Aarti Sequeira’s rapid rise from food blogger and online cookery show host to bona fide celebrity chef and the new face of Indian-inspired cuisine in the US might seem the result of a charmed life but, for Sequeira, it’s been nothing short of a miracle.
“It’s all happened despite my not having a culinary school degree, despite me not having very much experience, despite me only doing cooking videos for nine months,” says Sequeira, who beat professional chefs and graduates of prestigious culinary academies to win season six of The Next Food Network Star in 2010. The result was Aarti Party, a big-budget television version of the show she and her husband, actor Brendan McNamara, had started shooting in their own kitchen in Los Angeles in early 2009. About 10 minutes in length, the online episodes featured Sequeira preparing Indian and Middle Eastern dishes amid ukulele solos and brief comedic interludes.
She credits her broadcast journalism degree from Northwestern University in Illinois for her relatively smooth transition to television, including mastering the challenges of shooting Aarti Party on a sound stage at the Culver Studios in Culver City, just west of Los Angeles. What Sequeira hadn’t anticipated was being asked to come up with 40 recipes in the space of a month. “That’s a couple of recipes a day, and it’s just coming up with them, not even testing them,” she says. “It was very hard. But it’s great for your brain because you start thinking creatively much more quickly.”
Despite three seasons of Aarti Party under her belt, Sequeira still occasionally questions whether she’s up to the task of being India’s representative in the multi-billion dollar American foodie industry.
For one thing, the longest she’s ever spent in India is about a month, having grown up in Dubai. Employment opportunities drew her father to the booming Gulf state when she was an infant, affording the family such advantages as an excellent education for Sequeira and her sisters. The choice to attend a top university in the US seemed a natural one. And while her route to renown seems to be paved with good choices, Sequeira feels lucky to be where she is. “At times I’ve felt like I’m not the best person for this job because I’m not your quintessential Indian,” says Sequeira. “I didn’t grow up there, I don’t speak the language because my parents really wanted me to learn English, I’m not Hindu or Muslim, and my family is from Mangalore, a small part of India that was colonised by the Portuguese.”
A quick perusal of her blog, aartipaarti.com, reveals that Sequeira often grapples with a surprising measure of self-doubt that seems incompatible with her success. She is currently at work on two new series, as host of Taste in Translation and co-host of Drop 5lbs with Good Housekeeping, both of which debuted on the Cooking Channel in January. Yet the tone and content of her blog have barely registered a change; Sequeira admits that her candour about her anxieties has probably helped win her a steadfast following that has multiplied tenfold since she became famous.
“I realised that that’s my niche,” she says, “and that there’s a difference between watching something that’s aspirational and something that’s inspirational. It’s always more interesting to watch people who are struggling to achieve the impossible.”
But then, Los Angeles, Sequeira’s home for the past nine years, holds a distinct place in the world’s imagination as a city full of people with big dreams. For Sequeira, this is evident in LA’s cutting-edge food culture which, she maintains, is the best in the world.
“This might be a controversial thing to say, but we live on the west coast,” says Sequeira, who left New York City for LA in 2004. “The material with which people here are built is different. These are the people who kept going, who didn’t stop on the east coast, forged ahead. They’re risk-takers and imaginative, and they break all the rules. That’s why you get food like Korean tacos.”
The area’s culinary innovation, she suggests, can be traced back to the high quality of the region’s produce, sold at a number of city-wide, year-round farmer’s markets. For Sequeira, having ready access to locally grown organic fruit and vegetables is one of the best things about life in LA and a big part of what makes her a typical Angeleno, along with some of her stereotypically Californian eating habits. “I’m up on all the latest diet fads. I juice, I’m gluten-free, I have hazelnut and almond milk in my fridge,” she says. “I buy chia seeds and spirulina, all of that stuff. I’m that crazy person. But I swear it makes a difference.”
Another of LA’s well-known attributes, however, doesn’t always sit well with Sequeira, even though she is reluctant to find fault with the city that has given her so much. “But let’s face it,” she says, “it’s where Hollywood is and where drop-dead beautiful people roam the streets. So you can get a really distorted view of what normal is. Whenever I leave LA I realise that I’ve been wasting so much time thinking about how I look. It can be hard to remind yourself in LA that what you look like is not who you are.”
In the country’s second most populous city, space, like perspective, can be hard to come by. Having moved out of their 600 sq ft flat with its minuscule kitchenette, Sequeira and McNamara are enjoying their new two-bedroom rental in a Spanish-style building in Mid-City, but their ultimate goal will probably require a change of scenery. “We have dreams of having an urban farm with chickens and pigs and all that,” says Sequeira. “And that’s not happening in LA, so I think eventually we’ll leave. But we’re here for now, and we love it.”
● Farmers’ markets, all year round, every day of the week
● The ethnic enclaves around LA, where you can find everything from Chinese dumplings to Jamaican curry
● Being able to drive around the city, which makes shopping for heavy things easier
● LA isn’t really a walkable city and a car is mandatory
● An emphasis on the external, from what you’re wearing to what size it is
● Public transportation is inadequate
What you can buy for …
$100,000: A two-bedroom, 800 sq ft condo in Long Beach, 20 miles south of Los Angeles
$1m: A four-bedroom, 3,000 sq ft house with a pool in West Hollywood