It’s her party and she will cook if she wants to. And that’s just what Aarti Sequeira is doing. Sequeira, the winner of last year’s The Next Food Network Star, is cooking pretty because Food Network has renewed her cooking show Aarti Party.
Sequeira had no plans to be a chef. She worked as a producer for CNN. “I thought I wanted to be the next Christiane Amanpour,” she says. “I wanted to do documentaries about social justice.” Cooking was just something that came about when her husband gave her a gift certificate for cooking school after they moved to Los Angeles where she had no job, no car, knew no one.
A Mangalor Christian born in India and raised in Dubai, she wasn’t a natural-born cook. “I went to the kitchen a lot because I was hungry,” she chuckles. “I was a chubby child with a raging appetite.”
At cooking school she learned how to hold the knife right and cut vegetables evenly. She loved understanding the science. But still keen to have some fun, she decided to film herself in her own kitchen. That led to Aarti Paarti (www.aartipaarti.com), her homemade television show.
She tried to do it all but soon realised you need two hands to skin a roasted eggplant to make Baba ghanoush. So her husband stepped in behind the camera. Soon she started inviting actor friends to come and join her, perform a song, play some music. “They needed a venue to play,” she says. Before long, she says, it was a little variety show for “people like me with short attention spans”.
Her husband suggested making a video and sending it to the Food Network for their reality show. “He said we had nothing to lose,” says Sequeira. “So we did it. I made a strawberry lassi with basil and black pepper and talked a lot about my mom.”
Food Network liked her effervescent persona and invited her to take part. And before she knew it, she was the Food Network star and now has her own show. For the first episode, she made Bombay Sloppy Joes and Massaged Kale Salad and Pistachio pops for dessert. That’s been the USP of her show –“easy, tasty and nothing high falutin” -- Indian flavours for an American kitchen.
One thing she knew she would have to do was simplify her recipes. Indian food had the reputation of being laborious. Nothing could be done without browning onions for 20 minutes and that’s just step one of 15. “I think we’ve told people to be scared of cooking Indian food,” she says. “Let’s face it; you don’t really see it being done on TV. You have this image of some woman saying ‘I am going to tadka this’ and people say ‘you are going to do WHAT?’”
As far as spices go, she is sticking to turmeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala and paprika. Nothing exotic like asafetida? “Oh I love asafetida,” she sighs. “But just the name will send people running for the hills.”
Sometimes she still thinks about what she had wanted to become. “It was hard at first,” she says. “I mean it felt frivolous compared to Darfur.” But then a friend from journalism school pointed out something to her. “She said you can touch people. You make people smile, you teach people something,” says Sequeira. And she gets to have a party too.