Over the course of the day, thousands of different ingredients are going to be used.Auditions for the fifth series of Foodshala – the UAE’s hugely popular reality TV cooking contest – take place next Friday, March 4, and more than 700 amateur chefs are expected to turn up with their home-made dishes in an attempt to win a place on the programme.
But those who eventually make the final 12 will all have two key ingredients in common. Saffron? Chilli? Turmeric? Nope.
‘Passion and preparation,’ says Alexio Pasquali, celebrated chef and one of the show’s judges. ‘The flavour and presentation are important, of course. But it’s passion and preparation that are the fundamentals to creating a dish that is truly wonderful. Those who have done well in every previous series really care about their food. They’re obsessed with it. They will spend time in the week before – and on the day – making sure everything is just right.’
Such, it seems, is the dedication that’s required to win what has become, since its inception in 2012, one of the Middle East’s best-loved shows.
Foodshala’s format sees wannabe chefs create a dish for a panel of three judges – Alexio, as well as show creator Gaurav Tandon and chef Akshay Nayyar. Of the roughly 700 contestants who turn up, the 12 best are then put through to compete against each other in a series of televised cook-offs. The ultimate winner sees their creation placed on the menu at Sanjeev Kapoor’s Bur Dubai restaurant Signature.
Previous victors have included businesswoman Kajal Narang last year (she made a Thai Indian platter for the auditions) and housewife Meghna Gupta the year before. Both became overnight stars.
One of the strangest things, says the latter, was when ‘someone came up to me in the supermarket and asked me if I was the woman on Foodshala. I was amazed.
‘I only entered in the first place because I was a regular home cook who wanted to show the world that I could do more than just dal-chawal (lentil curry with rice). But the whole show was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I would recommend anyone who has a passion for cooking to take part. Even if you don’t win – even if you don’t make it past the auditions – it’s still great fun.’
Great fun is certainly something viewers associate with Foodshala. Hundreds of thousands of us tune in every series. Last year, viewing figures show it was watched in almost half-a-million homes across the Gulf. When the season climaxed in May with Kajal the winner, it was that month’s most-watched show on Colors TV.
‘This was the first cooking reality show in the Middle East where everyday people were the stars, and I think that struck a chord,’ says Gaurav. ‘In Series 1, it was mainly just Indian housewives taking part, but now we have people from across Dubai’s spectrum: men, women, all ages, professions and nationalities – its appeal is absolutely cross-sectional.
Why is that? ‘For me, it’s because this is a show that illustrates that the meals people are cooking for themselves and their families every night all over the UAE are more than just something to fill up on,’ Gaurav says. ‘They are real works of art. To be able to cook well is a gift, and these people have that gift.
‘An example I like to use is that if your mum or wife is making you dinner every day, then she deserves to be put on a pedestal once in a while and recognised for what is a real talent. Foodshala provides that pedestal and that recognition.’ This series, Gaurav says, is going to be the biggest and the best yet.
‘The best part of Foodshala is that it reinvents itself with every season. There are always twists and turns, tears and triumphs. It’s real drama because it’s real life. The simple fact is that each episode of each season is different because these are real people and real people react differently to different situations.
‘Having said that, there will be a new twist this year, in that part of the show will go outdoors. At this point I can’t reveal any more but I promise the viewers are in for a surprise – and one I think they will really love.
‘We have also teamed up with Samsung, so there will be plenty of gadgetry in the show. We will be going high-tech, and showing how technology can be incorporated into the kitchen for better results and convenience. It’s exciting.’
Indeed, the auditions – to be held from 11am at Horizon International School, in Umm Al Sheif – promise to be similarly exciting.
While the wannabe chefs wait to be seen, there will be live entertainment for them and the families who come to offer support. That includes live DJs, games, product sampling and refreshments. ‘It’s a real festival atmosphere,’ says Gaurav. ‘Everyone’s happy and there’s quite the party feel.’
For the judges, of course, it’s also hard work. Consider this: if the estimated 700 people turn up to audition, that means the three experts must sample 700 dishes. In the space of a single day.
‘There’s no real way to prepare yourself for that,’ admits Alexio, who is currently working on an exciting project to open a new restaurant. ‘You must remember a lot of those dishes are very spicy too. What I do is go on a strict diet for a few days before; just steamed fish and chicken, protein shakes and lots of water. That means on the day itself I’m ready to try anything. But it’s not such hard work.’
He thinks for a moment.
I love trying new foods, so it’s an adventure. I do go on a small detox afterwards, though, he adds.
The other challenging thing can be, not to put too fine a point on it, the contestants.
Only 12 can make it through to the finals. That means hundreds are inevitably left disappointed by the judges’ decisions. And not all react well to those decisions.
‘One year I had a woman telling me that I obviously didn’t know what good food tasted like,’ recalls Gaurav, who is married to popular radio jockey and Foodshala co-producer Kritika Rawat. ‘She said I was insulting her mother as it was her recipe. Well, what can you say to that? Then you might have husbands getting involved, asking what’s wrong with their wife’s cooking.’
And that’s before you take into account some of the dishes themselves. The judges say they’ve never had anything they physically couldn’t stomach, but Alexio admits he once almost fainted after sampling one particularly potent creation.
‘The spicing was unbelievably hot,’ he says. ‘My eyes were streaming. I needed to take 15 minutes off afterwards.’
Which leads to the obvious question: what, along with the aforementioned preparation and passion – can wannabe winners do to taste success?
‘Well,’ considers Gaurav, ‘I do think the overall standard keeps going up because more and more people are aware of the show and how good the competition is.
‘So you need to come in with new ideas and unique dishes; and they need, I would say, to be almost restaurant-standard these days. That’s not to put anyone off, but it’s just to show what a country of incredible home chefs the UAE is. The talent out there is amazing. It’s an honour to be one of the judges getting to see – and taste – it all first-hand.’