Foodshala has become the hit reality cooking show that has all the UAE talking.
It sees hundreds of amateur cooks competing to be named the best in the country. But if you think the contestants are passionate about the meals they make, try spending time with the show’s celebrity judges.
‘Do we ever disagree over a dish?’ ponders Gaurav Tandon, one of the panel, as well as the show’s host and creator. ‘Quite badly. There was one point this year when I thought there might actually be a fight. I was thinking, “Someone’s going to start throwing punches here”.’
The moment came during the show’s auditions when more than 600 hopefuls were being narrowed down to 12 finalists.
The three judges – Gaurav, Italian chef and food stylist Alexio Pasquali, and chef Akshay Nayyar of Melia Hotel’s Signature restaurant – had been presented with a yogurt dish by a hopeful.
Today, I’m sitting with Gaurav and Alexio in Signature, and they take up the story.
‘As there are three of us, it’s normally easy to decide because in any disagreement there’s two against one,’ explains Gaurav. ‘But there was one girl in Abu Dhabi who really divided us.
‘Akshay really liked it. He said to her, “I’d put this on my menu tomorrow because it is perfect, this technique is so good.”
‘But Alexio and I weren’t convinced. It was an interesting dish but we didn’t feel it was top-12 standard. The taste wasn’t there. Alexio was telling Akshay, “You shouldn’t tell someone they deserve a place on your menu without discussing it.” Yet Akshay was insistent, and we were all arguing. I thought, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to be fighting on camera here.”’
In the end, diplomacy won out. A vote was held. The dish was rejected, two to one. Akshay accepted democracy. ‘But he wasn’t happy,’ remembers Alexio. ‘That’s the good thing about this show, though. We care. We’re passionate. We want to find the best person each year and that can lead to disagreements sometimes. It’s only right that that happens.’
‘Plus,’ adds Gaurav, ‘it all makes for good TV.’
That Foodshala is good TV few would disagree with. The format sees amateur chefs bring a single dish to an audition in a bid to win a place in the 12-person finals. Those who qualify from the hundreds of contestants then compete against each other in a series of televised cook-offs. The ultimate winner sees their own dish placed on the menu at Signature.
Now in its fourth season, the programme has grown in popularity every year since its inception in 2012. Last year, viewing figures show it was watched in almost half a million homes across the Gulf. When the season climaxed in May with 35-year-old Dubai resident Meghna Gupta being named the winner, it was that month’s most watched show on Colors TV.
Impressively, those figures are already set to be eclipsed this year. Some 600 people turned up for auditions in Dubai and, for the first time, in Abu Dhabi too. That’s double 2014’s turn out. Viewing figures are expected to similarly rise.
Indeed, the format has proven such a hit that, in 2016, it will go international with auditions being held in at least two more Gulf countries (‘maybe Kuwait, maybe Bahrain, we’re in talks’). Additionally, several well-known international broadcasters are apparently in negotiations to buy the format for their own networks.
Why is it so popular, I ask.
‘It connects with people,’ says Gaurav almost instantly. ‘This is the only chance for people in this region to be part of a food reality show.
‘A second reason, though, is that it has a lot of credibility. We have great people associated with the show. We have Sanjeev Kapoor as a judge in the later rounds and he is probably India’s biggest chef. But before that we also have Akshay and Alexio. These are big, international names and their opinions count.
‘People value the opportunity to have these guys judge their cooking. It’s exciting.’
Not everyone, of course, is always happy with the judges’ decision. Most of those who get rejected take on board the advice they receive and many come back the following year. But some are less willing to accept they haven’t made the cut.
‘There was one lady who had made something that was very nice, technically well done, pleasing on the eye,’ recalls Alexio. ‘But we just didn’t think it made the cut. It didn’t have that extra something. And when we told her she said, ‘Well, I don’t think you know your job’. You can’t really reply to that.
‘Fortunately, most people take it very well. We offer feedback, give reasons why we’ve said no, and give ways they can improve for next time.
‘It’s a challenge for them to get better and try again. We’re pushing them.’
Not everyone is rejected because their food isn’t up to scratch. This year, one was rejected because it was too good.
The person in question was an in-flight caterer with Etihad Airways. ‘We spent half an hour thinking about it and then we had to tell him that we felt an in-flight caterer meant he was essentially a professional chef,’ explains Gaurav.
‘This show is for amateurs. His skill set was just so superior to everyone else’s. He was disappointed but he understood.’
And tears aren’t always caused by rejection, either.
‘There was one contestant who brought a cake and the three of us were in a dilemma as to whether she’d even baked it herself or whether she’d bought it,’ says Alexio. ‘That’s how good it was. We kept asking her, “Are you sure you have made this yourself? It’s too nice.”
‘And she was saying, “I have the rest of the mix at home, you can come and see it if you want”. We had to put her through, and she was crying with delight.’
There is laughter as well as tears.
‘The third last contestant in Abu Dhabi was a girl from Pakistan. When she brought out her dish, Akshay and I thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever seen,’ recalls Gaurav. ‘She had done carrot halwa, which is an age-old, traditional dessert made with milk and sugar; very sweet.
‘But this lady had done it with chicken. Chicken! Boiled and shredded, and mixed into this sweet. We thought she’d totally lost it. But when we tasted it, it was amazing. It worked. We asked her if she would serve it as a savoury or as a dessert and she said you just have it when you feel like it.
‘So, how could we not put her through to the final rounds?’
Those finals are now being aired and viewers can expect more tears, more laughter and more kitchen triumphs and tragedies.
And one thing that is absolutely certain is that the standard is getting better as the show grows bigger.
How would previous winners fare this year, I ask. There is a long pause. Then Gaurav ventures an answer.
‘I think the overall standard has gone up and I’ll tell you why: there are more people who are aware of us now, and they’re also aware of how good they need to be to make the top 12.
‘They are coming in more prepared, more practised, with newer ideas, with unique dishes.
‘So a lot of the dishes that made the top 12 in Season 1 perhaps wouldn’t quite get there now. You have to push the envelope that extra bit every season,’ explains Gaurav.
As for the judges, they continue to enjoy the show – perhaps just as much as the contestants enjoy starring in it.
‘It’s our passion,’ says Alexio. ‘It’s funny. We make people so happy when we put them through to the final. They’re crying, banging on the floor, jumping up and down. But it makes us happy to see that too. It’s exciting. It gives you such an adrenalin rush.
‘I think sometimes we can be happier than the contestant because we want to see what they can do next. That’s the really exciting bit, seeing how this person will develop once you’ve given them a chance to show what they can do. Their families and friends have known about their talent for years, and now we’re giving them the chance to show it to the world.
‘We’re changing their lives in some cases. We’ve had contestants go into the catering business after they’ve been on Foodshala, become professional cooks, start blogs. They get recognised in the street.
‘That puts pressure on us as judges to make the right decisions, but it’s a nice pressure. It’s lovely to do. It’s great to be part of this. And we’re just glad so many people love to watch.’
Foodshala Season 4 is shown at 6.30pm on Colors TV on Sundays. Repeats are at 11.30pm on Wednesdays and 1pm on Fridays.