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The Next Food Network Star Episode 1: 'Your lentils are burning, Flower Girl!'

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Aarti at work (Courtesy The Food Network)

Aarti at work (Courtesy The Food Network)
For its sixth season, The Next Food Network Star was shot in Los Angeles, and among the 12 finalists vying for their very own Food Network show are 3 locals, including food blogger and LAist alumn Aarti Sequeira. Each week, Aarti will give us her take on the episode, from her unique insider's perspective. Will she be named The Next Food Network Star? We won't know until the finale. In the meantime, here's how Episode 1 looked from inside the kitchen...DAY 2. How is it only day two? It feels like a week already!


Giada stands before us, effortlessly balanced on her stilettos whilst my calves ache from being on flats all day at the venerable Paramount Pictures studios. I’m feeling a bit shaky after the promo challenge because I’d struggled so hard to “insert the giggle” as directed by Andy Fickman. In that moment, I had a whole new appreciation for my husband, who is an actor. Insert a giggle when all I felt like doing was cry? Impossible!

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Giada says we’ll be cooking for one of the original celebrity chefs, and I immediately guess Wolfgang Puck. I mean, even growing up in the middle of the Dubai desert, I knew that Hollywood glamourites frequented Spago. I imagined a grand room, with high ceilings, huge windows and shiny crystal, a place where Jack Nicholson rubbed shoulders with Sylvester Stallone. I imagined a lot of things about Wolfgang Puck, but I never imagined I’d one day cook for him! And that he’d coin a nickname for me! (Read on).

I decide to make one of the first Indian dishes I’d ever conquered: my mum’s dal. It’s a simple soupy yellow lentil dish, flavoured with turmeric and garlic, finished with a spluttering cumin-infused oil. And believe me, I’m making it sound more fancy that it really is. This was something we ate everyday as kids. But I was hoping that if I gussied it up with a lime crema, it would be good enough for Chef Puck. (It was only much, much later that I read somewhere that Bobby Flay doesn’t care for lentils. SO glad I didn’t know that at the time!)

I remember thinking the oddest things when we walked into Puck’s latest restaurant, Cut, the next morning. First off, I thought, Chef Puck was probably just as tired as we are, because it was an ungodly hour. Second, I remember smiling at the juxtaposition of massive portraits on the wall: President Obama next to… Heidi Montag (with her original face, no less). This is the new celebrity I guess, Spago for the 2010 set.

Puck’s second-in-command showed us around the kitchen, and I thanked my stars for my short stint interning at Lucques; if this had been my first foray in a commercial kitchen, I don’t think I could have coped. As it was, I’d never operated a commercial range before, and those babies have a lot of power. Oh, and the knobs aren’t marked, so it took me a few tries to figure out which knob operated the front burner, and which one operated the back. And don’t look for low, medium or high on these knobs, sister. Having to figure out silly little things like that cost me precious time.

Thankfully, my dish came together beautifully. In the last few minutes, Chef Puck walked in to examine our cooking, and presumably, to give us a heart attack.

“What are you making today, Flower girl?” he said in his curly Austrian drawl.

I told him, and he tasted it. “Your lentils are burning, Flower girl. Don’t let them burn, because I don’t like burnt lentils!” he pronounced and waltzed out of the kitchen.

Even now, I remember how I held my breath as the committee and Chef Puck squeezed some fresh lime juice over the soup, and dipped their spoons into their bowls simultaneously. It was as if it were happening in slow motion. And then the action sped up as one by one, people said they liked it! And so much so, that Chef Puck said I could work in his restaurant! I couldn’t believe it! Just yesterday, I’d served raw chicken. Today, I was being offered a job at Cut! Maybe I have a chance in this competition after all!

The Next Food Network Star airs Sundays @9 p.m. on The Food Network.