Meenakshi Sharma blinks, then looks again. ‘It can’t be,’ she says, staring. Normally there are three judges for Foodshala, the region’s hottest reality TV cooking contest – host Gaurav Tandon, chef Akshay Nayyar and Italian chef Alexio Pasquali. So how come there now appeared to be six judges on the stage at Horizon International School in Umm Al Sheif, Dubai, the venue for Season 5 of the auditions this year?

Meenakshi, one of more than 500 home cooks who had arrived at the school early last Friday, March 4, to audition for a chance to be on the hugely popular show, is flummoxed. Until she walks up close.

‘It was only when I neared that I realised each judge was standing next to a life-size cardboard cut-out of themselves for a selfie,’ she laughs. ‘That was a fun idea but it had me going for a moment.’ Seeing double wasn’t the 38-year-old Dubai homemaker’s, and the other contestants’, only problem. To get a place on the show – which was watched in almost half-a-million homes across the Gulf last year – they have to wow the (real) judges with their dishes.

‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,’ Alexio warns, sending a ripple through the school hall that’s being used as a waiting room.

The three judges only have 12 places on the show, and getting hold of a Golden Ticket to move on to the next round isn’t going to be easy.

One of the first to arrive is mother-of-two Manisha Patel. The 35-year-old Sharjah housewife has been up since 4am preparing an Italian-Indian fusion dish – pomegranate khandi lasagne topped with chopped nuts.

‘I’ve received countless compliments on my cooking skills,’ she says. ‘But today is the acid test. Foodshala is the best platform for me to finally showcase my skills to the world. And I’m really hoping to make it.’

The show, which airs on Zee TV from April 2, aims to find the best amateur cook in the Middle East. As well as cash prizes and hampers, the winner gets to meet and dine with celebrated masterchef Sanjeev Kapoor.

The winning recipe also gets placed in the menu of Kapoor’s coveted Signature restaurant in Meliá Hotel in Bur Dubai.

Manisha’s dish is one of the first of hundreds the judges will taste today – how have they prepared for such a smorgasbord?

‘I’ve only eaten light meals for the last few days and today it’s been just yogurt and fruits,’ answers Gaurav.

‘The taste is, of course, paramount,’ says Alexio, gulping back water, ‘but the presentation doesn’t have to be over-complicated. I prefer it simple and stylish.’

Over the course of the previous seasons chef Akshay has been known for his honesty – which some contestants find difficult to digest. ‘It’s not that I’m trying to be rude, I want them to raise their bar and bring more discipline to their cooking,’ he says.

Manisha meanwhile is plating her dish and getting it ready for the judges to sample.

On a gleaming white board she places a thin sheet of brown lasagne. With trembling fingers she then dips a brush into a bowl of cape gooseberry sauce to spread on the lasagne. ‘I’m really nervous,’ she says, trying hard to concentrate.

On her right, another contestant, Nayana Pavate, shows no signs of stress as she nimbly places sprigs of coriander on her papaya salad that accompanies chicken kebab and some mashed tapioca.

At the end of the promised 10 minutes Nayana is escorted to the judges’ room by K Kompany volunteers. They taste her dish.

Akshay speaks first. ‘Does this contain just tapioca?’ he asks Nayana.

She quickly shakes her head, explaining she added coconut milk.

Alexio is next. ‘This is an elegant dish, there are no lumps in the mash and I love the combination of colours.’ He wants to put her through.

Gaurav, on the other hand, tells her that the dish isn’t good enough for Foodshala and gives her the thumbs down.

The deciding vote is up to Akshay. ‘Good dish, but I expect much more from you…’ – Nayana has lost her smile and looks stressed, but Akshay hasn’t finished speaking – ‘… into the next stage. You’re in.’

She grins. The very first contestant bags the first golden ticket. The crew outside the room cheers for Nayana as she walks out clutching the ticket.

Next in is Manisha, balancing her lasagne. ‘Wow,’ Gaurav exclaims, looking at the dessert. Alexio finds the dish intriguing, ‘It is an interesting sweet twist to a traditional Italian savoury dish,’ he smiles. Manisha looks happy to see the judges’ reactions. ‘I’ve used pomegranate juice instead of water to give it a natural colour. Inside are pieces of walnuts and chestnuts,’ she explains confidently.

Sharp-tongued Akshay looks at her. ‘But why have you used canned chestnuts?’

Manisha looks worried. ‘It’s difficult to cook chestnuts, they have such hard shells, so I bought semi-cooked canned ones,’ she says.

Akshay takes a deep breath. ‘Do you think this show is easy?’

Manisha’s face is now drained of all colour and she stands clasping her fingers tightly, waiting for the decision she hopes will change her life.

Gaurav is the first to react, ‘I like the combination in this dish, so it’s a yes from me.’ Alexio smiles and nods his head.

Manisha looks to Akshay to see what his verdict will be. ‘I like the concept, but you should work harder in the next round.’ Manisha’s smile returns as she’s handed a golden ticket too. ‘I am super excited,’ she says. Outside her husband Sameer and kids – Panash, 5 and Mahi, 10 – are waiting to find out how well she’s done. ‘I knew my wife will win, she’s an amazing cook,’ he says. Giving her a quick hug, he poses for a selfie with the family and the ticket.

As she leaves, already deciding what she is going to cook in the next round, there are still hundreds of people registering for the auditions. It’s past 4pm.

While the home cooks go before the judges one by one, RJ Faizan entertains the waiting crowd.

Sitting quietly in the corner is mother-of-four Amrin Sajid, who started cooking her dish at 5am.

‘I’ve brought three dishes – mutton chops, arvipatha gosht, another mutton preparation, and coconut milk with jelly – and it took me a few hours of painstaking work to put it all together,’ she says. ‘But it’s all worth it as I enjoy cooking.’ Her husband Sajid, 30, seated next to her, is her biggest support. ‘While I was busy cooking he took care of Sarina, our daughter, and even cleaned the kitchen later.’ Through Foodshala Amrin wants to achieve her dream of opening a Gujarati restaurant in Dubai.

Amrin’s wish of running a restaurant resonates with that of Foodshala Season 4 winner Kajal Narang, who is currently scouting for the perfect location. ‘The show was a learning experience and a confidence booster. I am excited about opening my restaurant that will specialise in Thai food and sushi,’ says Kajal. ‘My advice to all participants is to keep calm and cook with love.’ She is soon called on stage to join Season 2 winner Kiran Sachdev and Season 3 winner Meghna Gupta.

Although all Foodshala winners have so far been women, hoping to break the mould was 17-year-old schoolboy Jai Rajesh. Armed with a confident smile and a dish of sweetcorn panna cotta, Jai is the youngest contestant waiting to try his luck. ‘I want to be a chef and have already enrolled in a culinary school in Switzerland,’ he says. ‘ I’m here to learn more about cooking techniques and to enjoy the experience. I think I stand a very good chance.’

In the waiting area are several familiar faces. Contestants rejected in previous seasons have come back to try again. Sharjah homemaker Naziya Afzal won the first golden ticket at last year’s auditions but was eliminated in the next round.

‘I was very disappointed and cried through the night. That was when I picked up the Foodshala Kitchen Comforts book and had the idea to create something innovative inspired by my favourite chef Akshay.’

Today a determined Naziya has brought a Burmese khow suey – noodles in a vegetable curry made with coconut milk – and desserts gulab jamun ravioli and passion fruit basundi. ‘I have barely slept for three hours as khow suey takes a long time to cook, she says. ‘I want to win Foodshala for Afzal my husband, who is forever rooting for me.’ 
Naziya pauses to wipe away tears rolling down her face. Four months pregnant and advised rest by her doctor, she, however, refused to miss the auditions. The efforts she took paid off. Naziya was all smiles as she emerged from the hall waving her golden ticket.

It’s way past 7pm when teen Jai comes out of the audition hall, grinning from ear to ear. ‘I got the golden ticket,’ he says.

‘Chef Akshay liked the consistency of the panna cotta, chef Alexio told me that I need to improve on the presentation. I will be taking on board his comments.’

It’s going to be a long day – there are 30 golden tickets to give out.

For the judges and the K Kompany crew the day finally ended at 11.30pm. ‘I have never eaten so much food,’ says Alexio, looking tired. ‘But it was a good day – we had some incredible contestants coming in. I think this season will be better than ever.’

Gaurav nods as he heads for the door. ‘We are on for a great next round, and a great season,’ he says. ‘But if the cooks thought this was tough they better watch out - we have to whittle them down to the final 12. This is just a taste of things to come.’

Watch this space to know who made it to the next round of Foodshala Season 5.

Foodshala Season 5 airs on Zee TV from April 2.