By Sonya Rehman
While some Pakistanis make headlines in the fields of music, fashion and sports, 22-year-old, Fatima Ali, is currently in the spotlight for something far more different: her culinary skills.
Based in Manhattan and working as a Sous Chef at ‘Café Centro’ in the city, Ali recently competed in a cooking reality TV show called ‘Chopped’ (aired on ‘The Food Network’ in the US), this year, in June.
The format of the show is simple: four Chefs contend against one another by whipping up a three-course meal within a nail-biting time limit. Once complete, a panel of judges reviews the dishes, filtering out the Chefs until one winner remains.
“It was like I was viewing myself from a cloud above the studio. I felt removed from the situation; all that I could hear was the thudding of my heart through the commentary,” states Ali, who wound up winning the competition. “It’s beyond surreal to have won the show – I think I’m still not even used to the feeling of it yet. Whenever people stop to congratulate me, I’m constantly surprised and embarrassed but I can’t stop smiling, so I suppose that’s good!”
Having fostered an “affinity” for cooking shows over the years, Ali states that she would watch BBC Food “for hours” until she decided what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. “My mother and step-father were subjected to much ‘trial and error’ tastings during my attempts of conjuring up Jamie Oliver-esque meals at home,” she says, adding, “They were always fantastic sports about the food.”
Having studied at the Culinary Institute of America, in New York, the young Chef states that culinary school is “in itself a harness for any young, ambitious cook.” “I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”
Given the high level of stress that goes hand in hand with reality TV competitions that have strict time limits, Ali says that the “most stressful moments [during the show] was when I was battling myself and the inevitable second guessing.”
“There were many moments of chaos that were not aired during the show,” she says, “During the dessert round after frantically throwing my bread pudding in the oven, I spent two minutes crouched, unmoving in front of it just silently praying.”
Working approximately seventy hours a week, Ali mentions that she “barely” has time for anything else. But she loves New York. “The food, the lights, and the energy – it all fuels me.”
And the response to her recent achievement? “Herculean and so overwhelming,” states Ali, “I never expected such a positive response from so many people in and out of Pakistan. The praise has been pouring in and it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to – to highlight Pakistani cuisine and culture in a new light.”
Hoping to “get involved in a cooking show” or another reality show such as ‘Chopped,’ Ali believes that whether or not her chosen career-path remains unconventional in her home country, “anything is as mainstream as you make it.”
“Pakistani society is slowly beginning to accept this profession as a viable career choice and I’m confident that with continued exposure, my battle will no longer be uphill.”