'Next Food Network Star' champ Aarti Sequeira talks self-doubt, Sloppy (Bombay) Joes, and future rival Bobby Flay
Image Credit: Food NetworkThings are getting hot — in the kitchen and out of it — for Aarti Sequeira. On the heels of taking home the season six crown on The Next Food Network Star, Sequeira is now set to launch six episodes of Aarti Party (premiering Sunday, August 22, at noon ET on Food Network), a half-hour program where she’ll teach viewers how to infuse classic American dishes with traditional Indian flavors. We caught up with the bubbly, Bombay-born former food-blogger to talk about using Ben & Jerry’s to help inspire the name of her series, overcoming her nagging self-doubt, and putting her variety-show dreams on hold (but only for a limited time).
Entertainment Weekly: You got wildly positive comments from Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, and Michael Symon during the Iron Chef challenge. Are you ready and willing to get back to Kitchen Arena Stadium and take on those judges now that you’re officially a Food Network star?
Aarti Sequeira: [Laughs.] I think I need to get to a second season [of Aarti Party], then maybe I’ll feel better about it! I’m comfortable now competing against [fellow Next Food Network Star contestants] Tom, Herb, and Aria, but I don’t know about going up against Bobby Flay. I don’t think that would work out very well for me. Although maybe I should do it just for the heck of it. I’d just laugh the whole way through, and work extra slowly, to piss Bobby off! [Laughs.]
All season long, you were dominating the challenges, and yet it seemed like the producers really focused in on your issues with self-confidence. Did you honestly have doubts about your abilities?
It’s so funny, I remember one time I was talking to the other finalists, and I said “I wish I’d never used the term ‘self-confidence,’ because now it comes up every day.” [Laughs.] It took that first time I was in the bottom, when [judge] Bob [Tuschman] said to me, “You were a front-runner.” That was the first time [that notion had] occurred to me, because I’d been thinking, “I can’t get complacent, I’m only as good as my next challenge.” But you know when I felt really confident was when we went in to shoot our pilots: I thought, “Okay, I don’t have a time limit here in terms of having to chef-up a feast for a huge star in 45 minutes. All I have to do is the thing I’ve always wanted to do: talk to people through the camera, make food, have a good time, and laugh my butt off.” Yeah, you saw [in the episode] I was having a prayer moment, where I really needed to calm down, but mostly I felt really confident at that point. I thought, “I deserve to be here, I have something to offer, and I know I can do this.”
You were identified as a ‘food blogger’ throughout the season. Were you making a living doing that before you got picked for season six of Next Food Network Star?
I was food-blogging, and it was all that I had going on because I was unemployed, but I wasn’t making a living doing it. All through the run of the show, though, I’ve been updating my blog, AartiPaarti.com, with my own reactions, watching myself on camera. It’s a record of my life so far, and that’s why I got into blogging in the first place. It was almost as if I needed to do something to prove that I existed. “I may not have a job, I may not know what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, but I exist, I have a voice, and I’m gonna write it down.” It was really powerful. And then I decided, “Every Wednesday, I’m going to put up a new recipe.” Prior to that, I had only stuck to cookbooks. But then when I decided to create my own recipes, I thought, “This will be good practice. I’m going to do one a week.” And I’m so glad I did, because the day after the finale, I met with the production team [for Aarti Party], and they said “We need eight episodes worth of recipes. Do you have 24 recipes ready to go?” And thank goodness I could say, “Yeah, I do.”
What can we expect from Aarti Party?
I’m more comfortable weaving Indian flavors into American classics. The things you can expect from the show might be something like a Sloppy Bombay Joe. It’s a Sloppy Joe, but I make it with turkey so it’s a little lighter, and I wrap it in this chicken tikka masala sauce. So you’re going to learn how to make a chicken tikka masala, but you’re also going to make a Sloppy Joe with it. That way, even if you’re learning about Indian spices you may not have used before, [there’s nothing to fear]. What could be intimidating about a Sloppy Joe? Not. Really. Much. [Laughs.] There were definitely elements of cooking in that style that I did all through the season [of NFNS]. But I don’t make one curry in the six episodes we shot [of Aarti Party]. We wanted people to know there’s so much more to Indian food than just curry. And also, I’m going to scream this from the mountain top, there’s no such thing as “a curry.” There’s six kazillion different kinds of curry. When someone asks how to make chicken curry, I have to ask “Which one?” [Laughs.]
We’ve definitely undergone a food revolution in this country, where folks are much more adventurous in the kitchen and where supermarkets carry a much more exotic selection than, say, a generation or two ago. Still, do you think a wide audience is ready to embrace a show like Aarti Party?
Indian food has been huge in the UK forever and ever, but that’s because it has a historical rooting. America, I think is really ripe for it. There’s been so much interest in Indian culture. Eat Pray Love just opened, and a third of that [movie] is set in India. Slumdog Millionaire was huge. Hip-hop artists are putting Indian music in the middle of tracks, and of course there’s M.I.A., love her — she’s Sri-Lankan, but whatever. Once they’re famous, they’re all homies. And I’m encouraged because you pick up any food magazine and there’s two or three recipes involving Indian spices. I went into my Albertson’s super market and they’d expanded their range of Indian spices — almost as if they [already] knew that I’d won. [Laughs.]
A lot of EW.com readers expressed some reservations — or outright dislike — for the title Aarti Party. I think the feeling was it was just too twee. How did you come up with the name, and how would you respond to folks who don’t like it?
I needed to have a [show] name that people would remember. Because I don’t have an American name, I have this weird Indian name. And that’s been borne out: I went to a food festival in Atlantic City, and people were like “There’s Aarti Party!” And that’s how they remembered my name. I don’t know what to say about it being twee. That’s just an opinion. It’s funny, when I first I heard the name, I wasn’t really all that jazzed about it, but it seems to stick. I was on a date with my husband, it was Valentine’s Day, we were in college and were boyfriend and girlfriend at the time. And he said “If you could have your own Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, what would be in it?” And this is of course why I’m married to him now, because we think the same way. But we came up with all these crazy things we’d put in it, and then he said “Now what’s the name?” And I couldn’t think of anything, and he said “I think ‘Aarti Party’ is cute.” And I said, “Eh, you don’t think that’s kind of cheesy?” And he said “No, I think it’s cool.” So when we were shooting our online cooking show, he suggested the name. It was supposed to be that I was cooking for a party initially, but it became too much of a behemoth to edit, so we started doing these short versions. And it just stuck. I’m trying to turn something scary into something really accessibly, and I’m gonna use all the tricks that I can. If that’s one, then call me twee. [Laughs.] Call me twee, I have a show on the Food Network! [Laughs.]
At the start of Next Food Network Star, you seemed to want Aarti Party to have a variety show aspect. Has that gone by the wayside?
It has for this season. I have my fingers crossed for future seasons, because I think it could draw in people who don’t normally watch cooking shows. Teenage boys watched [the online series], because they wanted to see what skit we would come up with next. If any teenage boy can learn how to cook because of me, and their future wives are thankful, then “Oh hallelujah!” We didn’t have a lot of time when it came to shooting Aarti Party on Food Network, so we had to let that go, but I haven’t given up hope. There’s that moment in Once where they go to that “sing for your supper” dinner, and I just love that idea. I hang around with a lot of singers and actors and performers, and there’s so much art and we’re so divorced from it because we’re focusing on where Lindsay Lohan’s going next. I’d love to get back to that, singing and playing and having fun. [Pauses.] Having fun: What a silly thing to say! [Laughs.]
Slezak on Twitter: @EWMichaelSlezak
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