Inside the FOODSHALA
auditions with Friday readers
I t’s 11am on a Saturday morning and all is calm in the plush lobby of the Meliá Hotel in Bur Dubai. A few couples stroll by, no doubt looking forward to a leisurely brunch. Contrast this with the frenetic atmosphere in Signature, award-winning Chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s iconic restaurant in the hotel, which is the site for auditions for the UAE’s hugely popular reality food TV show, Foodshala.
A throng of more than 100 excited women and three men have been gathering in the restaurant since 7am and are eagerly waiting for their chance to audition for a place in season three of the show.
Clasping their home-made dishes with which they hope to impress the judges – former radio jockey and now TV star Gaurav Tandon, UAE-based chef and Friday food stylist Alexio Pasquali, and Akshay Nayyar, executive chef at Signature restaurant Meliá Hotel – many of the crowd are also clutching golden tickets, the VIP fast-track coupons printed in the last two issues of Friday, which guarantee that one of the final 12 contestants on the show will be a lucky reader.
“I came to know of the Foodshala auditions through Friday’s Facebook page and then saw the ticket inside the magazine,’’ says Sumaya Baig, a 30-year-old Dubai-based housewife.
“I’ve always been interested in food and being on television talking about food, so this is an opportunity I couldn’t miss.”
She’d expected to be the first to arrive but was surprised to see there were scores already at the venue. In front of her was Megha Mane, a budding chef. “I was here at 7am for the auditions, which are scheduled for 2pm,’’ she says. “I can’t wait for the auditions to start.”
As soon as the doors open, the eager contestants rush in to register, are given their number badges and then adjourn to the waiting room before they are called through to see the judges. They have all brought meticulously prepared dishes, their myriad aromas wafting across the room to fill the hotel with a delicious medley of spices.
Friends Kavita Chugani, 32, and Champa Lala, 34, from Dubai are busy discussing the dishes they prepared.
“I’ve been receiving a lot of praise for my cooking at home and when
Foodshala was advertised, I felt it was time to move out of the kitchen,’’ says Champa, a housewife.
Kavita chips in, “I’ve seen so many reality shows on television and when I read about the auditions in Friday, I was keen to participate. And thanks to the Friday voucher we were able to get into the fast-track line. I hope we will be able to make it to the shortlisted 12.”
By 11.30am – an hour and a half after the registration counters opened – the number of Friday VIP entries has the registration desk flummoxed. “We’ve already clocked around 100 entrants into the Friday fast-track lane,’’ says one of the organisers. It’s a number that finally reaches 300.
By 12.30pm the holding area is packed as participants, accompanied by supportive families and friends, stream in steadily. “Bring more chairs,’’ shouts a crew member as efforts are made to accommodate all the entrants.
It’s been a long wait for the chefs-in-the-making. Producers of the show, Kritika Rawat and Gaurav, who head the production house K Kompany, drop by the waiting area to boost morale and pep up the contestants. “Are you guys ready?’’ asks Gaurav and there is a resounding “yes” from them.
As the clock ticks towards the appointed audition hour – 2pm – Gaurav leaves the waiting area to join fellow judges Alexio and Akshay in the judging area inside the main restaurant. Outside, excitement
‘I’ve received a lot of praise for my cooking at home and I felt it was time to move out of the kitchen’
continues to hot up among the contestants. Naseem Akhtar appears a tad shy as she prepares for the audition. “I am quite content being a homemaker,’’ she says. “But my children convinced me to showcase my skills on TV. They love my cooking and felt I should step out.’’
Her daughter Shakila, a class 12 student, grins. “Whatever the judges might say, I think the tandoori chicken and biryani ricemy mom will serve the judges today is top-notch,” she says, looking at her mother lovingly. “My mom has devoted all her time to taking care of the family, cooking for us and seeing to our needs. It’s her time to shine now.”
Shakila feels that Foodshala in the Middle East is a great initiative that gives housewives – and a handful of men brave enough to face the swarm of women cooks competing – a chance to believe in themselves and publicly showcase their talents.
Next to her, Selma Imran, 45, an avid Friday reader from Dubai, is holding her VIP voucher and counting down the minutes. “Thanks to Friday I’m in the fast lane,” she says.
There is a sense of bonhomie among the participants. This bowls over Kritika when, an hour before auditions begin, they unanimously decide to allow contestant Charu Kulkarni, 27, to go first. “She has a one-year-old kid with her and has been waiting for so long,’’ says Selma.
The catfights are perhaps being saved for the round two cook-offs.
The genial atmosphere transforms to palpable excitement when the crew arrives and the cameras start rolling. Foodshala season three has officially begun. Suddenly there is a flurry of excitement as everybody begins to adjust their hair, dress and practise their smiles for the camera.
While the production team starts lining up the contestants, the judges are waiting to meet the first one in the main restaurant, now a makeshift studio.
Nerves start surfacing as the home cooks wonder if they’ll manage to plate up and garnish their prepared dishes within the five minutes provided, before they’re scuttled off to face the ultimate check of their culinary skills.
“Don’t worry guys, you have microwave ovens to heat up the food and time and space to plate up. Last season we had to serve cold food,” reassures Kiran Sachdev, winner of season two as she works in the waiting area offering tips, advice and inspiration to eager contestants.
Last year Kiran shed a lot of tears as she had to choose between competing for the Foodshala title and attending her son’s wedding in Mumbai India. She chose the show.
And it was all worth it: Kiran walked away with loads of prizes including household appliances from Emax and vouchers from Lulu.
“In the previous season, a total prize money equivalent to Dh100,000 was given away,” says Gaurav.
“This season, Geant will give away Dh15,000 worth of shopping vouchers. Emax will give Dh15,000 in vouchers; Splash is planning a huge gift. These are just a few of the prizes.’’
But most of the contestants are not here for the money or prizes. They simply want to be the best. Kavita and Champa, who having visited and been inspired by the menu at Signature, know the effort it will take to become a winner. After all, one of the judges is a chef here. “It’s a lovely restaurant and the food is amazing. So I can only guess what the judges will be looking for,’’ says Kavita.
Anusha Bhagtani, mother-of-two and self-confessed food reality TV show junkie, doesn’t like being in the limelight unless the reason is her food. Her saffron jewel cake has already caught the eyes of the camera crew. “I’m a really good baker, a perfectionist,” she says. “But a lot also depends on luck.”
As the auditions finally start and Charu heads off, the holding area becomes a hive of activity with participants getting ready for their turn. When Charu returns a few minutes later, the others instantly clamour around her, eager to know what lies in wait for them. “They seemed to like my gooseberry rice and okra raitha I finalised only this morning,” she confesses.
In contrast, Madhyama Naswa, an effervescent 23-year-old student
from The University of Wollongong, a Friday VIP entrant and probably the youngest contestant around, says it took her “two weeks to decide on my experiments at fusion cuisine – an ingenious shahi chicken methi tart and a ginger spicy chocolate with hazelnut base.
She comes out of the auditions beaming. “The judges seemed to love what I prepared,’’ she smiles.
Inside the judging area, judges Gaurav, Alexio and Akshay are on the hunt for innovation, style and taste.
The minimalist interior-style of Signature restaurant, which on any
‘The first episode of drama has already happened… she was crying from the word go’
other day would be the epitome of tranquillity, is for the duration of the
Foodshala shoot so thick with tension you could slice through it.
The judges take their time to examine each dish, taste it, savour the flavours and aroma before passing their judgement without mincing their words. While some contestants leave the room smiling, there are many home chefs who are reduced to tears. One contestant, upbraided for a dish that was too greasy, bursts into tears. “Don’t cry,’’ consoles Gaurav, walking over to her with a box of tissues and a glass of water. “Mistakes happen.”
After she leaves the room, he slips back into his judge’s chair. “The first episode of drama has already happened. I don’t know why but from the word go she was crying. But when I asked her to sing she was OK, only her singing made me cry,” he says with his typical wicked sense of humour.
But the judges are also quick to give credit where it’s due. Holding on to a mutton kheema dish that they enjoyed so much, they lavish praise on it and were seen tucking into it even after the contestant left.
Food stylist Alexio initially found some of the dishes lacking visual appeal. However he was soon won over with a contestant’s chicken paan (beetle leaf ) dish. “That was excellently plated in filigreed brass utensils and so beautiful that Akshay wanted to take it home,’’ he says.
“Some of the dishes have not been up there but there’s no denying that the contestants have a flair for colour and components that go into styling their food. There were several dishes which were really interesting.”
Signature’s Akshay feels season three has established the show’s professionalism with the unexpected dishes the judges have been presented with so far. “If the number of people who turned up and the variety of cuisines they have created are anything to go by, this season’s judging is going to be really difficult.”
Alexio adds, “I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more interestingly presented dishes before we end the auditions. It’s been a learning experience for both the contestants and judges – I’ve come across so many new Indian dishes.
“Akshay and Gaurav have been teaching me Hindi too!”
Gaurav is thrilled with the turnout. “This season of Foodshala will be a reality check for the participants – for some it’s the tough revelation that, ‘Oh, this isn’t as easy as I thought it would be’ while the ones who are good realise their talents.
“This season, Foodshala will tell contestants where they really stand in terms of their cooking skills.”
Six hours later, the crowds is still excited when the last of the hopefuls presents her dish at 7.30pm.
Despite what the results may be, the experience has helped participants realise their passion for cooking. Anirudh Verma, 26, an assistant manager at a fast food chain and one of only three male contestants, stands out in the crowd of women. His ambition is to work with his idol Sanjeev Kapoor.
“This audition is the first step to my dream and my dish of chicken cheese balls is sure to catch the judges’ eyes. I’m excited – not nervous – because I know Foodshala is finally my chance to start cooking after being part of the food industry for 13 years. It was a fab experience. If nothing, I’ve proved that my food is worth presenting before some of the top foodies in Dubai.” The 12 finalists will be announced in the first episode of Foodshala Season 3 on Colors TV on March 1 at 11pm.
Hundreds of keen cooks were eager to show their skills
Alexio, Akshay and Gaurav are expecting an exciting season
This chicken paan dish impressed Alexio
FOOD SPECIAL With just five minutes to plate their food, every second counts
The Friday voucher gave contestants a fast-track option