Last week we had the pleasure of taking part in a conference call announcing and celebrating the winner of “The Next Food Network Star,” Aarti Sequeira, and also with long-time show judge Susie Fogelson. We got to ask two questions to each of them, but full disclosure–this is the full transcript as sent to us by the Food Network’s PR firm. We thought you’d find reading the entire interview(s) to be most interesting. Thanks and enjoy!
Q: How well do you think Aarti’s Indian influence of American dishes will go over with the viewer?
Susie: I think people are really curious about this cuisine you know, I think it’s a really hot time which obviously from a marketing stand point was what one of the things that was appealing about Aarti to me. But I think Aarti has the credibility with this cuisine with these flavor profiles but she’s sorta of Americanized enough to figure out how to bring those flavors to foods. That’s what I heard her just mentioning Indian flavors to American food, and I think that’s the right order of operations potentially for a new audience to try new flavors. So, I am hoping that it goes over really big.
Q: Throughout the competition was there something you saw in her that made you think she was going to win?
Susie: Wasn’t there something you saw too? [laughs] I think she was so interesting on so many levels right out of the gate, and you know it was no surprise obviously that what Aarti knew to work on were more in kind of the confidence realm. And my gosh, I don’t think that that’s surprising right? Can you imagine? All of a sudden these people are on camera and not on camera and in a major competition and it’s so stressful – I mean I could see why some people lose confidence or have issues, but Aarti seemed to be struggling and it really wouldn’t salvage her. So I think that it was a tough road, but I think she kept her poise and her professionalism and her light never dimmed. Which is why I think why she came out victoriously.
Q: Does the selection of Aarti show a trend in Food Network representing more multicultural cuisine, you know cuisine from different parts of the world?
Susie: Absolutely, but I think it’s a growing appetite – it’s a pun intended, I should say based on what people are interested in. I think that peoples pallets are you know; what is the number one condiment now? I think it’s salsa. Where it probably used to be ketchup. Don’t hold me on that but I think it’s probably true and I think that Latin flavors, we obviously have Marcella on air that is doing a show about Mexican food and I think that Cooking Channel, our sister network, has a lot of programming on that is more global. So we do think that this is right in line with what Americans are looking for and I think we need to do it in a way that is not intimidating and is approachable and inspiring. I think if we strike the right balance with that we could have a real homerun on our hands, and I think it is definitely answering the call of what people are thinking about today.
Q: When did you see Aarti kind of emerge ahead of the rest of the pack? Like, when was that moment for you?
Susie: Aarti kind of had me at hello, to be honest. She has such a kind spirit and I think it started, but you try not to get too excited in the beginning because I think that certainly for me I wanna make sure that, you are as fair and un-biased as possible; because anybody could become a front runner. Anybody could have a bad week; anybody could have a great week. You know confidence is a really big issue in this job, so I feel like I kind of loved Aarti. There wasn’t any one moment; the first time I met her in all seriousness she had me at hello. Her accent is beautiful, her smile is beautiful, I was so intrigued by her background and how she brought these flavors to American cuisine. She had a lot of check marks in the boxes that mattered to me, but I’ll go back to the confidence thing. You have to confident in this job and if you cannot maintain that and sustain that it’s the kiss of death so I think I worried. There was no one epiphany when I was like, She’s our girl. I really sort of fell for her in the beginning but needed to see that she can go the distance. There were moments that I thought; wasn’t it interesting for those of you who watched the episode about the Iron Chef competition – wasn’t it interesting how Bob and Bobby were really focused on how her calm demeanor and then obviously her lack of commentating looked like she sort of snowballed that whole thing? When in actuality she brought in the most delicious flavors and did a beautiful job presenting them. I think when you’re sort of about to count her out she comes back really strong and she did that enough in order to be impressive.
Q: How difficult was it to come to the final decision and what factors did you consider?
Susie: It was really hard. It was amazing to me, I don’t know if you guys did the chat last night but we did a chat and it was amazing to me how evenly Aarti was still the fan favorite, but I think it was pretty split a third, a third, a third – Herb, Tom and Aarti; and if you could imagine feeling as torn as the audience was we were as well. You know what it is though, as much as I love Tom and think he is a fabulous talent such natural easy going guy, from a business perspective I did struggle a little bit with what we would do together. Big stuff is a great concept to get people to tune in, but I don’t know what businesses we’re going into from there just because I don’t think the concept was as jelled. And that kind of suits Tom. Tom is kind of a figure-it-out kind of guy, figure-it-out on the fly kind of guy. But, it’s a little; next star knowing that I didn’t really have a vision for him. Herb, was you know, I could just see his brand and I could see the vision with him right into the future. He’s just so darn inconsistent you know, he’s just like an un-polished gem. I think Herb just needed longer because Herb is so natural, so gorgeous on camera, has such a great background, has such a commitment to health and fitness, he walks the walk, he’s Latino he’s healthy, he’s a dad – I mean I could just go on and on. He’s such a diversified individual that I think could make for a great talent we just need more time with him. And Aarti obviously had the greatest amount of good most consistently so that’s exactly the line of thinking that went through. You guys saw it; we talked openly and honestly about it while it was hard I think Aarti etched them out.
Q: It was mentioned that Tom is getting his own show. Can you talk about that at all?
Susie: I don’t have as much information, I know what show it is and what topic it is, Is that all in the release? You know what; we think he’s a great talent and that he has kind of the gift of gab and the ability to relate to people as an everyday guy. I mean Guy Fieri, he’s a great example of someone that makes you feel so comfortable and so relaxed but helps some folks shine. By showcasing what these various people do in the food space. We’re hoping that Tom sort of has the ability to bring the ‘wow’ to all these outrageous foods but at the same time be a great person to hang out with, because we think he has great food chops as well as to really have a nice laid back personality. He’s very smart and he’s really fun, so we think that might be a winning combination in this new show that we’ve got going in prime.
Q: The camera challenge and the focus groups were big differences in this season, what other changes might we see to Next Food Network Star?
Susie: Oh, you know I wish I could say. I mean I think it will be, We will always look to step it up, we will always look to make it sexier, and bring in what we think are more interesting challenges but the truth is we’re in planning mode. So, I don’t have any, I don’t know if I could tell you anyway, but I definitely don’t have sort of a list of what the challenges are going to be. We like to sort of see how things do and see what resonates. Like, is dining on a train with Robert Irvine a highly rated episode that got a lot of buzz? Or do people love the ‘let’s go to Eva Longoria’s restaurant and let’s do something a little sleeker and sexier with a celebrity’? So I think just like all good programmers and marketers we are all just looking to do more of what works while we step out and innovate, but make sure we are not going too far from the kinds of stuff that people love. And obviously bringing in new faces in like Giada but keeping some of those consistencies like Alton and Rachel, I think it’s been a pretty good formula for us. So, hopefully we’re off to our biggest season yet and we continue to raise the bar.
Q: So, we just heard that Tom is getting his own show, would the network consider bringing Herb back on the network in some capacity? And if so, when?
Susie: You know, there’s no conversation about that that I’m aware of to date, but anything is possible. And we have a beautiful new sister network called Cooking Channel, so who knows. I’m a fan of Brad as well so who knows.
Q: It appears last night, that this may have been the toughest decision yet in the finale, would you say that, that is true?
Susie: Um, no. Not for me. I’ve had tougher decisions, but let’s just stay focused on the season. I like a lot of what Aarti has had going on as much as I love Tom and Herb, so it was definitely a decision but it wasn’t the toughest. How about that, it wasn’t the toughest.
Q: Was there any point during this season in a deliberation that you disagreed with someone was eliminated that week?
Susie: No, I think that the toughest deliberation we had was whether or not Aria or Brad should go that one week. Brad had his own version of inconsistencies a little in the food more in the performance. Aria always a ray of light and so charismatic and so good on camera, but the Iron Chef battle she really, really fell down. So I guess that kind of really confirmed our convictions that she was not going to be our next star. I think we were really wrestling with Brad or Aria and what a lot of people probably didn’t see, I don’t know if you saw it, but I was crying hysterically that episode. They cut a lot of it out, thank goodness, it made me look like such an idiot. I was very sad to lose Brad. I don’t know something about him as a human being that is so sweet. Like, if you guys remember Kelsey, I said this about Kelsey and I feel this way about Brad, there is a better place with people like that roaming this earth. Like, they’d make this a better place. You know it’s just so hard to lose Brad because he’s such a good guy. Just everything is right with him. He’s raised right, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. He’s really raised right, so that was heart breaking for me. And I don’t know, I’ll still say Aarti probably still would have taken it but who knows if Brad had stuck around what he might have been able to do. I don’t know, that was a hard one for me.
Q: I have one more question about Tom’s show Outrageous Food? Now, was that a show created for Tom or a show in need of a colorful host?
Susie: You know I’m not sure, I want to comment on it and I’m not trying to be difficult, but I’m just not Bob Tuschman. He really makes the decisions from a programming standpoint. I just would never want to provide anyone with erroneous information. I would never want you guys to be telling your fans the wrong thing and I’m afraid I’m going to get it wrong.
Q: I love the focus group input this year, I thought that was great. Can you tell me what type of demographics you include in the focus group?
Susie: I did not make the selection but they look like a pretty well rounded group. I mean our demographics that we got from an advertising perspective and our ratings that we measure are adults from 25 to 54. So, obviously a big broad grasp of that is from 25 to 54 – that is a surprise that the audience is made up of this demographic and I think it’s a nice even split between males and females. Making sure we have some diversity represented because we obviously have a very diverse group of finalists, I think you want to make sure you have, regardless who the finalists are, you want to make sure you have diverse representation and you’re getting a good cross section of the country would be the goal of this focus group of its kind. We have different cuisines represented and want to see how people respond to these cuisines sort of regardless of what their background is.
Q: How did the focus groups responses effect the ultimate decision for that title?
Susie: They liked Aarti the most so, I feel like that’s how it affected it. I feel like you guys are again seeing such an edited down version of the show, but the most important thing for a marketer to do is for someone to watch them, watch them. So it’s not so much about me watching the pilots, although I could barley take my eyes off of them, it was really more about me watching them. It’s honest to goodness just raw reaction to what captivates them, where their minds wander, what they’re interested in, what their reactions are. And even though they all laugh at what Tom was saying, you know he might not want to be the guy they get this type of information from, for them to get some sort of visceral reaction as well as them to do the follow up. I thought that they were really bright and astute group of focus groupers. I just thought their comments were awesome, didn’t you?
Q: So in looking forward to season seven, does what you saw this season talent and everything else brought to the table do you think that will shape the way you will look at the up coming contestants?
Susie: Yeah, you know it’s interesting from a TV perspective, we always want to make sure that we, that we want all the people that win could have a show. We want to make sure the talent is there but then you also want to find a way to sort of re-invent it and you sort of want there to be a balance. That’s just what happens when you group twelve people together and that makes the show interesting. How they interact. This was such a supportive group, so little of the dramatic or negative reactions. Brianna and Serena sort of had a little bit of the scuttle. You know they are both strong females and have a lot of opinions, but it’s a pretty nice group. Unlike last season, where I feel like Debbie Lee is centennially a nice person she definitely came out as a villain. We never cast her as a villain; you just never know that that is going to happen. I do think there is something to be said for three finalists that make it to the end that has people so split a third, a third, a third. And then there is something to having something like a Jag or like a Debbie Lee who people sort of love to hate. I feel like you want to stay true to your vision in finding the best quality people that you think could make some really interesting TV characters. But because it’s not a show about breaking people down just for the sake of being mean spirited and getting ratings, it really is a show about our next family member. I like our strategy this year and I’d like to see us continue to just find new talent and let the rest just evolve.
Q: At what point in the show did you have a feeling that you had a shot to win the whole thing?
Aarti: After I won, that’s when I knew I had a shot, [laughs] just kidding. When we went in to shoot our pilots, I felt really confident, and that’s the first time I felt really confident. I thought, you know, I’ve been doing an online cooking show, Aarti Party, for the past year on YouTube – and this is no different. The only thing that’s different is that there’s 16 million cameras and Rachael Ray! Instead of just my husband and I [laughs]. And then of course I watched the other two pilots and thought, Oh no, I’ve been hoodwinked. These are guys are really good, who’s gonna take it? [laughs]
Q: Which challenge did you enjoy the most?
Aarti: I really enjoyed the Food Truck challenge, I really loved working with Tom, that was the first time I really got a sense of who he is and how he cooks, and what a joy he is to work with. I love food trucks. There’s something so ‘no fuss’ about it. It’s honest food, and the person who thought of it made it and is handing it off to you. I just love that.
Q: What went through your mind when you were announced the winner? What was the first thing that popped into your head?
Aarti: I think I yelped. I’ve watched it over and over again, and I think I just went ‘Oh!’ [laughs]. So I don’t think it was a really coherent thought, and if it was it was probably a word I should not repeat. It was really just a bittersweet moment, I was so happy, so happy, and also so sad for Herb and Tom, because I thought, These are my brothers now. Me winning means that they don’t win, but there’s always good stuff happening. Tom now has a show on Food Network, I’m so excited for him, and I’m positive that something’s going to happen for Herb, because he’s just too talented not to be scooped up.
Q: How will Aarti Party differ from your web series?
Aarti: On my web series, Aarti Party is a cooking variety show. It was a great way for me to showcase the talents and abilities of my friends, because I live in LA, my friends are a lot of amazing actors and performers. So I think that would be the biggest difference, because with Aarti Party on Food Network, we didn’t have time to really get around to that. But it’s still my hope that in the future I can do that because it’s something that I really believe in it as a great vehicle for people who don’t normally watch cooking shows, to watch them. Teenage guys were watching my show, and I’m like, Your future wives will thank me when you’re making them dinner! [laughs]
Q: What do you most look forward to about making your show?
Aarti: Well we made it already, but I think I was most excited to really live up to my full potential. This was it, and I had everything I need to do the best job possible. I have the most amazing production team, the most amazing crew, culinary was right there to clean up after me. I had everything I could possibly need, I felt really supported, so I was excited to finally just do the damn thing! You know what I mean? [laughs] Just go for it and do it and go boldly, just go boldly into my future. It was so amazing, one of the most amazing weeks of my life.
Q: What was the toughest point of the competition for you?
Aarti: I think the toughest point was the Beso challenge, episode 8. I had just seen my husband that week earlier, and I was so emotionally ripped up after seeing him, even though it was so good to see him, it just made me so sad that he had to go. And so then having to cook after that and be creative after that, for me it was kind of hard, I think I was just really tired at that point. And this was the big challenge, you had to perform or else you couldn’t go to the playoffs as Tom said over and over. And I knew that they were all going to bring it, and I just didn’t know if I had it in me to bring it that week.
Q: How did the filming go for the first few episodes?
Aarti: The filming went great, it went great. We did a rehearsal the day before, and I think there were two or three segments we wanted to rehearse, and after the first two, my EP, (executive producer) who I adore, said, You know, if you want, we can all go home now since you’re doing such a great job. [laughs] So that really made me feel so confident for the next few days, everything was going great, and then we had a blackout. We had to cancel shooting that day, and that meant we had to squeeze an episode and a half into one day and another episode and a half for another day, and I wasn’t sure if I had the energy to do it, but I did, and I could’ve done even more. It was really empowering and really encouraging, and I felt like, I’m totally doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now.
Q: How has your food changed on your own show, compared to completing challenges as a contestant? How are the two different?
Aarti: I think that over the course of the show I really figured out my food point of view, I wasn’t entirely sure, I knew I didn’t want to be the Indian food expert, because I will readily admit I am not an expert, there are a lot of things that I do know and I want to share it with people. So, the show really helped me figure out what kind I wanted to make and what I’m good at making. It turns out there are some Indian classics that I do really well, like that green chicken curry, I love that so many people are making it, it’s amazing to me. But then my other passion lies in grating these Indian flavors into American foods, that is so familiar to everyone, whether it’s sloppy Joe’s, bread pudding or po’boys, all those recipes are coming up in this new show, and all of them have this interesting twist, where I throw in a few Indian spices and suddenly it’s a whole new thing.
Q: Did you feel that the fact that you have a totally unique point of view gave you an edge over Herb and Tom, ultimately?
Aarti: I think that by the time we got to the finale, we weren’t so sure that the point of view was so important, because each of us had something amazing to offer that the other one couldn’t. So I could’ve had an incredibly strong point of view, but Herb has this kind of magnetic energy that makes you feel like you can conquer the world, whereas I’m the tortoise. I think each one of us has something very unique about us, and ultimately I think I won the most challenges out of everyone in the house, and that sort of consistency probably pushed me across the finish line.
Q: At any point during the taping of Next Food Network Star, did you get star-struck, and if so, when?
Aarti: I got star-struck when I met Paula Deen, because there’s something so relatable about her to me. I love that she overcame so many fears to live out her full potential, there’s so much about her personality that I just adore. I love that something will go wrong when she’s cooking on camera and she’ll go, It doesn’t matter y’all! [laughs] Totally how I cook too, when I was making my online cooking show, I wouldn’t cut it out if I was flipped over a falafel and it was burned, I was like, That’s ok! It’s still going to taste good. So I really loved meeting her and serving her my food. She’s adorable.
Q: Will you continue your online cooking show and blog, or will you focus on Food Network?
Aarti: I definitely want to keep blogging, and then we’ll see about doing the cooking variety show. I’m so passionate about it, I got so much joy out of just putting a little goofy in there, you know what I mean? Cooking is an art form for sure, absolutely, and Iron Chef is a great example of what you can do when you’re really put to the test, but I love the variety element, and I’d really love to keep doing that. But the blog stays, I actually made a one-line blog last night it said: ‘Wooohoooo!’ – that’s all I wrote [laughs]. But the blog got me here, the blog gave me a sense of who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing, so I don’t want to stop doing it. I think my fans – that sounds so weird to say – I think my fans would be really disappointed if I stopped blogging so I’m going to keep doing it to the best of my ability.
Q: I love the concept of your show, I love Indian food, but I’m fearful of cooking it. What would be the perfect dish to start? Whether it’s traditional Indian food or Indian flavors in an American dish?
Aarti: I think it would be better if you did some Indian flavors in an American dish, because the whole thing wouldn’t be so intimidating to you. I make my mum’s daal, these red lentils that we ate everyday, and they’re really easy because essentially you’re making a soup, and then you add some spices in at the end and that’s really easy. So actually I would say, try the daal, because that’s the one I’ve had so many people write in about and say, they’ve never had Indian food, they made the lentils and they ate the whole thing. So give that one a go. Plus it’s a big show piece, because you have to temper the oil at the end, put the seeds in the oil, and so the oil takes on this great mustard and cumin flavor, and then you pour the whole thing into this lentil soup and it sizzles, and people are like, Oooh! It’s a show stopper.
Q: How did you decide which dishes you’re going to focus for each episode of your own show?
Aarti: My husband really helped me come up with episode ideas, that we would have some kind of theme, whether it was an episode of things that really make me think of my mum, or things that I would make for Bren, if I really wanted to impress him or show him I love him, or things like that, either themed or event based with friends coming over. And then I would think, What would I make for this person? And I would go through, it’s so helpful to be a food blogger because you have all your recipes on your blog! And I remember talking to Tom and he was like, Dude, I know I have 24 recipes, but I haven’t written them all down. So it’s really great for me because I have written them all down, so I can so easily plan an episode by just looking at everything I have made.
Q: What will you be doing this Sunday for the premiere of Aarti Party?
Aarti: Well, this is a really auspicious week – yesterday was India’s independence day, today is the seven year anniversary of my husband proposing to me, Thursday is my birthday, it’s just the most amazing week! [laughs] Great week for me. So this weekend I think I’m going to keep it really chill, I think I’m going to – and this sounds so old school – I have a couple of really close friends, and so to celebrate my birthday we’re going to do an old fashioned slumber party, complete with face masks [laughs], then we’re going to wake up Sunday morning, well Sunday afternoon I guess since the show is at noon, and watch my show.
Q: That sounds like a great plan.
Aarti: Yeah! There’s this person I’ve been talking to on Facebook, she’s a fan, sent me her recipe for ginger ice cream, so I think I’m going to try to make ginger ice cream.
Q: What else can we expect from Aarti Party?
Aarti: Well, I will be on it! [laughs] I will have my own show on Food Network starting this Sunday, I can’t get over saying that, it’s so bizarre to me. It’s me, it’s explaining a lot of the spices that I’m using. I try not to use three or four, if that, in a recipe. And I don’t throw them in willy-nilly – I’m going to explain why I’m using turmeric, what does cardamom taste like? I think because a lot of these things are not only flavors that people may not have heard of, they may not have tasted before, so I’m going to try and explain that to them, why I’m using them in that particular marriage for that particular dish. I think that’s what you can expect. With some really great food, I’m really excited for people to try these recipes out.
Q: In your online bio, it mentions that you were previously a CNN producer. How did that help you compete on the show? Did that experience translate over to Next Food Network Star?
Aarti: I think that it helped me because, even when I was having a really rough time, and it was really hard, I was like, All right! I’m not covering a wildfire, it’s not 9/11, I’m trying out for a job that is so much fun. I think it also helped me work with the pressure, because when you work in a newsroom, the deadline – it’s so much pressure to get everything in on deadline, especially when it’s a breaking news environment. Especially in the Iron Chef challenge, when I was cooking I was really calm, it felt very much like a newsroom where you have to stay really calm, and really focused, or else you’re going to lose it [laughs]. So that really helped me. And of course having any sort of reporting background means you’re really comfortable in front of the camera. I think that really helped me as well.
Aarti’s show, “Aarti Party,” premiered yesterday and airs Sundays at noon ET.