Pakistani chef spices up American cooking show

Fatima Ali, won an episode of Chopped, a reality cooking show on The Food Network in the United States.

“You want to go to university to become a bawarchi (cook)?” – This is the first reaction Fatima Ali, 22, would get when she would tell friends at a highly competitive school in Karachi about her aspirations to become a chef.

While friends were applying to Ivy Leagues and Oxbridge, up to five or six universities at a time, Ali applied to just one; a culinary institute in upstate New York.

While her mother supported her decision, her father, a well-known barrister in Lahore, initially urged her to apply to law schools instead, finally coming around after much persuasion. For 16-year-old Ali, there was no two ways about it – she started cooking at five and this would be her future.

Single-minded in her goal, her stubbornness combined with passion eventually helped her win an episode of the reality cooking show ‘Chopped’ which aired on June 12 on The Food Network in the United States.

The 22-year-old, who is a sous chef at Café Centro in mid-town Manhattan, remembers watching food television religiously. BBC Food while she was in Karachi and then The Food Network when she moved to the US. “My sister would beg me to change the channel, especially during Ramazan, but I would be like ‘no, no, no’, eventually my entire family was addicted.”

When Chopped first aired on US television, Ali, who was then a student at the Culinary Institute of America, was hooked to it. “I convinced myself I would do it one day,” recalls Ali.

It was a chance encounter to work with one of the judges of Chopped – Maneet Chauhan – who convinced Ali to apply to be a contestant on the show – that she finally did it.

With three months of experience in the professional cooking world at Café Centro and an internship under her belt, Ali applied to become a contestant and was accepted.

Chopped is a reality show that pits four chefs against each other in three rounds – appetizer, entrée and dessert – a chef getting chopped in each round – until there is one chef left standing. The chefs are presented with a basket of secret ingredients in each round and have 30 minutes to prepare, cook and plate their dish.

Ali was the youngest contestant in the 'Chopped' episode she was featured in.

Working as a sous chef in a restaurant that can seat up to 420 people and sees a lunchtime crowd of 150 people every hour, Ali is used to working quickly. But it was perhaps her training at home in Pakistan that helped this young chef win at the end of the day.

After her parents divorced when Ali was young she would divide her time between Karachi and Lahore. The summers spent in Lahore with her father were an opportunity for Ali to cook and bond with her father, who himself is an expert cook, says Ali. Along with her father, Ali’s grandmother and her cook Qadir, who has cooked for her family for decades and moved across the country with the family, also contributed to her ‘training’.

“For me, cooking engages your five senses and more. You are constantly thinking of the next step,” says the young chef.

“Cooking starts with an idea, what you want, who you want to create it, how and why. There is nothing in the world you can personalise more than food.”

This personalised spin is what may have won Ali the episode. She used spices commonly used at home in Pakistan to add flavour to her food, without over powering the taste.

As soon as the host of the show announced “Open your baskets” Ali was scanning her ingredients and running to the pantry trying to get the right spices. I wanted to be gutsy and creative she says, as well as bring the cooking techniques used at home (in Pakistan). “I wanted to bring in the use of the same flavours, spices and herbs.”

“The producers saw me and were like ‘oh yeah, we have a runner’” says Ali laughing. “I banged into the camera a couple of times…they don’t show that on air.”

Her appetizer, the main ingredient being chicken intestine, red miso, savoy cabbage and clementines, looked like “mashed-up brain and grey in colour” says Ali, “but it was delicious” and the judges let her off intact for the next round.

Having gone into what may be considered an ‘unconventional’ profession in Pakistan, Ali’s school counselor and principal were initially surprised by her decision to apply to culinary school, but not “shocked” says the 22-year-old. “I was always rebellious, but always involved in school too.” As house captain, an athlete, along with being involved in the drama society at school, perhaps something “better” than becoming a ‘bawarchi’ were expected of Ali.

But when, as a15-year-old, Ali was planning 2 am feasts at sleepovers instead of gossip sessions, the clues should have been there.

“Young people should pursue things that are not common. If you think it is good enough, then it is,” she says, adding that the Pakistani society seems to think that any industry not lucrative enough is one not to follow.

A few mishaps here and there, including under-cooking duck breast in the entrée round and dropping her entire bowl of ice-cream in the dessert round, Ali finally ended up winning episode three of Chopped’s twelfth season.

The best part of winning? The reaction of the people around her as well as strangers. “I got a message from a Pakistani woman in the States somewhere, she said ‘we are all so proud of you. I watched the show with my two daughters and we were praying for you the whole time.'”

It’s a wonderful feeling says Ali.

Sara Faruqi is a multimedia journalist at

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Comments (58) Closed

Saad (DXB)
Jun 19, 2012 04:20pm
She can instead work in Sheraton, PC, Serena or Marriot Hotels in Pakistan.. Thanks for your invitation though.. We can feel the pinch of arrogance in your comment mate.. Your country might be bigger, but our food is definitely better.. I know many Indians who love going to Karachi Darbar, Liyari or Sheher e Karachi restaurants in Dubai rather than the Chappan Bhogs and Jashanmals etc.
Jun 20, 2012 10:39pm
India is well known in West and is well accepted by the diners. more over many Pakistani dishes also come from India Nihari and Hyderabadi dishes for example brought by immigrants from India. A typical Westerner does not make any distinction between these 2 countries.
Jun 19, 2012 01:22pm
Congratulations Fatima on your success and dedication to what you like
Naeem Peerzada
Jun 18, 2012 12:51pm
nice to hear that Pakistani woman won this compitition.. thats the image of pakistan position and clean.. congrate ..
Jun 18, 2012 01:51pm
May Allah keep you safe and successful, congratulations !!!! sister.
Jun 18, 2012 01:38pm
Hope no body says that she was cooking non halal meat!!!!!! Fatima you made me proud!
Irfan Butt
Jun 18, 2012 01:35pm
Cafe Centrino in NYC ... Okay, we will be visiting your restaurant soon. Would you come see your guests?
Agha Ata (USA)
Jun 18, 2012 01:28pm
Ms. Fatima, First, congratulations for your achievement. You will go a long way in yoru pursuit. Nothing succeeds like success. Besides, I have a request. Please bring some change in Pakistani dishes. With the exception of Pulao, qorma, kofte, Biryanai nihari, and maybe a few more (that include lentils and veggies plus meat) Pakistan has not added a single dish in their cooking that takes care of diabetics, overweight and health- conscious people. The use of oil (ghee) has ruined lives of thousands, if not millions. The only thing people are interested in or find something to boast about is the taste, not nutrition. And the taste itself is cultivated only among Pakistanis. Our food is not even sophisticated enough to eat with forks, spoons, knives and chop sticks. We do not like to borrow from others perhaps; but is that true?
Jun 18, 2012 12:17pm
Excellent news in these tough times. Great work little chef! Keep the flag high.
Jun 18, 2012 01:11pm
Good job Ali. Keep it up!
Jun 18, 2012 01:06pm
Oh shoot!! Just when I DID NOT watch an episode. Does anyone know if this has been aired (proabbly yes)? Anyhow, many congratulations. Those tasks are tough and there are some fierce competitors out there. Good job, Fatima! Well done.
Jun 18, 2012 12:20pm
Fatimah, Great Job, You have passion in cooking and this is really good, We all proud of you. ---Imran
Jun 18, 2012 04:23pm
So proud of you fats. Keep your feet on the ground & aim for the stars- you are becoming one Inshallah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Jun 18, 2012 12:38pm
This is the kind of image Pakistanis needs to portray. Well done.
sidrah aunty
Jun 19, 2012 01:30am
hi fatima mashaallha u have done a good job we all proud of u love u
Jun 18, 2012 11:40pm
My name is Fatima too!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Jun 18, 2012 11:38pm
You are the first one to say it though...although you didnt say it say it...but u did. if you know what I mean...
Jun 18, 2012 09:17pm
Jun 18, 2012 07:39pm
Does anyone hv a link to the episode
Jun 18, 2012 07:16pm
you can find the episode on youtube
Jun 18, 2012 12:15pm
Well done so proud of you. All the best for the future :)
sardar sohaib
Jun 18, 2012 11:57am
Jun 18, 2012 11:39am
Bravo! :)
Ghinva Raza
Jun 20, 2012 11:07am
OMG,,thiss iss soo cuteee~!!! mashallahh,Lovee It Fatimaa,!! Proud of youu honeyy!! May you get a longg wayy!!
Jun 19, 2012 11:25am
Great job Fatima! :) I loved watching BBC Food too when I had the time before moving abroad for my Bachelors. I'll try finding Chopped on youtube.
Jun 19, 2012 11:18am
What do you mean by bringing religion into this? Islam is Deen and it must be part of our daily life, from Bait-Ullah to Bait-Ul-Khila.
samina kasim
Jun 23, 2012 02:11pm
So proud of Fatima,I always had faith in you that you are going to achieve something big in life ...Proud to be your teacher at Karachi Grammar School. Can't forget the days ,when you had won for me and our house.Good luck with all your endeavors,may you succeed in proved yourself Mrs. Kasim
Jul 01, 2012 02:52pm
Good Job And keep it up like the way you did in your whole life,May GOD Bless you with all his blessings.
Jun 18, 2012 02:11pm
Jun 18, 2012 05:23pm
you just did!
Jun 18, 2012 04:57pm
congrat Ali u did a awesome job, hope like you many Pakistani would contribute in field of education , arts, sports etc. and send a lession to world.
Jun 18, 2012 04:28pm
eat a little, and alone cant guarantee cure.
Jun 18, 2012 04:27pm
oy vey, i knew it, sooner or later someone would bring religion into this.....
Jun 18, 2012 03:22pm
Lets have three cheers for Fatima: Hip, Hip, Hooray!!
Muneeze Khalid
Jun 18, 2012 05:49pm
Congratulations Fatima! We are all very proud of you! This is brilliant! Wishing you all the success life has to offer :)
Azhar Chaudhry
Jun 19, 2012 02:24am
The dishes you complained are cooked with oil (ghee) are the best dishes in the world. Enjoy Pakistani dishes in a moderate way, those are full of aroma and very health. The amount of ginger, garlic, onion, turmeric and other masalas we use are the best anti oxidants and the most healthy. It is only the way you cook. Pakistani dishes are full of herbs flavors and are very healthy. Today outside world use all ready made pastes to cook the food, it is very commercial and very unhealthy but in Pakistani restaurants, the cooking method is same as home cooking.
Bakhtawer Bilal
Jun 19, 2012 01:04pm
All the desi masalas are being researched and adopted by the western world today. You do not need to drown the onion in oil to fry them, neither do we need to add the chillies by the pounds. The lentils and pulses, once available on only desi stores in USA are now available in most super markets. All the spice and herbs from the sub-continent are also now available in these supermarkets. It testifies to the fact that our spices and herbs are becoming more mainstream all over the world. We can always bring change to our dishes by preparing them by less oil. As for the diabetes, eat more karela. All the lentils and pulses are rich in protein and high in fiber. Want more change, try sometime the Italian or Chinese or Maxican dishes. Prepare them the way they prepare them.
jamil janjua
Jun 19, 2012 04:26am
Dear Fatima, nothing you have done has surprised us,From being a super athlete, to choosing to be a bavarchi and now this achievement.You are destined to win greater laurels both for yourself, your proud parents, siblings and for Pakistan. And to know you also makes us proud....Jamil, Shahida, Ariana, Ali Hamza.
Jun 19, 2012 04:28am
Way to represent.
Jun 19, 2012 02:37pm
Fatima is getting good training and is attending the best school in the US.This a good profession there Presentation of food with good decor is also important and she should go for it.She is also portraying a softer image of Pakistan.
Jun 19, 2012 05:14am
very nice also kudos to the Indian origin chef who her self is very famous pushed her to do it....why Pakistanis restaurant in western countries known as Indian why cant we just Pakistan Khyber Restaurant.,,any thoughts
Ehsan Hadi
Jun 19, 2012 05:19am
I was fortunate enough to watch both the events i.e. "chopped" showing Fatima Ali and the NBC Today show interview of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. Both these women represented Pakistan beautifully and made us all feel proud. I must also praise Dawn for bringing these and similar positive stories about Pakistan specially when all other news outlets are trying their best to outrun each other in projecting negativity about Pakistan.
Jun 19, 2012 06:01am
My best wishes, come and work in India at Taaj, Oberois or ITC Hotels, you will learn and experience international cooking
Jun 19, 2012 07:11am
Jun 19, 2012 07:51am
I believe any career pursued with passion and devotion by youngsters should be encouraged. Pakistan should be proud of Fatma Ali. I know I am and many like me. Trying to be a qualified chef in any reputable culinary schools is not an easy task. I tried once to become a chef at a reputable hospitality college in Australia . I couldn't handle the multiplicity of work that chefs are simultaneously required to manage and yet turn up with a creative and perfect cuisine in a very shot span of time. The prime time work as a chef in International five star kitchens is a nightmare that only a most dedicated , and deft chef can survive in. Keep up the good work Fatima.
Jun 19, 2012 12:42pm
Congrats Gurl !!!! Achievement well deserved !!!!
Jun 19, 2012 08:03am
Dear Ali, I am impressed. No doubt, dedication is the key of success in every field . Well done , my dear, keep up the good work. Pakistani girls can do everything positive.
Jun 19, 2012 02:45pm
Good job Fatima
Naveed Javed
Jun 19, 2012 08:12am
Following the DREAMS- Bravo Girl!
Jun 19, 2012 07:13pm
This such a great story. Its really good what Fatima has done. Fantastic! I am proud of her.
Jun 19, 2012 11:57pm
Fatima Ali
Jun 21, 2012 02:01am
Thank you all for your support, wishes and warmth. If it weren't for this encouragement I perhaps would have never succeeded in my endeavors. I strive to take Pakistani food to a place of sophistication and finesse and am eager to open up the palate of the world to our country's depth of flavors. Your words have instilled in me an even greater drive! Thank you all once again, it truly does mean the world to me.
Jun 22, 2012 02:24am
So proud of you, Fati, absolutely supercool that you were able to win your episode of "Chopped." Stay true and genuine and the sky is the limit for you....
Steven Kolpan
Jun 22, 2012 03:01am
Fatima- I am so proud of you. It was a wonderful experience to watch you win "Chopped." I am honored to have been your teacher. Best Wishes, Steven Kolpan
Jun 22, 2012 03:08am
Congrats, Fatma! My mom and I loved watching you :)
Shahin Tahir
Jun 22, 2012 03:55am
Omg!!! I was watching the show tonight and the whole time I was cheering for you!!! You go girl!!! You really showed that desi Muslim women can do great things :D
Peter C
Jul 07, 2012 06:39pm
Dear Ms. Ali, congratulations to you. In addition to your skills as a chef you have wisdom beyond your years. I wish you all the best.
Aug 02, 2012 06:38am
I love to watch Chopped the cooking competion show. I was upset not to see any Pakistani whenever I saw an Indian. I can understand why we Muslims cannot be on this show due to our dietary restrictions (alcohol, swine, etc.) as the indegrients that need to be incorporated include them mostly. When I saw Fatima in the show, I was so glad. She made me so proud. You have our Blessings girl!!!!