Behind the Scenes at the Food Network

Aaron McCargo, Jr. was announced as the winner of The Next Food Network Star on last Sunday's season finale (er, actually, it was accidentally leaked a little early).

City Pages talked to one of McCargo's competitors on the show, Minnesotan Nipa Bhatt, who was eliminated after week 4, to give us the inside scoop about her experience.

How did you decide to try out for the show? I saw information about it in paper and showed it to my husband, and he said, "You're going." I was in touch with some of my former customers from Gypsy Curry House [the Chanhassen restaurant Bhatt used to own] who said, "If you don’t go, we're kidnapping you and taking you." What happened at the Minneapolis audition? Hundreds of people flew in for it. There were so many people I almost didn't stay. But after I met with the casting director, she said to me, "I can tell in 10 seconds if you've got it or you don't--and you've got it."

What were your thoughts on doing a reality show? I'm scared of reality shows. I don't like the drama. I'm not that sort of person.

Then you went to callbacks? The flew me to New York for an audition and I did a 30 minute cooking demo for the Food Network executives. Afterward, they asked me if I watched the Food Network and I was honest and I told them I didn't know anything about the show.

Then what happened? I was about to go to India for a month, when the casting director called and offered me a spot on the show--I told her I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it. Not a response the Food Network is used to. The casting director said, "You don’t understand--do you know how many thousands of people tried out for the show? Are you crazy?" What happened after you said yes? We were on 24 hour lockdown when we first arrived. Our cell phones and money were confiscated. Five of us women shared one bedroom and bathroom, like college dorm. We got to call home once a week for 20 minutes, but the calls were videotaped and we had to speak English. What was the filming like? A lot of hurry up and wait. Ninety percent of what happens is edited out. They did retakes where they'd have us walk back in room and act surprised, things like that.

How did you feel you were presented? They portrayed me as the cocky, overconfident one. They didn't show when we helped our competitors, or when I did entertaining stuff, like Bollywood dancing. They cut a lot of the humor out.

Sounds intense. Yes, it was stressful. I dropped weight. We got a lot of conflicting feedback from the judges. It was a pressure cooker of emotions.

Which was exacerbated by not getting any sleep… It’s hard to do food when you’re that tired. We’d been up for 24 hours when I walked out [of the judging]. I said, “I don’t want to cry on camera so I’m going to leave, now,” but they cut that part so it looked like I just stormed off.

You have a few years experience teaching at cooking schools, but did you feel you were you at disadvantage, not being a professional chef or having on-camera experience? There were some professional actors on show. One woman, Kelsey, had her own TV show in college. Cooking Indian food gave you a unique angle, but was it also a determent? The Food Network has a bias towards French and American cooking. I could not find turmeric in the deli we used, and the Food Network pantry had nothing.

Overall, what did you think of the experience? I honestly can’t say it was fun, but it's going to lead to something good. I might cooking on Kare 11 at some point.

Do people recognize you? Oh yes. Sometimes at Target. The other day, my postman said to me, "Nipa, you're way more fun and cool than on TV."

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