Foodshala creator and TV host Gaurav Tandon pauses to consider the question just put to him: how does a man prepare himself for a day in which he will attempt to sample around 500 dishes?
“Well,” he says, “I probably won’t have any breakfast.”
The countdown has begun to the February 13 auditions for season four of the hugely popular reality cooking TV show, Foodshala, which will take place from 11am to 4pm at a new venue which is at Lamcy Plaza, 3rd Floor, Karama, Dubai.
And as one of the audition judges, that means Gaurav will be in charge of tasting each and every one of the home-made meals created by the hundreds of amateur chefs hoping to win one of 12 places on the show. “For the first two hours you think it’s the best job in the world,” says 34-year-old Gaurav. “You’re eating biryani, pakora, thali, you name it. It’s like the world’s best sample menu.
“Then you start to hit the wall. You don’t get full because you’re only having one or two bites but you do start to feel the food taking its toll. Put it this way, I spend the next day in the gym.” He pauses a second.
“But, you know, every time a new dish is put in front of you, your appetite is renewed because you can see how much effort has gone into it. There are worse ways to spend a day.”
It’s a hard job, it seems. But someone has to do it. And Gaurav has been doing it for four years now and is determined to make this season the best ever. “Now,” he says, “we want to take it to another level.”
Foodshala, in which amateur chefs from across the UAE compete over 11 episodes to be named the country’s best, was his creation back in 2012.
While he suspected even then that he’d come up with something special, the show – in which this year contestants must make something from the Indian subcontinent (although any dish is acceptable during auditions) – has been more popular than he could have imagined.
Some 300 people applied to be on the show last year, while viewing figures show it was watched in almost half a million homes across the Gulf region.
When the season climaxed with 35-year-old Dubai resident Meghna Gupta being named winner in May last year, 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, whose production outfit K Kompany makes the show.
“I think it showed that these meals that homemakers are cooking in houses up and down the UAE every single night of the year are more than just something for the family to eat; they are real works of art. To be able to cook well is a gift; and sometimes the people who eat these meals can seem to take it for granted.
“This show gave these women – and so far it has been mainly women; we only had 10 male applicants last year – a platform to shine. They do deserve to be put on a pedestal and recognised for something which, often, they don’t even think about but which is a real talent developed over a lifetime of practice.”
It may be for this reason that emotions run so high.
While auditions result in 12 people being made very happy, hundreds are also inevitably left disappointed by the judging panel – that’s Gaurav along with chef and food stylist Alexio Pasquali and chef Akshay Nayyar of Bur Dubai’s Signature restaurant. And not all applicants react well to such disappointment.
“Last year I had one 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 get husbands getting involved, asking what is wrong with their wife’s cooking. We’ve even had kids start crying because their mum hasn’t been picked. It can be difficult.”
And that’s before you take into account some of the dishes themselves. The judges insist they’ve never had anything inedible, but there was one time Alexio came close to fainting after sampling a creation.
“I’m from India and I’m used to spices but this was the hottest thing I’ve ever tasted,” recalls Gaurav. “It put me out of action for 15 minutes. Poor Alexio, who’s Italian, almost fainted. His eyes were streaming.
“Spicing is supposed to add to the flavour but this made it pungent. And yet, the funny thing was, the more we thought about it afterwards the more we all felt it was a lovely original creation. It was made by a woman called Krubashini Prasad, and we put her through to the final 12.” Indeed, it is there in that final 12, where the real drama starts with the contestants facing each other in a series of cook-offs. Eventually, they are whittled down to just two who make it to the grand finale. Each round, apart from the initial auditions, is judged by celebrity Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor.
Viewers will be familiar with the thrills, spills, twists and turns, the tears and fears, which are a mainstay of the show. In season two, Kiran Sachdev of Bur Dubai had to choose between appearing in the final and flying to her son’s wedding in India, which was the same day. She chose the final. And won.
“She became a star overnight,” Gaurav noted shortly after. “The moment she was announced as the winner, she became speechless. All she could do was grin before breaking down with joy.”
Her successor, in 2014’s season three, was the aforementioned Meghna Gupta.
The mother-of-two homemaker triumphed after making mutton kebabs with kache aloo ke paratha in the final.
Judges were impressed in particular by the fact that she clearly “understood the importance of nutrition as well as delivering something tasty”. Meghna recalls, “It was unreal and exciting to win. I was so proud and happy. Basically there was a riot of emotions running through me. My family and friends had believed in me from the beginning, and it was their belief that gave me the courage to pass through. After I won they were so proud of me it brought tears to my eyes.”
One of her most surreal moments since was being stopped in a supermarket. “Someone came and asked me if I was the woman off Foodshala,” she says, adding that it felt like being a celebrity.
Few who watched the show would disagree that Meghna deserved the plaudits. Her passion and humility made her a favourite with viewers –and with audition judge Alexio.
The 45-year-old marked her out from the first day as one to watch after she presented an umizza – a type of Indian pizza without the dough base – at auditions. “I’m Italian so I’m passionate about pizzas,” says Alexio. “But I’d never seen anything quite like this before. It was a standout. Not too thick, not too thin, the ingredients – chicken, cheese, tomato – all working well together. It wouldn’t have been out of place on the menu of an international restaurant.”
Indeed, it’s that, he adds, which is the key to a successful entrant. The quality being produced is now so high at Foodshala that applicants must look to offer both something a little different and something that would work in a great restaurant.
“The flavour and the presentation are so important,” says Alexio. “But so too is the passion. It’s fundamental that the person really cares about their food. The best contestants will spend time in the week before – and on the day – making sure everything is just right.”
Akshay agrees. “The standard improves every year. I just can’t wait to see what dishes are brought to us this time round – they get more special and more innovative every year. The key to really impressing is to remembering this is a dish that could end up on a restaurant menu. So it’s got to be the best it can possibly be.
“This year I’d say it almost needs to be professional standard even to have a chance of making the final 12. We need to be able to taste the passion and the effort that’s gone into it.
“I just can’t wait for the auditions. Seeing and tasting all these dishes is wonderfully inspiring. It’s remarkable to see the talent here in the UAE.”
As for Gaurav, as we begin to wrap up our conversation, he’s keen to share what he believes all good chefs will possess: a deep underlying knowledge of food. “Most of us can follow instructions in recipe books,” he says. “But those who progress tend to know what ingredients will work with each other, what goes with what, how much spice they should use, things like that. It’s become instinctive to them.”
Now, those hopefuls will be keen to show they posses the skills to make it. The ultimate winner, this year like all years, will see their dish go on the menu of Signature.
“We’ve invested a lot in this show,” says Gaurav. “This season will be even bigger in terms of production values and drama. It’s going to be thrilling for contestants and audiences alike.”