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After spending the past few weeks delving into President Obama’s foreign policy strategies, discussing the Rochdale case and surviving steamy temperatures of over 45 degrees Celsius, I was looking forward to covering something upbeat and inspiring. The appearance of Pakistani sous chef Fatima Ali on Chopped, a cooking competition on the Food Network, provided the perfect opportunity. If there’s one thing that I can wax poetic about it is food and while this is not about cuisine per se, it showcases a talented Muslim chef from Pakistan who in many ways exemplifies how passion and commitment can contribute towards changing traditional mindsets.
According to the video package introducing Ali to audiences, she moved to New York about four years ago and now works as a Sous Chef at Café Centro in Manhattan. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), she adds that while her friends were sending in applications to Ivy League schools, she only applied to the CIA after learning of them through a random Google search.
Ali speaks openly of the challenges of taking up what some in Pakistan still consider a menial profession, that of a “bawarchi” which literally translates to cook, since there’s no word in the Urdu language to convey the respect and prestige associated with being a chef. Her story suggests the special kind of passion it takes to defy convention and expectations to take up the culinary arts as a career. A Dawn news profile provides further hints to the reasons behind her career choice. Ali’s father, a well known barrister in Lahore, expected her to follow in his footsteps and study law. Her parents divorced when she was young, but she said that cooking with her father (who was a good cook in his own right) was a way for her to re-connect with him.
And what a breath of fresh air she was on the show!
Right from beginning, you are pulled in by her energy and life story. In my opinion, even her introductory clip was more interesting than those of the remaining contestants – I couldn’t help but become invested in her success. For those unfamiliar with the show (like I was), Chopped is a cooking competition where four chefs compete before a panel of three expert judges,taking everyday items and turning them into a delicious meal with seconds to plan and only 30 minutes to cook. They are provided with a basket of mystery ingredients at each round (appetizer, entré and dessert), a contestant being eliminated (chopped) after each round until the winner remains.
On the whole, her portrayal on the show was largely balanced, in that there were no overt references to Islam and none of the somewhat tiresome pontificating on the role of women that is often associated with portrayals of Muslim women in some segments of Western media. Many references however are made to the challenges she has faced, particularly what her friends and family think of her career choice and what being on the show means to her. As she puts it:
“I want to be that girl for Pakistan that other girls in Pakistan can look to and be like I’m not going to be afraid to stand up to society and do something that I love to do.”
There was an interesting moment during the entre round with the pork olive loaf. I wondered if the show would address the fact that as a Muslim, Ali would not be able to taste the loaf due to its pork content. At that point in the show, I almost felt sorry for her and was convinced she would lose . However Ali survived being chopped in the entré round,creating olive loaf croutons which the judges loved despite the fact that she was unable to taste her own creation!
The only real eyebrow-raising moment for me was her comment about “running away” from Pakistan. While conversing with fellow participants, she said:
“I swear, I didn’t run away from Pakistan to do this. To go back home and have nothing to show for it.”
I might commiserate with Ali on the challenges of having lived in the political and socio-economic turmoil that is Pakistan today, but I’m not sure what Ali meant by phrasing it as “running away.” I also think the camera caught her at a weak moment, when she was perhaps convinced she’d be sent home after the entré round (the duck portion of her entré was not popular).
However, at 22 years of age, Fatima Ali goes on to win the 10,000 dollar prize after presenting a cardamom and kombucha infused, bread pudding and rambutan ice-cream creation to the the judges. Her words at the end of the show, just before the winner was announced, speaks to the obstacles Ali’s had to overcome. Tearfully, she said:
“I’ve travelled really, really far. I wanna win so bad, just to prove that I’ve made the right decision in my life. It would just be like a huge stamp of approval that I think I’ve been searching for a really long time.”
Appearing on the show and winning was in many respects vindication for Fatima Ali. All in all, it was an enjoyable episode with the Pakistani flag flying proud thanks to her success.