Eating/Drinking  •  Chewing the Fat

Garima Arora of Restaurant Gaa

Officially opening its doors on Saturday, the first of April, Restaurant Gaa takes you on a new culinary adventure you simply must experience. Writer Emma Thompson sits down with Garima Arora, its creator, to explore her world and the world of Gaa.

March 31, 2017

Entering the Lang Suan sub-soi where one normally finds the strikingly white house that is Gaggan, I turn to my right and find a great glass structure with an accompanying yellow and pink exterior. I have arrived at Restaurant Gaa, where I am greeted by Garima Arora, former chef de partie at Noma and the late sous chef of Gaggan who has now branched out with her very own hand-picked team at her brainchild that is Restaurant Gaa. At only twenty-nine years of age, Garima is now cooking her own style of food in a concept that will evolve over time as the team, as well as Garima, grows.

Garima quickly gives me the tour of the multi-storey restaurant with three dining areas, including a chef’s table and a bar/dining area with an assorted a la carte menu. With Garima at the helm and a team of about eleven chefs in the kitchen, I see people from all over the world. “I was lucky to have access to so many interns while working at Gaggan. I found a few people who shared the same ideology about food as me, and so I offered them to come and work with me. We have been together ever since,” says Garima as we sit down to begin our interview.

We discuss everything from how it all began to what to expect at Gaa, alternating between abstract and clear-cut questions, and delving into the concepts of first-time food experiences, inspiration, and what type of food she would be.

You all must be wondering who the mysterious lady on the wall must be and let me tell you the story. The woman who is painted on the wall was the late Madame of the establishment which presently is Restaurant Gaa. Rather than hide the history of the building, Garima sees it as yet another unique feature to the restaurant.
Emma: I read that you worked as a journalist before. How did you go from that to the kitchen?
Garima: I think I always wanted to be a cook but it was always further down the line. I figured that, later on in life, I would eventually open my own restaurant. But, when I was twenty, I realized that I would have to do it now. My dad gave me the option of studying and he figured that I would take another journalism course as most Indian kids do. But when I said that I wanted to be a cook, he was really happy. So he gave me the money to move to France to study and cook. And I am really glad that he did.

Emma: So cooking was always sort of in the back of your mind?
Garima: Yes, absolutely. I just realized that what I was doing with my life didn’t make sense. So I spoke to my dad and, a month later, I left. That was ten years ago and I haven’t looked back.

Emma: Did you keep in close contact with your family after moving to France?
Garima: Yes, both of my parents are my best friends. We take holidays together and we even have incredible drunken nights together. So both are a very big part of my life. I know that there is a question in there that asks about what chef I would like to work with and it’s my father.

Emma: That was going to be my next question actually. Who, alive or even dead, would you have liked to cook together with?
Garima: Since I was about five years old or six, my dad used to travel a lot, and he loves to cook. So when he got back to Bombay—that was just before ’93 and we had no imported ingredients, money was scarce, and India was still a young socialist country—he would still make risotto and hummus at home. He was making all of these things that nobody had heard of before. I remember when he made a tarte for the first time and I wondered how the hell he got the apples inside the tarte. I couldn’t understand it. He just said, “Oh it’s magic,” and he had a little spell that he would say every time he would make it. He is the one who introduced love of cooking, not as a chore but for love. For my mom, it was always a chore because she was the woman of the house and she had to cook. But he made it fun. For him it was an outlet; it was an expression. And I think that is how I started cooking as well because I saw him having fun. So I credit him for everything really.

Emma: Have they been here to Thailand yet and seen the restaurant?
Garima: My mom will be here in the next few days, actually, but dad won’t be here until next month.

Emma: That has to be very exciting! Will he be cooking with you?
Garima: Nooo! [Laughs] No, now the tables have turned. I remember the first time I made risotto with my best friend and [my dad] was teaching us how to cook. When he tasted it he said, “It’s overcooked. It has to be al dente,” and he just walked off and threw the spoon away. The both of us were like: ”He’s just like Gordon Ramsay. He is so mean!” [Laughs]

Emma: Maybe you guys can just do a pop-up thing.
Garima: A pop-up with my dad, yeah. Just like the tarte all over again. That would be fun. It’s a good idea. Maybe. [Laughs]

Emma: With Restaurant Gaa opening soon, can you tell us about the concept and the food? I have heard that it is going to be similar to what Noma does but with your flair and spin on it.
Garima: Well, everybody makes a lot of comparisons or they expect me to cook like Noma or Gaggan. But it’s neither of the two. So I am going to make a brave move and just call it my own. I just call it modern eclectic because eclectic is what we do with no particular cuisine in mind. I take inspirations from the past ten years working in five different countries. Yes, there is a little bit of India in there. Yes, there is a bit of Nordic and Scandinavian as well. But there is also a touch of French, a little bit of the Middle East too, and Japan. So it is everything.

I really believe that cooks today are bodiless: their cuisines are bodiless. So my food is eclectic, to me. Or that’s what I call it.
Emma: Is it also inspired by flavors found in Thai food? Well, because we are in Thailand.
Garima: Absolutely! Exactly! And that’s very important to us. Yes, its very difficult to source these incredible and amazing ingredients but they are all local. So, to me, if I wanted to source ingredients from Europe or from India or Japan, I would open a restaurant there. But I am opening a restaurant in Bangkok, smack in the middle of Thailand, so it has to reflect that. Everything in our restaurant is 100% Thai, other than me—that is imported! [Laughs] All of our plates, the cutlery, the ingredients, the pots, everything is locally sourced. The coffee... even in our coffee program. We have an incredible cheese program that we are working on, all with local dairy. So there is a lot of Thainess.

Emma: What sparked the idea of your type of food? What sparked the idea of Restaurant Gaa?
Garima: I moved from Copenhagen to work with Gaggan in order to finally move back to Bombay and open up a restaurant with him there. But that project got derailed at the same time that I took a trip up to Udon Thani last year. I discovered all of this incredible indigenous produce. We went to tribal markets, jungle markets, and I was so excited about what I found there. I came back to Bangkok and Gaggan asked me if I wanted to do something with this [gestures around her], as the Bombay restaurant wasn’t happening. So everything just happened at the right time and the right place.

Emma: What does the restaurant represent, in your opinion?
Garima: I think that it represents who I am at this moment. What it is today hopefully won’t be the same next year even. It is an extension of not only me but every single person who works here. It is an accumulation of who we are, all of us together. And that is what you see on the plate. As the menu will grow, so will we. So will I, as well as the team.

Emma: So what will be essential to Restaurant Gaa? What makes it unique?
Garima: So there are three things that we stand by and one is that everything is locally sourced, which I think every conscious chef does today. The second is fermentation. That is a big, big part of how we cook here and how we derive new flavors and techniques. And then, that very naturally leads us to the third point, which is that we make everything in-house. We make our own cheeses, our own butter, our own soy sauce, our own nam pla [fish sauce]. There is nothing with a label in the kitchen, except for the oil that we use which is store bought. To be able to achieve that in just two months makes me very proud. I think that these three things combined, and the fact that its unique products that even Thais aren’t used to, make the food fresh and very unique.

Emma: That sounds really inspiring. And fun.
Garima: It is! Though somebody actually floated the idea of pressing our own oil and all of us thought the same thing: “We are already working donkey hours: I am not staying back to press oil” [Laughs]

Emma: Well, that doesn’t seem equally as fun….
Garima: No, exactly! [Laughs] It is all about creating something new and that is why we come to work everyday. Nobody would do it if it wasn’t fun. I mean, to taste something for the very first time—something that you have never tasted before—that is an incredible feeling to have. The two or three [menu] tastings that we have had, the reactions have been: “I have never tasted something like this before,” and that is exactly what I want the reaction to be.

Emma: I can’t wait for you to open so that I can have my own “first time” experience.
Garima: If one or two or even three dishes on the menu could do that to people…. To say: “What the fuck is this? I have never tasted something like this before,” I think that is pretty cool. And that is what happened when I went up north to Udon Thani. I tasted fruits that I had never tasted in my life before and, as a conscious adult, to taste something for the first time is incredible. So we try to give that experience to everybody who comes to the restaurant.

Emma: I’m sold. Book me in for your first opening night as your first official guest.
Garima: Of course.

Emma: So my next question might be a bit abstract, but what does food and cooking mean to you? What does it represent? I guess it’s all about the experience, perhaps?
Garima: I don’t know really but I just can’t see myself doing anything else in my life. It’s not really work to me. Cooking is what I do and who I am. It’s a very personal experience, cooking. When you put something on a plate it’s a reflection of who you are. I think, creatively, you can find so many other outlets to do that, to express yourself. I just chose cooking to do it.

Emma: So what is it that inspires you as a chef?
Garima: I think that it is different things at different times. You derive inspiration from different sources at different times in your career. I think that, right now, I am so glad that I have the team that I do and that we are all on the same wavelength to the point where we think the same way. Making new things, things that have never existed before. Yes, we are using existing techniques, but we are trying to do something new with them. That is what is driving us right now in the kitchen.

Emma: How does this differentiate from what inspires you as a person and not as a chef?
Garima: It’s the same. It has to be. We aren’t even open yet and we are putting in fourteen hours a day. There comes a time in your career when, if you want to achieve something, what you do is who you are. And to me, I am enjoying it: every single minute. There is nothing else I would rather do with my time right now than to do what I am doing.

Emma: I know that you and Gaggan have a good relationship after working so closely together, so my questions is: Who is he to you?
Garima: Gaggan and I have only known each other for fourteen months, and it all started with him hearing about this girl working at Noma who wanted to move back to Bombay. So he gave me a call and we talked for one hour—I had never met him before so it could have been a prank call for all I knew—and he convinced me to quit and move to Thailand. There is just something about him as a person. He can walk into a room and just own the room. It’s his larger-than-life personality that extends to his food, which is why his food is larger-than-life as well.

I have seen him with the confidence of owning your own food, to own what you do so naturally, so confidently, so gracefully. Nobody can question him because he doesn’t question himself. I am an overthinker and he is the exact opposite. So that is something that I have learnt from him: to be confident in what you do, to love what you do, and just do it. I have learnt to draw and cook with that same confidence. I don’t even think that he knows that he has had such a profound effect on how I cook today. He gave me the confidence to start cooking myself. From a line cook, he made me a chef, for sure.

Emma: And he is very supportive of Restaurant Gaa and what it is going to be?
Garima: He is basically letting me do whatever the hell I want to do. I think he believes in me doing my own thing. He is very trusting like that and I admire him for that. For just stepping away and letting it be.

Emma: Still, you guys have only known each other for a little bit longer than a year… and now you are opening your own restaurant. It feels like it’s been...
Garima: Forever, yeah. But it has only been fourteen months. I moved to Thailand in November 2015, that’s it. It is absolutely mental.

Emma: It really is. I only have a few questions left but we are curious to know what would be your dream research/inspiration destination or place?
Garima: Right now I am sort of obsessed with this whole trail leading from the east of India all the way to Bangkok, experiencing the foods along the way. It is so easy to take inspiration from everywhere but it also needs to make sense. I think that it will make complete sense because I am from India but live in Thailand, and the trail includes a part of India, as well as Thailand, that is unexplored. So my next destination is this drive from India to Bangkok as there is this new super highway that has just opened up a few months ago.

Emma: My last question is a bit weird, perhaps, but we are kind of obsessed with it: If you were a food or a dish, what would you be? We actually tried this one with Gaggan before but I can’t quite remember what he said… either it was something really simple or it was something complex and strange.
Garima: It can be either way with him. [Laughs] I don’t know: it’s a very weird and difficult question.

Emma: It can simply be your favorite food or a dish you have a cherished memory of or what you identify with or that you like to work with even. It could be anything.
Garima: I really don’t know… I’m so hungry right now that I don’t know what I would pick. [Pauses for a few minutes] I think I would be… a coffee bean.

Emma: Because you can’t live without it.
Garima: Exactly! [Laughs] I would be a coffee bean because it is so humble and you don’t really see what goes into making it become coffee. All the hard work that goes into making coffee is also something that we do with our food. Every step on the way is well thought of; it’s well processed. It is painstakingly collected and taken cared of: it’s fermented, it’s roasted, it’s processed, and then finally you have this beautiful cup of coffee that you enjoy. It’s the love that goes behind it and that is exactly how we work in the kitchen—it describes how I cook. We put a lot of heart into everything here. So yes, a coffee bean.

Emma: That’s a good answer. A coffee bean definitely goes through a process that you don’t quite think about when you enjoy it…
Garima: It’s because coffee is such an everyday thing. But there is so much work that goes behind it and that is basically what we do here at Gaa. And the fact that coffee is fermented, which is my current obsession. We literally ferment everything at the moment. Coffee bean it is!

Make reservations for Restaurant Gaa, officially open from the 1st of April onwards, at +66914192424.
68 Soi Langsuan, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Bangkok 10330.