Garima Arora became the first Indian woman to head Michelin-starred restaurant on November 14. “That day we celebrated, but the next, it was business as usual,” she says. The star is a push to innovate more, she adds, and to work on her dream to open a restaurant in India.
“The dream is still a distant one, given the complications, the bureaucratic maze and the corruption. Just getting a liquor licence is such a long and expensive process.” India doesn’t yet have a Michelin-star restaurant. But that’s because Michelin doesn’t yet have a guide to a city here, or the country.
These guides are a series of books first published around 1900 by the French tyre company Michelin. In a world of very few cars, they were initially meant to encourage people to drive, and so they included maps, tips on car care, listed where to stop for fuel.
By 1920, they began to list hotels and restaurants in Paris. As the guide became more popular, Michelin hired gourmands to visit restaurants in secret and rate them for the guide.
The first stars were award in 1926. Over nearly a century, they have come to be considered the final word on restaurant ratings.
And yet, until 2006, there were still only Michelin guides for Europe. Since then, the guide has expanded its scope to include cities in North America, South America, Japan, South Korea, China and parts of south-east Asia.
Indian chefs have headed Michelin-starred restaurants outside India (remember, a star is for an establishment, never a person), the first being Atul Kochhar’s Indian-cuisine restaurant Tamarind, and Vineet Bhatia’s Zaika, both in London, in 2001. After him came Vikas Khanna’s Junoon in New York, Kochhar’s Benares in London, Gaggan Anand’s Gaggan in Bangkok, among others.
But never to a restaurant headed by an Indian woman. Is that because the professional kitchen is not really conducive to women’s growth? “The kitchen in general is a challenging place,” says Arora, 32. “It was a tougher place to work for women some 15-20 years ago. Now, in general, efforts are made to make the atmosphere more cooperative and focus on the strengths of each person.”
Fish Khanom La at GAA. It’s inspired by a Thai pastry called khanom la. Arora says she wants to blend the Indian and Thai food cultures on her menu.
At GAA, Arora says she tries to blend the Indian and Thai food cultures, working with ingredients such as jackfruit and betel leaf, which are common to both.
“It’s been extremely difficult to carve out a niche for GAA,” she admits. “The flavours here are unique, so there is no reference point for diners to compare them with. While this can be a great experience, people are usually averse to trying something so new.”
The Michelin star rating, she believes, will help them accept her experiments more readily. Not all chefs have felt this way about the coveted star. In 2013, a Spanish chef ‘returned’ his Valencia restaurant’s Michelin star because he felt it restricted his freedom to experiment. In 2014, a Belgian chef did the same, saying he wanted to be able to serve fried chicken if he liked, without worrying that he was disappointing customers.
In 2011, an Australian chef heading a restaurant in London reportedly called the star a curse because of how it raised expectations among customers. And this year, for the first time, a three-starred restaurant in the running was left off the list on request, after Sébastien Bras, the French chef of Le Suquet, said he wanted to start a fresh chapter without the pressure of being judged all the time.
The secret judges responsible for Michelin ratings typically check for quality, craft, the personality of the chef reflected on the plate, value for money and consistency. They try not to be snooty — stars have been award to a dim sum chain in Hong Kong; a streetside noodle bar in Tokyo, a street food stall in Singapore.
But for chefs, a lot of the stress comes from fear of losing the star — celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay likened it to losing a girlfriend.
Arora, incidentally, worked with Ramsay, in Dubai. “It was my first experience in a professional kitchen and there was a lot that I learnt from it, the primary thing being that though a restaurant kitchen looks chaotic, its organised chaos fuelled by speed,” she says.