‘Top Chef’ Star Fatima Ali Is Not Going To Let Cancer Slow Her Down

Paul Trantow/Bravo

Top Chef has yet to announce this season’s fan favorite, but Fatima Ali is an obvious frontrunner. Prior to being kicked off in episode nine for some sub-par nachos (a brutal double elimination episode that also claimed Joe Flamm, who later won Last Chance Kitchen and made it to the finale), Ali was the producer’s go-to contestant for the spiciest one-liners. Her deadpans about how much she hates camping were so enjoyable that the producers briefly broke the fourth wall and left their voices in the final cut to preserve Ali’s glib answers (reality contestants are usually supposed to repeat the question so the editors can make your answer sound like an observation).

Ali was so personally magnetic, in fact, that she ended up being comic relief more often than she was inspirational. Which is saying something, because she has a story that would at least be worth a tearful editing package on Chopped. She left Pakistan for New York at age 18 to attend culinary school at CIA, though one of her mother’s conditions of becoming a chef was that she had to be “the best.” She ended up becoming the youngest executive sous chef at the Patina Restaurant Group, before making the final seven on Top Chef. An outcome which hasn’t changed her goal of fighting to get Pakistani food its proper due.

Regardless, it seems clear that if Ali’s life was a movie it would be a romp — the personification of Kumail Nanjiani’s pitch for a “Muslims Having Fun” TV show. Every now and then, though, outside circumstances threaten to turn it into a dramedy. Ali was diagnosed with cancer just after the show wrapped shooting in October. She had a surgery in February and has a few rounds of chemo left (the prognosis seems to be good).

In any case, even under the weather, she was a pleasure to speak to (via phone), and I learned new things about both her (she and Kumail went to the same high school in Pakistan) and the show (stay tuned for her reveal of Joe Sasto’s “Worry Dolls”).

So, elephant in the room, tell me about your diagnosis and how you’re doing now.

Well, I’m still getting some treatment done. I’m sure you’ve read about the diagnosis and everything, but in a nutshell, I was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, which is a bone and tissue cancer. When was it? September? Actually, October of last year. So it was a few months after filming. And I had surgery in February, February 15th, and now I have a few more rounds of chemotherapy to get through.

I’m battling the flu these days in case you’re wondering why I sound so nasally.

So that’s the flu, that’s not the chemo?

Yeah, no that’s the flu. I mean, basically what happens is that, with chemotherapy, your immune system is just zeroed out. It kills everything off, right, that’s the whole point so you’re just so much more susceptible to picking up viruses and infections than you normally would be and that’s why I’ve got this flu, I’ve had it for like two weeks.