard, believe in your vision, and never apologise for your choices."
Garima says she is also proud of watching her team grow, knowing she can trust them and leave tasks in their capable hands.
"This award is a validation of our team's hard work and commitment to excellence," Garima reflects. "I am honoured that chefs and respected industry peers voting on this award recognise and appreciate our efforts."
Garima reflects that there have been various challenges in the different stages of her career, from moving into a new industry and working in various restaurants abroad to opening her very own.
"At the beginning it was definitely the long hours, time away from family and loved ones," she says. "But lately, it is the challenge of running a business and keeping creativity alive.
"My next challenge is to give my team the right experiences and exposure, so we are all more in tune and know what is best for the restaurant."