Photo: Food Network
Last night, The Next Food Network Star crowned its Season 6 winner: Los Angeles based food blogger Aarti Sequeira edged out world's greatest Dad candidate Herb Mesa and "Big Chef" Tom Pizzica. She now joins the ranks of Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri in the Food Network's stable of TV personalities, with the hopes of spicing things up with a little Indian flavors on her new show Aarti Party.
Although it wasn't necessarily made evident during the season, Sequeira is a former producer for CNN who over the last year developed her own YouTube cooking show that just so happened to be called -- yep, you guessed it -- "Aarti Paarti." So even before the season started taping, she was quite used to being around cameras, both from a technical standpoint and in developing an onscreen personality. Consistent throughout the season was her point of view -- the party seeks to fuse Indian flavors with recognizable American favorites, introducing a new way of using spices in the kitchen.
The first season of Aarti Party premieres this Sunday, August 22 at 12 noon, where she dives into Bombay sloppy joes and pistachio pops. Other first season highlights that look promising: a recipe for quick pickled cucumbers using rice vinegar and cilantro, shrimp and pineapple "not-so" po' boys and a pulled pork smothered in a mango barbecue sauce.
Slashfood spoke with Sequeria about the origins of "Aarti Paarti" and making Indian food more accessible in the United States. Read the full interview after the jump.
What was last night's party like?
AS: It was incredible. I just watched with a few friends at a sweet little pub here. When they called my name, the room erupted so much, I still don't know what I said when I came back on screen, because I couldn't hear it.
You seemed very clear on your concept throughout the season -- when did you develop the idea for "Aarti Paarti"?
AS: I always wanted to be a journalist but that seemed to wither away. The fire in my belly for journalism wasn't there, and when I moved to L.A., I started cooking a lot. My husband got me into a part-time cooking program and that really helped me learn how to cook without using a recipe. And about a year ago, I started doing this online cooking show called "Aarti Paarti" and that made me really comfortable in front of the camera. It helped me figure out who I am in front of the camera -- but I didn't know that it was all leading up to this. I was doing it for the pure joy of doing it. I also had my own blog -- Aarti Paarti -- and I started putting recipes up on there. And the food, which blends American and Indian flavors, is what I find exciting.
What's the hardest thing about trying to convert people who are afraid of Indian cuisine?
AS: A lot of people think that Indian food is really spicy and is going to make their tummy feel funny. Or that they're going to have to rush out to some obscure Indian market in order to get all the spices. Some of that is true, but for the most part, I try to use spices that you can find at your regular supermarket. By weaving these everyday spices into dishes that you recognize, it makes it less intimidating because there's something familiar about it.
At what age did you start playing with this type of fusion -- is it a recent thing?
AS: I sort of fell into it recently. Growing up, food was a huge part of my life -- my mum was a wonderful cook and was a huge influence, but even she didn't make Indian food all the time. She'd make baked ziti and beef stroganoff -- we grew up with those influences and were really blessed because we got to travel and eat food from all over the world. To have those influences, in a way, I couldn't help but play around. I wasn't all that confident about cooking straight Indian food. I still look at some recipes and think "oh, I can't make all that stuff" [laughs]. So, I have no choice but to simplify things, where I get close but don't have to spend two hours making everything.
In having such a focused idea, did you think this gave you a leg up earlier on in the season? Did it put you at ease?
AS: Throughout the competition, the committee was always talking about "what's your point of view, what's your point of view?" I felt like they asked me once and they didn't really ask me again the rest of the completion. And I felt so relieved about that; for all the things they were drilling me about, this does not have to be one of them and that was really helpful, for sure.
The way they cut it, it made you seem rather insecure -- or were you actually that paranoid?
AS: I've always struggled with self-confident things. If you can't do 100% -- and who can do 100% all the time? -- you don't feel good enough. But it's funny, my mum was emailing me and she said "I don't know where you got this self-confidence thing from. You've always been so good at everything you do." I just have these really high standards for myself and if I didn't hit them, especially in this competition, where the committee was growing in importance to me by the day.
Obviously, you're about to have a great job -- what are some of the less glamorous jobs you've held in the past?
AS: In college, I worked at a coffee shop. I also worked at an ice cream shop, which was heaven on earth to me, because I was like "oh, I can have ice cream whenever I want."
Working at ice cream store, you get really strong forearms from all that scooping.
AS: You get strong forearms but it's funny how your hips grow in proportion to your forearm muscles. I think I worked in a pizza shop as well -- Chicago style -- and you have to know how to cut that stuff. All those jobs, now that I think about it, were all in food. It's what I wanted to do but I didn't know it.
Throughout the series, who did you think was your toughest competition?
AS: When I first met Herb and Brianna, I thought they'd both be in the finale. Herb just has that big, magnetic personality and Brianna is beautiful and really knows how to cook. And then there was Tom, the little snake in the grass. Such strong competition. I was like "who are you and where did you come from?"
What can we expect from the first season of "Aarti Paarti"?
AS: They said "we need 24 recipes now, do you have them?" Thank goodness I've been blogging the whole time, so I did have them. We could pull themes together and pull recipes -- but come up with some new ones. I do a shrimp po-boy that I came up with in a day.
This should give inspiration to nerdy food bloggers everywhere.
AS: [laughs]. It does, I know! Everything was training for me. I really think blogging is a great avenue to figure out who you are, figure out your voice, figure out your culinary voice -- and then see if it resonates with people.
What does this win say about the Food Network, investing in you and Indian culture?
AS: It's funny, when I was watching the finale last night, I kept hearing that sound byte that it's a really big deal that I'm the first Indian cook on Food Network. It's a huge deal and I let myself forget about that. If I thought about that when I was shooting, I might have crumbled underneath it. But it's a really huge deal that Food Network is going in that direction because Food Network is what people tune into when they want to learn about food or just be lulled into this happy place; I know that once Indian food is on Food Network, then people will go buy spices and that'll have an effect on supermarkets...it just means things are opening up for Indian food all over the country and that's very powerful. There's more to Indian food than just curry.