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

Senior Editor
03.06.18 9 Comments

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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.

A few more months, four more months of recovery and then should be given a clean bill of health and set out into the world and I can get back to my normal life, which I’m really looking forward to, as you can imagine.

Well, good luck and all the best. So tell me about your elimination. Did you get a raw deal? I felt like they spent the entire team ripping on Joe and then they ended up eliminating you at the end, like a twist.

Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s a TV show at the end of the day and we don’t get to see a lot of the … we don’t see any of the deliberations, we don’t know what they’re saying about our food, we just hear the critiques when we’re in front of the judges and then somebody goes home. I know a lot of people were very surprised that I left and I felt like I could have definitely done a lot more.

I would like to think that I was doing stuff little bit differently than everybody else, you know? But it’s such a difficult competition and they have to split hairs when it comes to deliberations and sending somebody home. Joe is a really fantastic chef, watching him do all the things that he has since that day, he’s really flourished. So I actually don’t think they made the wrong decision.

Then some of the challenges that they did afterwards and I was thinking, I was like “holy shit, what would I have done?”

I think the baking challenge, for example, where he made those profiteroles and he won that elimination challenge, I thought that was brilliant and I would’ve never of even thought to go in that direction. He’s so creative that I think they wanted to keep him on a little bit longer and see what he was capable of. As you can see, now he finished in the top three.

I don’t know if I would’ve made it that far, who knows?

What do you think was the most … Maybe not the hardest, but the most unfair challenge, or the one where you were the most annoyed or that seemed the most unfair.

Unfair? I think the whole competition is crazy, they make you do all of these absolutely insane things in the most ridiculous conditions. Our very first challenge, we were out cooking for 300 people and then there was a hail storm, you know?

And actually, for the tail-gating challenge there was a huge thunderstorm, and a lot of my product was kind of ruined in that process that you guys didn’t get to see, and a lot of us had issues with the grill. At one point, our tent went flying and I literally had to… I grabbed it in the nick of time otherwise we would’ve lost our entire tent. I was swinging by the pole pulling this tent down while Bruce is flipping his steaks.

There were a lot of weather issues in Denver that I don’t think a lot of us were expecting to deal with because a lot of our challenges were outside. I think, even the Estes park challenge [the camping one], which is probably the most memorable for viewers, as far as I was concerned that’s the one that they’ll always remember because I was such a miserable bitch throughout the whole thing, complaining and I had my two cents to everything, was a really rough one for us. Waking up at the crack of dawn, because the sun was so damn bright. I got a sun burn from the brightness of the snow and my whole face was on fire because of all the smoke inhalation for that one too.

I thought you seemed like the voice of reason, you were our stand-in. I mean, that was the first time … I assume usually when they interview they’re wanting you to answer where you kind of repeat the question and I think you were one of the first times they had to put in the voice of the producer because they asked you something and you were just like “no, I don’t like it.”

Yeah, I think the question was “have you ever put up a tent before?” And I was like “what do you think?”

Right.

Like, were you not watching me throughout the whole thing? Like I’m just standing over there throwing a tantrum because I didn’t want to do it. Yeah, that was a lot of fun actually. Everyone’s food turned out really good that day despite all of the challenges that we faced. I would never do it again, but it was fun.

On that note, when I’m cooking at home the main ways I think I make my food taste good are seasoning ahead of time and simmering for a long time, neither of which are an option ever in a lot of these challenges. How do you create flavors under weird time constraints?

Yeah, that was really rough for me because Pakistani food actually takes a really long time to cook. The secret is in developing flavor and a lot of the dishes that I grew up eating were on the stove from morning to night. It was hard for me to try and recreate that in such short times and I was really relying on the spices that I was using to kind of combat the challenge with the depth of flavor. And so I was trying to amp up the spices to compensate for that.

Is that the secret? Just generally amp up the spices? I’m just trying to imagine how you compensate for not being able to salt your meat until five seconds before you cook it.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely and then also trying to use different textures to make it interesting. I was really trying to be mindful of every bite that the judges took and I wanted to highlight different textures as well. Like, grill one piece of meat and then you’ve got a puree at the bottom and something crunchy, some kind of nut component, six, seven different kinds of spices. You have layers of flavor instead of just relying on time.

If you were designing a Top Chef challenge what would you do differently?

Hmm… that’s good question, obviously you’ve thought about that.

If I could go on the show and come up with my own challenge … I think I would like … Well, they kind of did this one already with the offal. But, you know, I really think getting chefs out of their comfort zone is the best way to see how adaptive they can be and cooking with things like hearts and gizzards and liver is not something that every chef has the opportunity to work with and seeing how adaptive they are in terms of those kinds of flavors I think is really interesting to see. A lot of times chefs struggle with that, and I enjoy that struggle because that’s the whole point of this competition show.

How important do you think improvisations is? It seems like show does a lot of testing-

Huge.

–improvisation but it seems like a lot of your job is preparation and trial and error.

Yeah, absolutely. It is a lot of trial and error and that’s why people in the bottom get scared and it’s just… I think for me it’s so much more important pushing the boundaries of what you’re capable of as a chef on the show than trying to do the same thing again and again and again and doing things that you’re comfortable with and things that just taste good.

Obviously taste is so important, it’s the most important factor. You can’t put something on a plate that just doesn’t taste good no matter how creative or different it is. But having said that, I think, if you’re on that show you should be able to not just make pasta each and every single time [laughs].

Is that a subtweet?

The point is that to me that’s just not creative enough and it shouldn’t be rewarded because you can make it once or twice and that’s fantastic and if it makes sense, do that. If it makes sense in that scenario, but if you’re just going to that again and again because that’s the only thing that you know then to me that’s not Top Chef worthy.

Right. So tell me about your love of chokers.

I actually genuinely love them. I love wearing them, I think they really suit me, they make me look really cute. Not everyone can pull them off. I would never want to see Bruce in a choker.

Sure, sure.

I figured that it was a 90’s thing that I grew up with, wearing them when I was a kid and it was making a comeback at the time I was on the show and I also wanted to have a thing that people would associate me with.

A trademark.

Yeah, exactly. And I was well … I bought a pack of 20 different chokers from Forever 21 and I changed it up everyday and it just became a fun thing that I started doing and it worked because my very first nickname was “Chokers,” then I was like “mission accomplished”. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.

Yeah, you clearly thought about it a lot, and it worked out.

Yeah I did, and I feel like people… You know, you guys at Uproxx were looking to see what choker I was gonna wear.

Absolutely. So what do you think, what does America need to learn about Pakistani food?

I think one thing, to differentiate it from Indian food is very important to me. I think a lot of chefs have had immense success in setting up really fabulous Indian concepts, as far as restaurants are concerned. Some of them even have Michelin stars and it’s incredible. Nobody has been able to do that with Pakistani food as yet, and I’m so keen on differentiating that and putting Pakistani food on the map where it’s exciting and it’s completely different than Indian food. There’s so much more emphasis on meat and barbecue and I think people are a little bit surprised by that fact. We have some of the best lamb and some of the best goat dishes, I think, in the world.

I’m excited to pique people’s interest enough where they’ll perhaps think twice and go “hey, let’s go to a Pakistani restaurant, see what that’s about,” because they watched Top Chef and they watched me create something that they thought was unique and interesting.

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If they had you and Kumail Nanjiani to come back and be guest judges for a Pakistani challenge in the next season would you-

–Oh my god that’d be awesome. Oh, totally into that. You should, I love him, he’s great. We went to the same school, we went to the same high school in Pakistan.

Oh, really?

Yeah, even though he’s a little bit older than I am. But yeah, we went to the same high school.

That seems like a dumb question that a white person would ask. Like “oh, you grew up in Pakistan? Do you know Kumail?”

I don’t know him, yet. But I’m hoping he’s my fan because I’m his and who knows, we could be friends and I think that’s a great idea. We should definitely be guest judges and force a bunch of these Italian chefs to make Pakistani food and use spices and, you know what? I’ve made pasta that is very much Pakistani flavor-forward and it’s very doable and it’s something that’s unexpected but beautiful in itself and I think that’s exciting.

But you guys went to the same high school?

Well we would call it junior school but I think he was maybe 10 years my senior, so I didn’t get to meet him and I don’t think he was very cool in high school anyway.

Sure, sure. You wouldn’t have talked to him.

No, I wouldn’t have talked to him.

So, who was this season’s weirdest competitor to live with? Who had the most eccentric living habits?

Well I was in the girls’ room so we were alright. Adrienne was my roommate for a while and so was Tanya, so we were pretty chill. But I think Joe Sasto has a lot of really weird habits. He’s got these worry dolls that his girlfriend gave him and these tiny little voodoo creatures that he kept under his pillow every night. So you’re supposed to whisper your worries to them and then you keep them under your pillow.

Oh no, oh…

He showed us his little dolls and I was really creeped out. I was like “what are you doing with these,” like does he have 16 of them? Are these little dolls each of us? I was looking for a brown one. No but it’s… I thought it was cute but also very weird.

Yeah, voodoo dolls seem like an unfair advantage. What was it like watching yourself on TV? Do you think everyone was depicted fairly, reasonably fairly?

Yeah, I think they did a pretty good job. We were all who we were and I think that that was pretty clear on TV, the way it all panned out. There wasn’t anything that I was surprised by, honestly. I think, unfortunately for Claudette, I think she got … I think she forgot that people were gonna watch her say all those things that she did in the interviews for some reason. You know, I think it’s easy to get caught up in being upset and angry and then saying things that you don’t really mean. I think she’s received a fair amount of disdain from a lot of the viewers because of that and she’s not all that bad, she’s a nice person. I think she just… She just forgot that people were gonna watch what she was saying.

Yeah, which the producers, I’m sure, love when that happens.

Yeah, of course. A lot of the chefs would use our interview times as a way to vent to the producers forgetting that there were cameras there and I would love to watch all of the things that they didn’t put on the air because there are hundreds and hundreds of hours of filming and there’s a lot that we don’t get to see. But for the most part, I think everyone’s personality shone through the way it should’ve.

What was your favorite thing that you got to taste that someone else cooked?

I think for the… What was it? It was one of the quickfires, I wanna say it was for the Tasty video quickfire, the one that I bombed that Padma yelled at me for. Brother’s paella was absolutely delicious, I was really impressed with the fact that he managed to do all that in half an hour and we had the squid ink, it was just so good. That was one of my favorite things, definitely.

And… I think the very first day when we had our potluck Joe Flamm’s snapper dish with the citrus and fennel, I can still taste those flavors when I think about it. They were really simple and beautiful.

It seems like a lot of the dishes that they taste last always get judged more harshly. Am I crazy for thinking that?

Well actually, that’s all editing. So sometimes the way they taste things isn’t necessarily in the order that you see. Yeah. I don’t think it had much to do with that.

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You’ve mentioned weather, are there other factors you think affect the judging and the food and the outcome that you don’t see on TV?

I mean, I think cooking in Colorado was a bit of a challenge for a lot of us who aren’t used to cooking in elevation. Things are very different when you’re from New York and California and you’re at sea level. Boiling rice over here is very different than boiling rice in Colorado and that’s something that you quickly learn the very first time you try and do it. But other than that, I think it’s pretty much as you see it. The most important thing is that it has to taste good, it has to look good and it really has to be about who you are as a chef. I think for the judges a lot of our elimination challenges, in particular, need to be true to who you are as a chef. They need to see the thought process you were using behind why you did what you did.

I mean, a lot of the chefs went home because they just didn’t stick to the challenge and that’s a really huge part of it and that’s something that you sometimes forget because you’re caught up in the creativity of your cooking process.

Can you tell me about your upbringing, where you grew up and what was your first restaurant job?

I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan and I moved to the US when I was 18 years old to attend culinary school in upstate New York at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. Right after… Well actually, during, my Bachelor’s degree my first cooking job was an internship that I had in New York City for Patina restaurant group, which is a pretty big group. They’ve got restaurants all over the US, all of Disney is theirs, all Rockefeller Center and MetLife and Macy’s, things like that.

But I was at this French restaurant in the Met building called Café Centro and I was working for a French-Italian chef over there by the name of Franck Deletrain. I got my ass kicked, I had never worked in a professional kitchen before and I’ll never forget, my second week there I was on the fish station and it was my second night working and it was Saturday night and chef was calling out halibut to pick up and he had about 14 halibuts on the board. I had about seven of them in my pan. I’m getting ready to plate and I’m reaching into my low boy to grab the rest of the Halibut and I realize I didn’t have any and that intense moment of fear I had never felt before in my life. And then I had to tell him, “Chef, I don’t have any more halibut,” and he just looks at me and he tells me to fuck off, so I literally walk off the line and I go to the walk-in and I’m crying trying to find fish. There’s obviously no fish, and after service he sat me down and he was like “look, everyone has days like this. Everyone has nights like this,” and he’s like “you just have to learn from it and move on.”
But in that moment I questioned my entire existence of wanting to be a chef and how I had disappointed my chef so profoundly and maybe I wasn’t cut out for this job. But he was wonderful because in that moment, of course, it’s so intense and he’s upset at me but he sat me down afterwards and gave me a pep talk and I’ll never forget that moment and I never lost count of my fish since that day.

Do you have a favorite cook book?

God … Do I have a favorite cook book? I really love the Gramercy Tavern cook book, it’s such a classic, I have it on my windowsill, I’m looking at it right now. Yeah, I love looking through that one. Just so inspiring, it’s one of my favorite restaurants in the city as well.

Do you have a first food memory?

Gosh, uh yeah… My grandmother is one of the reasons why I started cooking and she and I would spend a lot of time in the kitchen together. She taught me how to make my first bread. We used to make bread bears together and it was basically just balls of dough stuck together with peppercorns for the eyes and cloves for the buttons. And instead of giving gifts to my friends, when I was six and seven years old, my grandmother and I would bake these bread bears and I would wrap them in this red cellophane with a ribbon and give it as a gift and I thought it was the coolest gift ever. But my friends would look at it and be like “what the hell, where’s my coloring book. Like, I don’t want this.”

Bunch of ingrates.

Yeah, but it became a thing that I did and every time I had a birthday party I was like I need to make a bear and then she and I would make this bear and I would go happily with my gift and it was always just like “well, no. This is shitty, I don’t wanna eat this,” but I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Sounds great to me. Well, I think you’ve given me plenty of time and I appreciate that. Do you have anything that I didn’t ask that you want to add?

No, I think you pretty much covered everything. I think you’ll make it exciting and funny as you always do, I think we all really like reading your stuff. When the rankings start coming out it’s like … oh, Chris is you’re biggest fan. Chris is always the one posting on the WhatsApp and he’s like “ha ha ha, check out the rankings this week,” and we’ll read them and laugh at each other.

Well that’s good to hear. Thanks a lot.

Awesome, it was lovely chatting with you, take care.

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