The immensely popular Master Chef television show franchise, which is being produced in numerous countries the world over, was received with much enthusiasm in Pakistan, when Master Chef Pakistan aired its first season this year on Urdu 1, a local channel on the national hook-up.
With well-known Pakistani chefs Zakir Qureshi, Mehboob Khan and Khurram Awan featured as the reality show’s judges, Master Chef Pakistan’s season finale aired late last month, crowning a young, 30-something housewife from Karachi, Ammara Noman, as the show’s winner.
“I started learning how to cook by watching our local cooking shows,” Noman states, “I particularly used to watch Chef Zakir’s show and would try to replicate the dishes at home.”
Having been an avid watcher of international Master Chef shows, Noman says that she never watched them purely for entertainment. Instead, she’d get so absorbed in each episode that she’d imagine herself standing in the kitchen, as a participant, cooking as if her life depended on it.
Currently still buzzing with joy and excitement over winning the title, Noman mentions that it was her husband who first saw the Master Chef Pakistan advertisement on TV, inviting amateur cooks in Pakistan to apply as participants on the show.
“My husband filled out the forms for me while I kept telling him I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Noman laughs, “I’ll be up against amazing cooks, I said to him, I’m just a housewife! What am I going to do there?”
Noman’s husband paid no heed to her and continued to encourage his wife. “You can do this, my husband said, you cook so well, everyone loves your cooking so much, you get so many compliments! You have to do this, it’s settled, you’re doing this,” said the mother of four. “He said I’ll take care of the kids, but you just have to do this. It’s really thanks to him I went ahead with it.”
The reason why Master Chef Pakistan worked so well was because it offered audiences something different: a culinary competition for home cooks with all the right twists of mystery boxes, working as teams against each other and of course, the much-dreaded time limitation.
The show is a far cry from other, local cooking shows that one comes across on a regular basis – usually featuring one chef, Pakistani cooking shows are rather basic, lacking variety – they’re too rudimentary. Besides, reality TV has remained untapped in Pakistan’s entertainment industry for a long time, little wonder then, the success of shows such as Pakistan Idol or Master Chef Pakistan.
“I remember the first day when we were entering the kitchen,” Noman says excitedly, “We were all so happy – we were like, wow we’re the Master Chef Pakistan Top 16! Our dream was coming true! But then when we went in and started cooking and wow, the stress! Watching the show and cooking on the show are two totally different things! So much pressure! The pressure in the kitchen is very intense. Even your presentation has to be fantastic. It’s not easy at all.”
Given the time limitations, did Noman ever feel she was going to be sent home? Yes, at one point she did, she states. Once, the young cook wound up putting too much garlic in her mashed potatoes and she freaked out. Still, her confidence in her cooking remained undaunted throughout the show. “I never gave up on myself, I gave it my best. I used to feel, now that I’m here; I need to make sure I go on till the very end.”
Perhaps it was this unflinching self-belief that led to Noman’s win. She chuckles as she recalls the moment they announced her name as Master Chef Pakistan’s winner. “For a moment I was in complete shock. They’d invited our families over as a surprise. I remember my husband shaking me saying you’ve become the Master Chef! And I said, really? I honestly felt as if I was sleeping and all of it was a dream!”
Currently busy testing out new recipes at home and working on her very own cookbook, Noman insists that if she, a housewife with four children, could win a cooking show, anyone can. But for that, she emphasizes the need to continue honing one’s culinary skills, being experimental with food, and of course, presentation. “Plating! Presentation and plating is everything.”
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: sonjarehman [at] gmail.com