Time spent with Aarti really is a party. The season six champion of Food Network’s number one series, The Next Food Network Star is full of life; from her cascading waterfall of dark curls to her lyrical British accent. Aarti Sequeira was born in Bombay, India and grew up in her mother’s kitchen. Though her mom’s flavorful Indian spices had always surrounded her childhood, Aarti didn’t try her hand at cooking until she got married and moved to LA. Instead, the TV personality worked as a journalist for many years, producing for CNN in Chicago and New York. After taking some classes at a local cooking school, Aarti knew that she wanted to make food her career. But how to go about it? Aarti decided to combine her love of journalism and food together- creating an online cooking variety show and blog called Aarti Paarti. The show caught Food Network’s attention and the rest is history. Or just starting. After winning the reality show, Aarti’s show Aarti Party premiered on August 22 for six episodes that ran through the end of Sept. to great audience feedback. 13 more episodes for a new season are currently in production. From conjuring up the perfect summer picnic to warming up a cold rainy day, Aarti brushes up classic American dishes with a touch of her Indian heritage. Audrey caught up with the next food network star in Culver City, CA, fresh from shooting her first season.
Audrey: So Aarti, you started as a journalist, what made you switch career paths?
I started working at CNN a week after I graduated from university. I loved working there. There’s so much integrity and intelligence there but when I moved to LA, I really had to hustle for freelance jobs. I realized that I’m not a lazy person but I don’t really have that drive anymore for journalism in that form. A couple of years after I moved here, I worked with a Peabody award winning director on a documentary about Darfur that ended up being bought by HBO. That made me feel like, “okay, this is what I was supposed to be doing.” The same journalistic ideals and we’re going deep, deep, deep into it figuring out what is going on. But right around that time, the economy was starting to tank and no one wanted to make docs about Africa anymore. So that was when I started cooking it became the highlight of my day. It really helped me realized that no matter what was happening in my life, when I was in the kitchen, that was my safe place, that was my quiet place. That’s where I could control things.
Audrey: How did your online cooking show and blog catch the attention of Food Network?
Food Network started doing their casting for The Next Food Network Star and people popped up randomly telling me to audition for this show. I was really hesitant. I didn’t think I had the culinary chops to compete with these people and the challenges that were requiring you to cook in 15 minutes or something. But my husband said to me, “listen, we’re going to make a video, we’re going to send it in and we’re going to see what happens. You have nothing to lose. And so we did and that was it.
Audrey: It seems like your husband is very supportive of you.
My husband has always been my champion. We’ve been together 14 years and he’s always seen so much in me that I don’t see in myself. When I happened upon this cooking show idea, he hopped on it. He’s an actor-director and he understands forging your own way and trying to do what you want to do until someone comes knocking on your door and says, “I like what you’re doing and I want to pay you to do it.”
Audrey: As artists, did you guys ever struggle financially? How did that reflect in your cooking?
Brendan and I have definitely struggled. A year ago, I wasn’t even sure if we could make rent so we’ve really had to make a lot of sacrifices. But it’s been entirely worth it. So that kind of thinking is always going to pop up in my show anyway. Even in the competition, they would give us a budget and I would always spend the least money out of everyone (laughs). Even though I was making these things that were- for lack of a better word-exotic, I always came up really under budget. That’s just the way I cook. With Indian food, at least the kind that I grew up eating, there are so many vegetables, lentils, beans and things in the cuisine- it’s really a budget friendly way of cooking.
Audrey: Speaking of Indian spices. How does your Indian heritage influence your cooking?
I think what I’m trying to do is open the door for Indian cuisine for America. There are people out there who have been championing Indian cuisine for years. What I’m trying to do is take those traditional Indian flavors and wrap them around some classic American dishes so they’re not that intimidating. Here is a whole new way to enjoy Indian spices without overextending yourself. I try to use the spices that you can find at the regular supermarket- tamarack, cumin, and oleander-all those things. I’ve been kind of astonished actually by how many people have run out, bought the spices, come home, made what I made and would upload pictures. I’ve just been floored by that.
Audrey: If you get a season 2, where do you think you will take your food to?
I’m always on my Facebook page. So I post on there, “what do you guys want to learn how to make?” I got 300 comments within a couple of hours and people are asking how to make these really traditional Indian dishes. They weren’t asking for fusion, they were asking me for the authentic stuff. That was so encouraging to me, I was like, okay, after this season, god willing if I get season 2, there’s an appetite out there. People are willing to order the ingredients online. Or they’re willing to hunt them down in Indian stores.
Audrey: Being a cooking show host is partially about the food but partially about the host’s on-camera personality. Have you always been this telegenic?
My husband is an actor and he would take these improv classes. I would go to his shows every week and I was floored that there were so many things about improv that was affecting his personality in a really helpful way. The great thing about improv is that there are so many things you can completely carry over into real life. Focusing on other people more than yourself or just making a decision and trusting your gut. So I took these classes and it really gave me a sense of confidence. It helped me realize I really do have good instincts and I just have to trust them. That helped in being willing to improvise in the kitchen and trusting my palate. It really helped with my personality because it pulled me out of my shell and it made me feel like I was worthy of being heard, I guess.
Judging from the positive reviews the show has been receiving, it would seem like the rest of America feels like she’s worthy of being heard as well.
Check out Aarti Party Sundays at 12PM ET/PT on the Food Network. You can also read more about Aarti at www.aartipaarti.com