From a wide-eyed girl in India sampling oysters and foie gras in Paris to the founder of Gaa in Bangkok, Garima Arora has been on a winning streak. After working with culinary giants globally, she established Gaa in 2017, aiming to bridge the connection between India and Thailand, crafting unique dining experiences that highlight the modern relevance of Indian cooking techniques. Gaa’s mission is to rediscover and reform the narrative surrounding Indian food.
In 2019, Gaa earned its first Michelin star, making Garima the first Indian female chef to achieve this distinction. Recently, Gaa secured two Michelin stars in the Michelin Guide Thailand 2024, placing her among three Indians with this honour. This achievement is especially significant as it coincides with another first—the birth of her son, Aham.
In an exclusive chat with HELLO! this master chef, who enjoys returning to Matunga for South Indian delights at Madras Café, shares her remarkable journey from India to her current pinnacle in the culinary world.
HELLO!: Garima, congratulations on the two Michelin stars in the Michelin Thailand 2024 edition. What does this achievement mean to you personally and professionally?
Garima Arora: “Thank you so much, this means a lot. The honour belongs to my team without whom none of this would have been possible. It is difficult to separate my professional and my personal life. I think I live the restaurant and part of it is always with me, wherever I go, even in my personal life. Professionally, it’s a great validation to receive this honour, especially this year, as I just became a mom—my baby boy is now six months old. Learning to balance running a business and a kitchen while raising a baby has been an interesting experience! Personally, this comes at a really, really good time, providing me with encouragement to keep going. All in all, I’m very excited about this award.”
H!: Awards are familiar territory for you. You’ve secured the title of Asia’s Best Chef, and Gaa even earned a spot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019. How significant are these honours in your journey?
GA: “Awards are certainly great validation. It’s great to have them, but they don’t drive what we do. They don’t drive our goals. They don’t change how we want to cook, to be honest. We continue to do what we always do. We keep our heads down. We work hard. And awards always seem to follow. I think that’s really our secret. We are unabashedly ourselves.”
H!: As one of the seven restaurants in Thailand with two Michelin stars, did you intentionally work towards achieving this recognition?
GA: “Maybe subconsciously, yes, but not overtly so. I guess that’s normal, where you always want to do better. You want to achieve the next thing. You want to do it for you and your team. I guess at the back of my mind, we always wanted this. But like I said, we never changed what we thought we needed to do to justify our style of cooking. We’ve always stayed true to ourselves.”
H!: With Gaa, you have managed to bridge the culinary gap between Thailand and India. Tell us more about this journey.
GA: “This connection between Thailand and India came as a surprise to me too. Seven years ago, I moved here for a short stint with the hope of returning to India. At that time, I was living and working in Copenhagen. Somehow, this short stint evolved into a wonderful opportunity with Gaa. I decided to stay back because it opened my eyes. Spending time in the country, going up north, meeting other chef friends, seeing the ingredients, learning the language, understanding the people—I realised the connection between India and Thailand is so deep. The language, mythology, ingredients, they’re all the same. The influence India has had over this part of the world is often overlooked and not fully realised. So, it just made sense to stay back and use Thailand as a backdrop to explore Indian cuisine.”
H!: Circling back, you initially pursued a career in journalism before becoming a chef. Could you share more about this transition and the reasons behind it?
GA: “I studied to be a journalist, yes; however, I wasn’t good at it, I’ll be honest. I always wanted to be a cook. I have a father who supported my vision and choices. He backed me up and said, “All right, if that’s what you want to do, you can drop your current career and go study to be a cook.” And I’m glad he did that.”
H!: Having studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, how did that experience shape your career in the food industry?
GA: “Moving to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris at the age of 21 was transformational for me. I’m from a middle-class family and grew up in a very different India. The culinary landscape has changed significantly; we have access to amazing restaurants and ingredients today, but growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s was a time of learning. For me, Paris was almost a wake-up call, where I was introduced to the culinary world and what it could be. I tried oysters for the first time, foie gras, and duck—things I didn’t necessarily like; however, as a cook, it completely opened up my world. I had so many different kinds of cheeses; I didn’t know there could possibly be so many different kinds! For somebody who loves to eat and cook, and is starting off their career, Paris is like a playground—it’s like Disney World.”
H!: You have worked with culinary icons like Gaggan Anand, Gordon Ramsay and Rene Redzepi. What did you learn from each of these personalities?
GA: “I’ve been lucky to work with some great chefs in my time and learn valuable lessons on how to do things, and also how not to do things as well. This is what I teach my chefs as well—that everything you learn here is not only what you’ll implement in the future, but also what you’ll learn to avoid. There are things you’d not want to repeat in your restaurants. So always maintain a critical mindset, consider who you are with, and be mindful of what you’re learning. When you’re ready to open your own restaurant, you’ll use all this knowledge. I’ve been fortunate to learn from some of the best in the industry.”
H!: Throughout your career, you must have interacted with many celebrities. Can you share any memorable experiences with us?
GA: “A lot of celebrities come and go at the restaurants where I’ve worked, and I’m not normally starstruck. However, one memorable incident was when I was still at Noma, and Salman Rushdie dined with us. I think I was one of the very few people in the kitchen who knew who he was and, yes, I was absolutely starstruck at that moment.”
H!: Outside of your passion for food, what are your other interests?
GA: “I love working out and try to do so at least three to four days a week. I also enjoy reading quite a bit, and I love travelling a lot. However, being a new mom, at this stage, I don’t have much time for anything else! So right now, I’m discovering the joys of motherhood. It’s all-consuming and takes up so much of my time, but I love every minute of it. So, other than food, my focus is on being a mamma.”
H!: How often do you visit India and what do you enjoy doing when you’re here?
GA: “I don’t get to visit India as much as I would like. However, being a judge on MasterChef India required my presence for almost five months straight. Cumulatively, it’s probably the most time I’ve spent in India in the last 15 years! Whenever I visit, I make it a point to explore new ingredients, restaurants and culinary experiences. In Mumbai, my go-to spots on every visit are Madras Cafe and Rama Nayak. I really, really enjoy South Indian food and I love all these amazing restaurants around the Matunga area.”
H!: What has the experience been like being a judge on MasterChef India?
GA: “It was tremendous. I think more than anything else, I made some great friends for life. Both Vikas [Khanna] and Ranveer [Brar] are such special people and I’m so lucky I got to spend those months with them. It’s an experience of a lifetime that we had together and it’s a friendship that I’m going to cherish for a long, long time. And while I do enjoy being in front of the camera, I was also amazed by the production value. It takes the whole city to run a show like that. I was amazed by how talented people are in India, and how similar yet different our lives are. It was very, very fun to see it all coming together.”
H!: Finally, what does 2024 hold for you?
GA: “Raising my boy will be priority number one. And of course, we’re geared up to intensify our efforts with our menus and explore food even further. In the coming year, we plan to embark on some serious R&D trips to India, and hopefully bring back ingredients, techniques and flavours to showcase to the world. We are really excited to bring more of India to our menu.”
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s January 2024 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!