It takes more than a mean Duck l'Orange to be a star on the Food Network. Show hosts need to sizzle just as much as their grub in order to attract audiences and make viewers feel at home. The cable channel's reality show The Next Food Network Star demands its contestants show both culinary chops and pizazz in front of the camera to win, and the recently concluded sixth season found its champion in the delightful 32-year-old Aarti Sequeira, a bubbly food blogger with a flair for tasty Indian cuisine.
We chatted with Aarti the day after the season finale about the competition and her new Food Network show which debuts this Sunday. And yes, she is just as sparkly on the phone as she is on the show.
TV.com: Let's talk about your culinary point of view. What was the inspiration for it, and what do you want to bring to your viewers?
Aarti Sequeira: My focus is to help people, ease them into Indian cooking by weaving Indian flavors into American food that's very familiar to them. For example, I make a shrimp po'boy on my show and the shrimp is cooked very simply, but I make this really tasty pineapple relish that has serrano pepper, ginger, fennel, and cumin seeds in it. And these are things you can find at the regular supermarket. But you put these spices in it and you've made something Indian! It's really easy and it took about five minutes. And that's how I like to cook, I don't have a lot of time.
TV.com: And now you have less time! For winning The Next Food Network Star, you get your own show!
Aarti: I am so excited! It's this Sunday, it starts at noon Eastern. It's called Aarti Party, and it's me and then Melissa d'Arabian, last season's winner, back-to-back. I haven't seen an episode yet! We shot all six, they're all done. At first it was a little nerve racking because I did an online cooking show for a year, but there's something different about being on a set. I'm used to being in my kitchen with my husband, the person who I am most comfortable with in the entire world. I had to re-jigger [my thinking] for the show [and tell myself] "this is the same thing." Otherwise, I wouldn't have been myself.
TV.com: Well it really showed, even in the pilot you shot for The Next Food Network Star. You're so natural on camera.
Aarti: Thank you! I really loved shooting that pilot. I think that was the most confident I was in the entire show. I thought, "Okay, I'm making a recipe that's super easy, but really delicious. I actually really like that [naan] pizza, so I don't have to pretend." [laughs] And I'm not under a time crunch, it was always the cooking that scared me, you know, having 45 minutes or [a $200 budget], those are the things that got to me. The camera was my safe place, and I went with my old mantra of "be bold, be joyful."
TV.com: What do you think it was that set you apart from fellow finalists Tom and Herb, because going into the announcement, it really became a three-person race.
Aarti: I thought it was really close, too. After I shot my pilot I thought, "I think I'm just going to win this thing, okay guys?" And when I watched [their] pilots, I thought, "Oh no! I've been hoodwinked! These guys are really good!" I think [what set me apart] was that I had a more consistent track record, in terms of the food I was putting out. And even though I was struggling with confidence issues, I won the most challenges out of everyone. And that says something about the food, especially to America, because it's the kind of food people are skeptical about. But it was [good] enough to make the majority of chefs and judges lose their crap. [laughs] I don't know maybe that was it. I haven't had a chance to talk to Bob [Tuschman], Susie [Fogelson], and Bobby [Flay] to ask them why they chose me.
TV.com: Whose elimination shocked you the most?
Aarti: [long pause] When I first met Brianna, I thought she was going to be in the finale. I was pretty surprised when she was let go, even though I understood it. I think she knew as well. She is such a talented chef, I mean, her food is so exquisite. I know that's not the last we'll see of her. I was also surprised by how close I got to her. I didn't think I would have anything in common with her, but we got to talking and we had so much in common and really saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things.
TV.com: If you had to open a restaurant with one of your competitors, who would you choose?
Aarti: I would open Dick Bombay's with Tom in a heartbeat. [editor's note: Aarti and Tom teamed up in week six's food truck challenge with Dick Bombay's, comfort food with an Indian twist.] It's such a strong concept, and he and I work so well together. We put out a lot of food, he got burnt, I nearly burnt my eyebrows off, we just had so much fun. But I'd also have Herb be the third partner, because that guy knows how to run a kitchen.
TV.com: Speaking of Tom and Herb, do you think Food Network will find a spot for them in the family?
Aarti: Yeah it sounds like Tom has a show. [editor's note: runner-up Tom will host the primetime show Outrageous Food premiering in November] We were talking about it last night and I started crying because I was so happy for him. I just hope there's something for Herb too, because he's so talented and he's so warm on camera.
TV.com: Finally, what's one basic rule in the kitchen you can give our readers?
Aarti: If you are in a kitchen with a lot of people, always yell, "behind!" when you're walking behind them, otherwise you're going to have an accident and go to the hospital. We even do it in our small kitchen, my husband will yell "behind!" and then he'll grab my behind and walk past.