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The Next Food Network Star Episode 2: 'How in the world do you cook for 100 people?!'

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Aarti serves up her savory take on Funnel Cake at the Santa Monica Pier (Photo courtesy Food Network/used with permission)

Aarti serves up her savory take on Funnel Cake at the Santa Monica Pier (Photo courtesy Food Network/used with permission)
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. Last week, they cooked for the mighty Wolfgang Puck; here's how Episode 2 looked from inside the kitchen...

I was panicking. We were stuffed into the back seat of the SUV, streaming out of downtown LA, toward the Whole Foods in El Segundo. I’m trying to figure out how long it’ll take us to get there, and for once in my life, praying for traffic. The longer it takes to get there, the longer I have to menu plan. This is one of the few advantages of competing on my home turf!

I realize that in order to cook for this many people, I need to be able to make a big batch of something easily. Images of pulled pork rush through my mind - I’ve made that before for a crowd of 20 or so. But that takes hours. Hours more than I’ll have. Chicken. It’ll have to be chicken thighs. Plus, that way I can prove to the committee that I can indeed cook chicken (remember my raw chicken fiasco the week prior?). Cover them in a spiced barbecue sauce, and spoon it over a scallion-ricotta pancake… I might actually be able to pull this one off! But how much chicken to buy?

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I owe this win in part to my sweet Doreen. At this point in the competition, Doreen was definitely my bestie. She and I had talked about being overwhelmed by the big personalities in the house, wondering how we could compete with them whilst remaining true to ourselves. That was hard. Neither of us has that big, Guy Fieri type of personality. We're more the laidback Ina Garten types.

Back to the car. Doreen notices my face.

"What's wrong?" she whispers.

"I've never cooked for 100 people before. How much do I buy and cook??"

Patiently and selflessly, Doreen explains that you have to imagine one finished plate. What does it look like? How much chicken? If each person is going to have a 1oz portion of chicken, then you need to buy at least 100oz (6 lbs) of chicken. Figure out how much flour etc. you need to make a batch of 10 pancakes. Then multiply that by at least 10. Had she not taught me how to think like a caterer, I doubt I would have made it past this challenge.

My other bestie on the show? The spice aisle at Whole Foods. I wanted to kiss that spice aisle on the mouth. Normally, I buy my spices from Bharat Bazaar (aka Samosa House) on the west side of LA. Would I be able to find the same range of spices at Whole Foods? How could I cook my food without my precious spices? At first, I only saw the bottles of basic spices: cumin, coriander, turmeric. But I knew I wanted something different for this barbecue sauce. I bent over and peered closely at the shelves. The minutes were ticking away, the camera was very, very close to my face (eeks!), and the rest of my competitors were running around the store in a frenzy.

And that’s when the clouds parted and the angels sang, revealing… row upon row of little green boxes, each containing just a few teaspoons of every spice I’d ever need, plus some I’d never heard of! Everything from fenugreek seeds to black cardamom, from shish tawouk seasoning to… hey, is that tandoori powder? Really? Oh my God. This is exactly what I need!

Sure it’s a bit more expensive than the good folks at Bharat Bazaar. But (a) I had to go where the show took me and (b) my biggest expense at that point was the chicken thighs so my budget was in good shape.

Tandoori mix is a great spice mix to have on hand, especially if you grill a lot. It’s a complex blend of spices, so when you find a brand you trust, it’s both a time and a money-saver. Mix it into some plain whole milk yogurt with some fresh ginger and garlic, and add whatever meats or vegetables you’re in the mood to grill. Let it marinate overnight and the next day, an authentic Indian mixed grill is at your fingertips. Heck one day, I found my college roommate sprinkling some on some salad. And, as I learned on this week's episode of the show, it really works well in a barbecue sauce! [Recipe] I normally only use my mum’s secret blend that she gives me every year, but heck, the Whole Foods one in the little green box led me to my first win on the show, so I have to stand behind that one too!

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