'Top Chef's' Fatima Ali Is Proud to Be a 'Relatable Pakistani'
Ali also shares an update on her offscreen battle with cancer.
Last week an emotional episode of Top Chef had us bid adieu to Fatima—arguably the most animated chef in the kitchen this season—who brought her flair for Pakistani flavors and exuberant approach to food to the competition. The 28-year-old began her career with the Patina restaurant group straight out of culinary school as a junior sous chef at Café Centro. She followed that up with tenure as the youngest executive sous chef with Patina at Macy’s Stella 34. After her time there she worked as the executive sous chef at La Fonda Del Sol. Before coming to Top Chef she began working on opening her own restaurant where she plans to marry her classical training and experience with her Pakistani heritage and the flavors of that region. She’s no stranger to cooking competitions, as she was the first Pakistani woman to ever win Chopped. During her time on the show, she built a rapport with the judges, particularly Padma, for her bold approach to flavors and offering Pakistani twists on classic dishes. After leaving Top Chef she was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma and has been fighting cancer with the support of the Top Chef family. We spoke with her about her ups and downs on the show.
Food & Wine: You’ve had some of the best one-liners and reactions this season, how did you keep your sense of humor throughout the competition?
Fatima Ali: I wasn’t intentionally trying to be funny. I’m generally a goof in many ways and I think being in a pressurized high stakes environment, that was the only way for me to survive.
FW: You’re the first Pakistani chef on Top Chef. What was it like to represent your culture and cuisine?
FA: I’m excited and humbled at the same time. It is such an undertaking to try to represent a culture that is often misconstrued by mass media. I’m very proud of where I come from and am glad that people get to see a more relatable Pakistani on television that represents more of the norm than not.
FW: Are there any Pakistani dishes you wish you could have prepared on the series that you didn’t have a chance to show the judges and the audience?
FA: Oh god so many!! I would have loved to do a myriad of kababs and naans—meat on skewers and flatbreads cooked in the tandoor oven. You can’t use a conventional oven, grill or even pizza oven since the heat doesn’t get high enough. Especially with the naan where you lower your hand into the scorching heat and slap it against the fiery stone wall to cook in a matter of minutes. Quickfires would have been so much easier!
FW: Did you feel like Carrie partnering you with Bruce for the tailgate challenge was a strategy to take you out?
FA: I think to partner two people that have never worked together and also have such different styles of cooking was definitely a smart move to narrow down the competition.
FW: Do you think you deserved to go home for your nachos? If not, who do you think should have gone home?
FA: The judges were wholly disappointed with all of our dishes in that particular challenge and I’m sure that they felt I could have done better. I know it wasn’t my best showing and they can only judge each plate without taking past performance into consideration.
FW: What’s it like being the youngest person in the Top Chef house?
FA: Sometimes I got along better with the crew who were closer to my age than the cast!
FW: Which challenge was the most difficult this season? Why?
FA: The edible flower quickfire with David Kinch was probably the most nerve-wracking for me. (Despite my disdain for outdoor camping!) He is such a force in the industry and to cook for 3 Michelin Star Chef in 30 minutes and have him critique your food is no joke. I wanted to stand out.
FW: What dish are you most proud of from this season?
FA: Actually the David Kinch quickfire dish. I made a mustard flower-rubbed lamb chop with cumin, mustard seeds and garam masala, charred broccoli florets tossed with tahini and mint and cilantro, an orange blossom chili oil and a smatter of rose salt to finish the dish. Flowers everywhere, that landed me in the top two!
FW: What is your strategy for Last Chance Kitchen?
FA: To try and not to lose my shoe. Which I failed at. LOL.
FW: Would you ever come back for another season?
FA: To judge, hell yes. I’ve been practicing my ‘chef, please pack your knives and go’ voice.
FW: We were so sorry to hear that since completing the show you were diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma. How are you and how is everything going? Have you been hearing from your Top Chef family?
FA: Yes it’s been a roller coaster. I’m currently on my fifth round of chemotherapy out of seven and just had surgery to remove the tumor that had erupted in my left shoulder. My Top Chef fam has been amazing, Adrienne, Bruce, Tyler and Joe Flamm have all visited and Claudette and Laura have sent wonderful care packages. The rest of the crew always text and call me to chat. Padma keeps hanging with me at home and in the hospital and cooking me delicious food. I can’t stress the importance of feeling like you’re loved when something as frightening as cancer threatens to steal your life away from you. Everyone helps to keep me grounded and present and fighting. #fuckcancer!