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The Next Food Network Star Episode 9: 'Basically, I can die happy.'

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The final 4--Herb, Aarti, Aria, and Tom--prepare to take on an Iron Chef America battle (Photo courtesy The Food Network/Used with permission)


The final 4--Herb, Aarti, Aria, and Tom--prepare to take on an Iron Chef America battle (Photo courtesy The 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 alum 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 things heated up with an "emotion" powered meal for Todd English and Eva Longoria at their restaurant Beso; here's how Episode 9 looked from inside the kitchen...

Iron Chef is like the Olympics of the culinary world.

I mean, apart from the Bocuse d’Or, but even then, you get to practice your menu for weeks. Here, you’re presented with your ingredient, and you IMMEDIATELY have to come up with a perfect, creative, daring menu that showcases the ingredient, which can range from the mundane to the esoteric.

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For a home cook like me, doing an Iron Chef battle is like asking a moderate Runyon hiker to tackle Everest. So if you watched last night, and watched the uptick in my heartbeat register on my face, you KNOW how scared I was.

That morning, we’d been driven to a random studio in Brooklyn. There was no way to guess what we were doing, but we knew it would be something big. Our hearts were beating so fast, and I remember standing in a line with Herb behind me - when I reached behind me to clutch his hand and wish him good luck, his palms were wet with anxiety. Tom and Aria couldn’t eat. I forced myself to eat something because I was done being scared. At least, that’s what I told myself.

That’s until I walked into the studio and saw… MORIMOTO. My bladder seized, my heart stopped, and my eyes glazed over.

I mean, I’ve been watching this man create inspirational, ballsy dishes since I was in college. My favourite memory is when myself (a geeky, serious journalism student), my then-boyfriend now-husband (a rebellious acting student) and our roommate, whose punk rock band-mates were visiting that weekend, were watching TV. We couldn’t fully agree on what to watch, but suddenly the remote led us to Food Network, where luckily, the Japanese version of Iron Chef was on.

We went silent. Except for the occasional, “cool”.

Iron Chef can unite.

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Iron Chefs Symon, Cora, Morimoto, and Flay with Alton Brown (Photo courtesy The Food Network/Used with permission)
That episode, Chef Morimoto made such a tremendous menu that we talked about it for an hour. And I found some common ground with people I’d never imagine I would have found some with.

So, when I saw Chef Morimoto, I died a small death. He had the best chef jacket. His bad-ass poker face was the most intimidating. He’s going to think my food is so mediocre. But you know what? I’m going to cook my butt off anyway.

I couldn’t have done this challenge without Brad. His attention to the clock, and selfless devotion to getting good food on the table helped me tremendously. You didn’t see how much I thanked him afterward. But I really couldn’t have done this challenge as well without Brad.

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My favourite moment in the judging was when I served my garlic-stuffed shrimp. This was a dish that my Mum would make on Fridays, after my dad had bought shrimp freshly culled from the Arabian Gulf at the Dubai fish market. It’s simple but it’s a gauntlet-thrower: how much garlic can you handle? I remember Chef Symon making that kind of ugly face you only make when you’re eating something fantastic, or something horrible. Which one’s it going to be?

“You know, on this show, I really enjoy being everyone’s Kryptonite. I like to break people’s dishes down,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“But this time, I really have nothing bad to say about your food.”

I started giggling with joy, and felt a streak of pride run through me. “I’m so glad to take that away from you!” I said, and he started laughing. He elbowed Bobby Flay in the ribs, causing him to break out in a rare laugh. For a moment, I felt like I belonged.

I wanted to take all of them out for a beer right then… to get them tipsy, and find out how they cook the way they do, find out if they freak out the same way I did. I mean, my strategy had been to take the feature ingredient and cook it in three different ways: roast it, poach it, sauté it etc. That was the only way through for me. But how do they do it?

But no matter what happens to me in the future, I get to be one of the literal few who can say that they did an Iron Chef Battle, and won. Won. I can never doubt my cooking again, never again wonder whether I cook at a caliber worthy of the premier palates in the world. Morimoto liked my food. We looked each other in the eye. Hopefully, he remembers my name. Basically, I can die happy. The end.

See who is chosen next week! The Next Food Network Star finale airs next Sunday, August 15th @9 p.m. on The Food Network.