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The Next Food Network Star: Aarti Sequeira

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Season 6 of The Next Food Network Star premieres on Sunday June 6th on the Food Network. Shot on location here in Los Angeles, the group of 12 finalists also happens to include three competitors who call the L.A. area home; this week we'll talk to each one of them in a three-part interview series.

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Aarti Sequeira (Photo courtesy Food Network)
Aarti Sequeira might be a familiar name to longtime LAist readers, because not only have we featured her engaging recipe videos on the site, but she has also been a part of our food-writing staff. Now this local food blogger is embarking on the adventure to pursue the title of Next Food Network Star.How does your cultural background influence your culinary life?
I cook with a lot of flavors that I really crave and love. It took me a while to see the value of food that didn’t have six million spices; as a child, there were huge big flavors in everything we ate. Now I’m always trying to think of ways to use some of the flavors that I tasted grow up in the foods I’m making now.

What are some of your favorite food memories?
Well, one of my mum’s food memory of me is that when I was a toddler she’d put me up on counter while she was cooking. Once she was slicing red onions, and I sneaked a piece of onion in my mouth--she remembers thinking "what is she doing, eating raw red onion!" This is funny, too, because as an adult I can't stand red onion! But I think my favorite food memories are from when we were younger. My parents had moved to Dubai, and they knew only a few people there. They'd left their family to build a better life, and for a little while every weekend they'd have small tight group of friends over. They'd serve chicken tikka or tandoori chicken--my dad would cook it on the grill. I remember thinking how cool it was--we’d run around the garden, the men outside drinking beer, women inside, and my dad was shirtless, fanning grill with piece of cardboard. Everyone worked so hard, so it was nice to relax on Fridays like this. I remember feeling like “how cool was that” a bunch of young adults doing something thing that helps them stay connected.

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What's it like being the contestant who is the "food blogger"?
These days there is an expectation of what it means to be a food blogger--people either think you don't know anything or only have opinions, or they expect you to be crème de la crème knowing everything. There's a, to borrow the term,"democratization" of food critiquing [online]. Everyone has an opinion about what you eat 3 times a day-for me 6—you have opinions all day—so why not write that down? I'm being positioned as the food blogger on the show, and that is an enormous part of the food community that needs to be represented on the Food Network.

How did your video series, "Aarti Paarti" get started?
A friend of mine, who liked to hang around me in the kitchen when I was cooking stuff, said: "You need to have a cooking show! You, in the kitchen, drinking wine, talking about stuff..." But I wasn't comfortable with the idea, I thought I didn't know enough. But I told my husband, who thought it was a great idea, and he immediately did a very LA thing and wrote a one-sheet about what he imagined the show would be. So we came up with "Aarti Paarti," this cooking variety show, which we thought would be set at a part, with me cooking for people, and while things roasted and simmered, [a guest]--like they tend to do at parties--would be doing something entertaining. We shot 13 hours of footage of a party, but...no one did anything the whole time! So [the footage] was sitting in a box, until I thought again, I need to do something with my time, and I sort of did it on a whim. I shot the first one, then my husband offered to shoot it, and it kept going from there. Ireally started enjoying the variety idea, it really sets us apart, really drew people in who don’t like to cook, or watch cooking shows. That is the beauty of cooking: It's easy and fun, and you don’t have to eat the same thing every day. Now I do ten episodes at a time, and we're in the third season.

What made you want to be The Next Food Network Star?
A few years ago a friend said “you really need to be on this show,” I watched an episode or two and thought: “are you crazy?” But that was before I did the "Aarti Paarti" videos. Then, a couple of years later, I found myself thinking what the heck am I supposed to do with my life? My work was not fulfilling anymore, and I didn’t have that fire in my belly for anything. This seems silly, but, it's like watching that movie Knocked Up [...] and remembering that it is so important to feel good. [My friends reminded me my] show has the potential to make people happy. I guess I needed someone to say to me this is just as important, and push me in that direction.

Who is your favorite LA chef?
I love love love Suzanne Goin! I interned in her kitchen for a while. I adore the way she cooks and how she honors the ingredients of every season; she has a great relationship with growers in the area. I love her demeanor--that kitchen was so smooth! [When I started interning] I didn’t know anything about working in kitchen. I'd just read Kitchen Confidential, so I thought I was going to have to swear, dodge knives. But it was nothing like that--it was the comp opposite; everyone was so gracious, friendly, helpful, really cool.

If you were to take someone on a culinary tour of “your” LA where would you go?
Definitely we'd need a couple of days! We'd have to go to a farmers' market. Then Samosa House--I love showing people that this is a great place to by spices, it's not too expensive, and the food in buffet is really good. We'd go to Volcano Tea on Sawtelle to have boba--theirs is the best to me--and to Empress Pavilion for dim sum. At 99 Ranch market in the Valley the seafood selection is amazing; they pull it out of the tanks for you. And they sell this thing called turnip cake-you slice it up and bake it till it's crisp. Oh, and The Conservatory, back on the west side, because they have best coffee. They roast their beans on-site. Father’s Office! We'd have to go! It's my husband’s favorite...you can't argue with that burger.

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Besides some of the spots you mentioned, where are your favorite places to shop for ingredients?
I like the Mar Vista Farmers' Market on Sundays. I like Elat Market because they have fresh fenugreek leaves--you can’t find those anywhere!--and their dates are the best I’ve found and they're not wicked expensive, plus they've got a good selection of whole fresh fish. But for fish--there's Santa Monica Seafood--when I went there, I got teary. Its’ so beautiful.

Will Sequeira be named The Next Food Network Star? Tune in and find out. The 2 hour Season 6 premiere airs Sunday June 6th on The Food Network.