Please tell us about yourself

Listening to Garima Arora describe a regular workday would be enough to bust all but the most committed ambitions of being a chef: 7am to past midnight in the kitchen, with a couple of short breaks for meals, six days a week.

It leaves her with just enough energy to sleep through her Sundays.

“Being in the kitchen is hard, physically and mentally,” says Arora, even as I grow acutely aware that every minute she spends talking with me over Skype is one minute added to her sleep debt. “And I really have no life outside the restaurant.”

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When that restaurant is Noma, consistently voted the world’s best, however, many young chefs would give a great deal to be in her place. At 27, Arora is chef de partie at the modernist Copenhagen, Denmark, restaurant led by Claus Meyer and René Redzepi, widely regarded as the most influential chef in the world.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Since 2003, Noma has worked to make local a mantra and foraging fashionable: Besides inspiring chefs across the world to investigate their own backyards and ancient food processes—reindeer lichen and wood sorrel, anyone?—it has transformed the way high-end diners approach their meals, triggered an interest in culinary history, geography and science and helped bring a fresh perspective to the global discourse on food.

Round about the time Noma was breaking into the top 10 in Restaurant magazine’s list of the 100 best restaurants in the world in 2008 (it is currently No.1 for the fourth time), Arora was graduating from Jai Hind College in Mumbai with a degree in mass media.

I’ve always had an interest in food and I believe it has a lot to do with my dad, who travelled around the world for his job. He was the cook in my family, not my mom. He’d come back from his trips and cook these amazing dishes. It took me a while to get used to them as a kid but I started looking forward to trying new flavours and kind of got addicted. That’s how my love for food started. But it was a different setup back then. I was a ‘90s kid. Cooking was not a white-collar job. It wasn’t something anyone aspired to be when he or she grew up. As I grew older, I thought sooner or later I’m going to pursue food. “But I wanted to be a journalist. Food, I thought, would happen later in life.”

For a year after graduation, Arora worked on the pharma beat for The Indian Express in Mumbai, and also dabbled in news TV. Till one day in 2010, while eating her way through a Singapore holiday, it struck her that if she was really going to be a chef, it couldn’t wait much longer. “I’d tried a hot-pot for the first time and loved it. So much so, I bought a couple of induction cookers and called over my friends for hot-pot parties in Mumbai. For me, it was a defining moment,” she says.

Did you study to become a chef?

Even as Arora’s popularity soared among her friends, she recalled her father’s promise. “He’d say, ‘I’m not going to pay for your wedding, but if you ever want to study abroad, I’ll take care of that.’ So I decided to take him up on his word, applied to Le Cordon Bleu, Paris, was accepted into Le Grand Diplôme programme—and there’s been no looking back,” she says.

Tell us about your career path after graduation

Arora’s first internship, which developed into a job as a commis chef (the entry level in kitchen hierarchy), was with Verre, Gordon Ramsay’s first international outpost at the Hilton Dubai Creek.

“The biggest lesson I learnt there was humility,” says Arora. “It was my first time in a professional kitchen and—since I started studying to be a chef at 23—much later chronologically than most people. Under Ramsay’s executive chef Scott Price and head chef Nick Alvis, I learnt to work as part of a team, especially because there were just five of us. When Ramsay exited Verre in 2011, Price and Alves asked me to help them set up the Taste Kitchen, also in Dubai.”

How did you end up in Noma?

At Verre, while researching a dish to present to her chef, however, Arora had stumbled across Redzepi’s book, Noma: Time And Place In Nordic Cuisine (2010). It was a revelation.

“None of the dishes in the pictures looked like food—they looked like art! I didn’t know half the ingredients in the recipes and crazy, twisted things were done to the ones I did know. I knew rightaway I wanted to be there,” she says.

So, when Noma accepted her application for an internship, Arora didn’t think twice. “On the last day of the three-month internship at Noma, my chef asked me if I’d like to stay on. I agreed and it’s been a year…no, wait, actually almost one-and-a-half years now,” she says, the pause helping her take stock of the months that have flown by.

As exciting as the prospect of working at the top-ranked restaurant was, Arora was aware that there would be a lot of unlearning involved.

How was the experience at Noma?

“Verre might have been British-inspired, but the basics were classic French. We were still doing the duck confit and the tarte Tatin,” she says. “Noma is possibly the only restaurant in the world where French cooking doesn’t help you: We don’t emulsify sauces, we split them—say, acidic whey, with pine oil. Also, at any given time, there are 30-35 interns, and just 20 permanent staff. That’s a large team for the 110 covers we do a day, but we serve 25-26 courses and each dish has 25-30 different, variable components, from the nature of the fermentation to the herbs and flowers available.”

Arora also likes Noma’s kitchen hierarchy: Unlike the many-tiered system in French kitchens, Noma has 12 or 13 chefs de partie (line cooks), and four sous chefs, led by the head chef (Redzepi).

As anyone familiar with the Noma “here-and-now” food story would know, the work begins long before the 63-degree egg yolk or the caramelized Cauliflower and Pine (90% of the Noma menu is vegetarian) makes its way to the diner. On the other side of the pass, Arora—the only woman working in Noma’s hot kitchen, incidentally—witnesses a development process that begins in the test kitchen, where Redzepi and three sous chefs ideate and create the dishes in anywhere between a day and several months. Once approved, the kitchen staff receive a demo and then execute those dishes.

“It’s a beautiful system because it works,” Arora says. “And, remarkably, unlike many other places where the chef is rarely seen after the development of a dish, René is always in the kitchen. Everything here lives up to his speech at the World’s Best Restaurant awards earlier this year, when he said, “Wood sorrel conquered caviar.” At the end of the day, though, it comes down to taste. If it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter.”

What is your role?

As chef de partie, it is Arora’s job to oversee five interns, ensure the products are right, maintain control over quality and, of course, execute her area of production. Lest one think it mindless routine, she hastens to emphasize that the menu is as dynamic as Copenhagen’s maritime weather.

“Going into winter, one day we’ll have the foragers come back and say there are no more nasturtiums. So we wonder what we can replace it with, and they say there’s goosefoot. So, literally in a day, the dish changes,” Arora recounts. “Last week, for instance, we heard that the lobster season was nearly over. So we’ll be using langoustines. Or take today: For the main course, we’re doing wild hunted ducks. Each duck is a different size, a different type, shot differently, so each of them will need to be treated differently.”

With every day bringing in a new challenge and a new learning opportunity, it’s no wonder that Arora sees herself at Noma for at least another year, and much longer if possible. In January, she—and the rest of the Noma staff—will head to Japan for a five-week pop-up (9 January-14 February) at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo. If you’re planning a trip, the fixed menu option (only food) costs ¥40,200, or around Rs.21,310, plus taxes. Bookings opened in June and chances are a cancellation is the only way you can be assured of a table.

“I think working in Noma has changed me not only as a cook, but as a person,” says Arora. “Growing up, I never gave Indian food the credit I should have. When I think of the limited range of foodstuff we work with at Noma, and what we achieve with it, and compare it with what we get back home…we are blessed, and we do nothing with it. When I go back home now, I look at ingredients, techniques and dishes so differently, and with so much more respect. Eventually, I would want to get back to Indian food, there’s so much to be done there.

Every Saturday night, one chef de partie (and interns) from each of the four sections—snacks, cold, hot and pastry—comes up with a dish. Once the restaurant closes for the night and we’ve cleaned down, we taste the dish and exchange feedback. And each time I’ve done the project, I find myself going back to Indian flavours and techniques. The first project I did was inspired by ‘sev-batata-puri’: crisp chicken skin at the bottom, celeriac purée on the top and a wood sorrel ‘granita’ and garnish. The buzz on project nights now is, ‘What is she doing from back home?’ I also did a take on ‘kadhi-chawal’. Instead of ‘besan’ (gram flour) in the ‘kadhi’, I used pea-so, fermented split peas, which I made into a flour and used as a base for the sauce, and served with mixed grains and greens. Noma made me realize that when you send out a plate of food, you actually send out a part of yourself.”