The recipient of this year’s elit™ Vodka Asia’s Best Female Chef award would rather relish the recognition than dwell on the gender issues that go with it.
It’s handed each year in time for the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S. Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.
“It’s a huge honor to be recognized in this way by my peers,” says Garima Arora of Gaa Restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. “How I see it is we continue to do what we do at Gaa and any accolade that comes is a bonus. My main focus is the restaurant, making sure that it is running smoothly and my team is getting stronger.”
For the talented 30-year-old, the industry recognition gives her a chance to tell the story of her restaurant and her motivations as a cook.
She admits to being against all kinds of positive discrimination and hopes that such gender-based awards won’t be necessary in the near future.
Arora’s fascination with food goes back to childhood in India—she’d watch her father cook with much pleasure in their home kitchen. “I was trained to be a journalist and I thought I would get into the restaurant business much later in life. However, I realized that it’s a young person’s game.”
At 20, she quit journalism and studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
After culinary school, she built her credentials and gained experience in some of the world’s top restaurants, including Verre in Dubai, where she learned to leave her ego at the door and become a team player; Gaggan in Bangkok where she was taught the beauty of Asian hospitality; and at Noma, the place that changed her the most.
“A restaurant like that teaches you attitude, how to live your life and your career. I learned how to think about food more intelligently. I started looking at cooking more as a cerebral exercise, thinking about what you do and why you do it.”
At Gaa, which opened in April 2017, Arora is successful in marrying techniques from her native India and seasonal ingredients from her adopted country of Thailand, to produce ingenious dishes such as her best-selling pork rib with coriander stem, red onion and pomegranate; or her young grilled corn, which is inspired by a popular street snack called bhutta.
During the #50BestTalks at the Grand Ballroom of Wynn Macau last Monday, she explained how spices played a significant role not just in her life, but also in culinary philosophy.
Exploring the theme “Vital Ingredients,” she remembers how spice became a part of their daily living, like how a piece of clove is placed in between the cheek and the teeth to remedy toothache, or how nutmeg is wiped on a baby’s lip when he’s sick.
Spices are crucial in cooking. Almost every household in India has a spice box, and no two varieties are the same. The selection per set is different yet the combinations yield a surprisingly wonderful fusion of flavors.
Arora follows the principle of negative food pairing. For example, her signature dish, the Strawberry and Caviar, consists of two disparate ingredients that, put together, project each other’s features. She claims that this is the biggest and most thought-provoking lesson that changed how she cooks. She followed it in her very first restaurant, and it continues to define who she is today.
“The lessons you learn from spice are obvious. They’re always fun to eat. They’re always comforting. Everybody loves a good bowl of curry and rice,” she says.
“But what I’ve taken away from it is that it’s actually an amazing tool or resource to create something completely new, different and something we’ve never tasted, something that surprises and delights us.”
‘Den-tucky Fried Chicken’
On the same stage, Zaiyu Hasegawa, wife Emi and their jolly staff at Den Restaurant in Tokyo, Japan, discussed how it’s the people—from the kitchen team to the customers and suppliers—that comprise a fundamental ingredient in the food business.
Their restaurant is known for putting fun into fine dining, offering kooky dishes such as the “Den-tucky fried chicken” in takeout boxes with an imprint of the faces of their guests.
Beyond the meal itself, their customers leave remembering the warm and friendly service. Den is the worthy recipient of the Art of Hospitality Award in 2017.
During their talk, the team role-played how they receive calls for reservations—always with a smile, because they believe that the other party on the line can feel it.
They try to find out as much information about their guests, which they share with the staff, interns included. Then they come up with ways to make the meals memorable, such as putting a special card on the table for a honeymooning couple, or adding sakura flavor to the rice dish of someone who flew to Japan to see the cherry blossoms, or placing the chopsticks of a left-handed regular diner on the left side to make it convenient for him.
Such thoughtful details elevate the dining experience. And that’s why they believe everyone involved in their thoughtful process is vital.
Spoonful of sugar
Fabrizio Fiorani of Il Ristorante Luca Fantin in Tokyo showed the extent of the influence of sugar in his culinary career.
He’s an acclaimed pastry chef, having worked in some of Italy’s best restaurants, including Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence and La Pergola in his native Rome.
But it is his current stint at the Bulgari Hotels and Resorts in Tokyo and Osaka that brought him the recognition he deserves, due in large part to desserts like his Latte, which uses raw milk from Hokkaido to immortalize a personal memory.
For the #50BestTalks, he played with different kinds of sugar and came up with a dish inspired by tradition and childhood. He plated a dessert of caramel cream, flat discs of cotton candy, sugar ice cream and caramel, to the music of “A Spoonful of Sugar” from the movie “Mary Poppins.”
The very first Asia’s Best Female Chef made a statement on sustainability. Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava, with husband Dylan “Lan” Jones, runs a pretty tight ship at their Bo.Lan Restaurant in Bangkok, and in the most ethical way possible.
Though she mentioned salt as an essential element in her cuisine, it’s her stand on sustainability that made the crowd listen attentively.
By employing measures such as keeping a zero-carbon footprint, using vegetables from their own garden, and using an efficient waste recycling scheme, they show the industry not only that these ideal ways are possible, but also that these are what should be done by restaurants.
It’s a trend that should be elevated to a standard—not a passing fad nor a marketing gimmick. —CONTRIBUTED
Special thanks to Wynn Palace in Macau; Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S. Pellegrino & Acqua Panna; and CatchOn. For the full list of winners, log on to https://lifestyle.inquirer.net/