“You want to go to university to become a bawarchi (cook)?” – This is the first reaction Fatima Ali, 22, would get when she would tell friends at a highly competitive school in Karachi about her aspirations to become a chef.
While friends were applying to Ivy Leagues and Oxbridge, up to five or six universities at a time, Ali applied to just one; a culinary institute in upstate New York.
While her mother supported her decision, her father, a well-known barrister in Lahore, initially urged her to apply to law schools instead, finally coming around after much persuasion. For 16-year-old Ali, there was no two ways about it – she started cooking at five and this would be her future.
Single-minded in her goal, her stubbornness combined with passion eventually helped her win an episode of the reality cooking show ‘Chopped’ which aired on June 12 on The Food Network in the United States.
The 22-year-old, who is a sous chef at Café Centro in mid-town Manhattan, remembers watching food television religiously. BBC Food while she was in Karachi and then The Food Network when she moved to the US. “My sister would beg me to change the channel, especially during Ramazan, but I would be like ‘no, no, no’, eventually my entire family was addicted.”
When Chopped first aired on US television, Ali, who was then a student at the Culinary Institute of America, was hooked to it. “I convinced myself I would do it one day,” recalls Ali.
It was a chance encounter to work with one of the judges of Chopped – Maneet Chauhan – who convinced Ali to apply to be a contestant on the show – that she finally did it.
With three months of experience in the professional cooking world at Café Centro and an internship under her belt, Ali applied to become a contestant and was accepted.
Chopped is a reality show that pits four chefs against each other in three rounds – appetizer, entrée and dessert – a chef getting chopped in each round – until there is one chef left standing. The chefs are presented with a basket of secret ingredients in each round and have 30 minutes to prepare, cook and plate their dish.
Working as a sous chef in a restaurant that can seat up to 420 people and sees a lunchtime crowd of 150 people every hour, Ali is used to working quickly. But it was perhaps her training at home in Pakistan that helped this young chef win at the end of the day.
After her parents divorced when Ali was young she would divide her time between Karachi and Lahore. The summers spent in Lahore with her father were an opportunity for Ali to cook and bond with her father, who himself is an expert cook, says Ali. Along with her father, Ali’s grandmother and her cook Qadir, who has cooked for her family for decades and moved across the country with the family, also contributed to her ‘training’.
“For me, cooking engages your five senses and more. You are constantly thinking of the next step,” says the young chef.
“Cooking starts with an idea, what you want, who you want to create it, how and why. There is nothing in the world you can personalise more than food.”
This personalised spin is what may have won Ali the episode. She used spices commonly used at home in Pakistan to add flavour to her food, without over powering the taste.
As soon as the host of the show announced “Open your baskets” Ali was scanning her ingredients and running to the pantry trying to get the right spices. I wanted to be gutsy and creative she says, as well as bring the cooking techniques used at home (in Pakistan). “I wanted to bring in the use of the same flavours, spices and herbs.”
“The producers saw me and were like ‘oh yeah, we have a runner’” says Ali laughing. “I banged into the camera a couple of times…they don’t show that on air.”
Her appetizer, the main ingredient being chicken intestine, red miso, savoy cabbage and clementines, looked like “mashed-up brain and grey in colour” says Ali, “but it was delicious” and the judges let her off intact for the next round.
Having gone into what may be considered an ‘unconventional’ profession in Pakistan, Ali’s school counselor and principal were initially surprised by her decision to apply to culinary school, but not “shocked” says the 22-year-old. “I was always rebellious, but always involved in school too.” As house captain, an athlete, along with being involved in the drama society at school, perhaps something “better” than becoming a ‘bawarchi’ were expected of Ali.
But when, as a15-year-old, Ali was planning 2 am feasts at sleepovers instead of gossip sessions, the clues should have been there.
“Young people should pursue things that are not common. If you think it is good enough, then it is,” she says, adding that the Pakistani society seems to think that any industry not lucrative enough is one not to follow.
A few mishaps here and there, including under-cooking duck breast in the entrée round and dropping her entire bowl of ice-cream in the dessert round, Ali finally ended up winning episode three of Chopped’s twelfth season.
The best part of winning? The reaction of the people around her as well as strangers. “I got a message from a Pakistani woman in the States somewhere, she said ‘we are all so proud of you. I watched the show with my two daughters and we were praying for you the whole time.’”
It’s a wonderful feeling says Ali.