Garima Arora at Masque. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
"I haven't slept in two days," says Garima Arora, armed with a takeaway coffee cup, when we meet her at Mahalaxmi fine-dine, Masque. She has arrived just an hour ago from Bangkok, where she runs her six-month-old restaurant, Gaa. But her caramel-hued eyes light up as soon as we start chatting about her first pop-up in the city, in collaboration with chef Prateek Sadhu.
"We'll do a version of the bhutta, use ingredients like seabuckthorn from Ladakh and chocolates from Pondicherry. Prateek and I share the philosophy of celebrating local produce," says the 30-year-old. Arora seems to have imbibed the philosophy during her three-year stint at René Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen, voted the best in the world. Born in Hyderabad and raised in Mumbai, Arora studied journalism at Jai Hind College before heading to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Her illustrious CV includes stints with Gordon Ramsay's Verre in Dubai and at Gaggan Anand's eponymous restaurant in Bangkok before she ventured out. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Keema Pao with homemade butter
How did the shift from journalism to food happen?
My father is an avid cook. He would make dishes like risotto and hummus, which were unheard of in the early '90s. So, I had a keen interest in food but I wanted to plan something in it after winning a Pulitzer [laughs]. Then, on a trip to Singapore, I tried hotpot and decided to start cooking.
What were the learning lessons, working at the world's best kitchens?
At Gordon's, I learnt humility. Noma changed me as a person. I saw the chefs create magic out of limited produce and realised that the food is always bigger than the chef. I also learnt that fermentation can be used as a means of cooking, something I practise till date.
Fish Khanom La
Did these stints prepare you to work with Gaggan Anand?
Oh, Gaggan's was way more chilled out. He is also a confident chef; his Indian food is spot on. I think a lot, and believe that every step in the cooking process needs to have a reason. Gaggan is more carefree. From him, I learnt that cooking with a free hand isn't a bad thing.
Then, was it a challenge to carve your own niche with Gaa?
Yes, it still is. Many guests compare us with Noma but what I serve is my personal interpretation. Our idea is to introduce diners to flavours they've never tried before. For instance, at the border of Laos and Thailand, I came across eggfruit for the first time, and I was filled with childlike happiness. It tastes like avocado, with the texture resembling an egg yolk. At our restaurant, we use it on flatbread and as a soft serve. We also do a savoury version of Khanom La, a southern Thai dessert. The way it's made is a dying technique.
Crayfish, Eggfruit and Pomelo
Have you introduced any recipes from back home at your restaurant?
Homemade white butter that my grandmother would make. She would let the cream ferment naturally and then churn it. Guests wonder if it's cheese.
What's your take on Mumbai's culinary scene?
Chefs need to add a lot more thought to the food they are serving. For instance, many restaurants try to modernise Indian food; I wouldn't dare do that. Given the historical references, we should look at Indian food more intelligently.