Gaa’s Garima Arora on Being the First Female Indian Chef to Gain Two Michelin Stars, MasterChef India Fame, and the Importance of Spice
Arora is bringing her bag of learned tricks to the highly anticipated MGM x RR1HK Culinary Masters Macau 2024.
BY Robb Report Hong Kong  |  May 30, 2024
9 Minute Read

This story is part of a series of features covering MGM x RR1HK Culinary Masters Macau 2024, hosted at MGM COTAI in Macau on 28–30 June 2024.

There is no denying the cross-continental appeal of reality TV cooking shows, particularly MasterChef, which is a syndicated behemoth telecast around the world. Just ask one of the judges, familiar to millions: chef Garima Arora, who went from humble chef behind the scenes—literally, as she rarely ventured beyond the kitchens—to finding fame under the spotlight as a beloved critic and connoisseur on the cooking competition.

Arora’s path to fame and glory was set in motion years ago when she first graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in 2010. Her stints with Gordon Ramsay and René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen are notable in her culinary curriculum, which led to the opening of her own restaurant in Bangkok, Gaa, in 2017. While food writers struggled to define Gaa, Arora simply states that it’s just modern Indian fine dining. You will find something traditional like lamb keema pao with homemade butter, as well as something beguiling like sturgeon caviar with hor wor oil. Gaa’s organic red rice cone with pork floss is novel, while the chocolate betel leaf is a mystery wrapped in a riddle that we’d like to unravel. Subject to change and seasonal whims that alter the menu, Arora always keeps it interesting. 

So interesting, in fact, that her first Michelin star was pinned on her lapel in 2019, followed by the Michelin Young Chef Award in 2022. Gaa then gained two Michelin stars in Bangkok earlier this year, sending ripples through industry circles. For a little more perspective, Gaa is only one of three Indian restaurants on the planet with such recognition.

Post-win, Arora said in an interview with the Michelin Guide, “You need to surround yourself with good people with a strong moral compass. If I didn’t have these amazing people working at Gaa, nothing we achieved would have been possible.”

And indeed, those busy kitchens are fuelled by passion and fervour. As if those out-of-the-frying-pan, into-the-fire images of frantic chefs, speedy sous chefs, and busy staff trying to snake their way through the tight arteries of a working kitchen aren’t stressful enough, Arora was judging a reality TV show, running her award-winning kitchen, and heading her business while pregnant. Healthy baby and Michelin honours were hers for the taking as she seems to have collected both with élan. Ahead of her highly anticipated appearance at MGM x RR1HK Culinary Masters Macau 2024, taking place at MGM COTAI, Macau, on 28–30 June 2024, Arora reveals more as she offers answers on a silver platter, with a dash of spice.

You made Michelin history as the first female Indian chef to be conferred two Michelin stars. How do you see your role in inspiring the next generation of women in the culinary industry, especially across diverse cultures?

Being a woman in the kitchen is not easy. In fact, the kitchen generally is not an easy place to be in, whether you’re a man or a woman. And being a woman, I think, is a shade more difficult because it’s a physically demanding job. It’s time away from your family and your loved ones, and that’s a big sacrifice most women have to make—that’s a big ask. 

The best way, I think, to encourage any woman is to make sure that before they start in this culinary field, [that they know] why they’re doing this, and the sacrifices that it will take to be successful. Having a realistic expectation for women is very, very important. And anybody and everybody who works with me, I teach them to prioritise themselves, their health, [and] family life, as much as their career.

Do you feel the pleasure or pressure of this new-found fame and Michelin status?

I am so glad to receive such a validation from the Michelin team. Added pressure, yes… and no. Of course, we want to do better by our guests and our staff and everybody, but at the same time, we always believe that there is a very specific narrative of Indian food we want to push, and we will continue to do that. We got so far in believing in our work and hope to go further by doing just that. 

As an Indian chef in Thailand, the curries, the ingredients, the kitchens—do you find there’s a lot of similarity there? 

There are so many similarities between Thai and Indian cuisine, but the best way to describe it is a very popular Thai saying: “Same, same, but different!” The use of spices—Thai cuisine uses fresh herbs, [and] we use dry spices and dry herbs. The same ingredients in my Indian cuisine that are used for desserts, in Thai cuisine, [they] may be used in savoury selections, or vice versa. So as much as there are similarities, there is also a sort of juxtaposition in the use of ingredients, which makes it so exciting to cook Indian food in Thailand. 

What drew you to specialise in Indian cuisine?

Being Indian, and I think as a cook, as a chef, you always go back to the flavours you grew up eating and the flavours that you enjoyed the most. So, of course, I had to cook Indian food because that’s what my roots are and that’s where I belong. 

What are you looking forward to in Macau?

I have been before and what I loved most was the amazing food and I hope to eat a lot more on this trip as well.

If you could travel back in time, which Silk Road destination would you most want to cook in?

I think I would not choose one city, but I will probably do the multi-cities pop-up. Cook along the Silk Road routes with different cultures, in different countries, with different ingredients. Why stick to one country?

What’s an Indian spice blend you couldn’t live without in the kitchen?

An Indian spice blend that we swear by in the kitchen right now is khatta meethawhich literally translates into “sweet and sour;” a very understated use of spices [is needed] to recreate this flavour combination. This spice is in Indian cuisine throughout different regions, in different forms and ways. This is something we really enjoy […] so that’s my go-to, always.

What’s your favourite ingredient or technique from India that helps to enhance flavour?

Well, if you’re cooking Indian food, or if you want a cheat to enhance the flavour of any dish, do what we call tarkaTarka is tempering—it’s taking fat and heating fat up to high temperatures, whatever oil you may choose, and then adding whole raw spices, letting it cook through, and then adding it to the dish as an extra layer of umami and flavour. So we put tarka in vegetable preparations, in daal, in curries, in so many different ways. You should try it the next time you’re cooking!

Tuna bhel.

What are three words to describe your Silk Road-inspired menu?

If I were to describe our menu, the three words that come to mind are: spice, savoury, and aroma. The use of spice in our dish is something I’m excited about. We will be doing one of the first savoury bites for the dinner and we’re really excited to do that. And, finally the scent, the smell, the aroma. With spice, it’s very important to break down the aroma of the spice because you taste first through your nose and then through your palate. Without scent, there is no spice. 

Culinary Masters brings different chefs from all over the world together in one place for an extraordinary gastronomic exchange. What are you most excited about?

I’m super excited to be part of MGM x RR1HK Culinary Masters Macau 2024 and I’m really looking forward to meeting all these amazing chefs, cooking with them, exchanging ideas with them, sneaking tastes of their dishes as well, and, of course, sharing ours. I think just so many different chefs from different cultures coming together under one roof to cook is great for guests but it’s even much more fun for us. 

How will you curate your dish to create synergy with the other chefs for the Culinary Masters 12-hands gala-dinner? 

On one hand, it’s super fun having so many chefs come together, but on the other hand, it becomes very difficult and tricky to balance a menu correctly for the guests. The proverb “Too many cooks spoil the broth” comes to mind, but in this situation, we hope we won’t do that! We have a lot of pre-development talks and Zoom calls and chats to make sure that there is a cohesive flow and a logical sense to the entire menu.

Under the gala dinner’s Silk Road theme, what signature ingredients have you selected to highlight the Indian flavours? 

Under the Silk Road theme, it’s not one ingredient we are choosing to showcase, but more of an idea. The dish that we would be showcasing is bhelBhel is best described as a salad, if you will, with a lot of little ingredients put together. But for me, it’s a great introduction to the flavours of India and also the rest of the menu. It makes you hungry. It makes you ready for the meal. It wakes up your taste buds. It gets those digestive juices flowing. I think a bhel is a very good starter to any meal. 

What do you hope diners will take away with them after they experience Culinary Master 2024?

We’re so excited to be part of MGM x RR1HK Culinary Masters Macau 2024 and exploring the Silk Road together with five other chefs! It is super exciting. We are getting together and creating all these flavours that exist throughout the Silk Road routes in different countries, from different cities, and we hope our guests can take back a little bit of each culture, a little bit of each flavour. We’re really excited to cook for you and we hope you’ll love it.

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