University of Wisconsin-River Falls
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Winter 2009

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Alma Matters


Flash ’n the Pan

Bhatt Portrait

Nipa Bhatt put in some intense hours on “The Next Food Network Star,” but the marketing professional is happy to cook without the competition.

By Joe Tougas

Nipa Bhatt sounds more than happy to be done with her 15 minutes of food fame.

It came in June and July, when the Food Network aired its fourth season of “The Next Food Network Star.” Bhatt, a 1996 UW-River Falls graduate, was one of 10 contestants on the reality show. All involved are asked to perform some high-pressure culinary feats, with missteps resulting in removal from the show. The one who remains gets his or her own cooking show on the network.

Bhatt, a native of India who grew up in Hudson, Wis., started her odd little odyssey at a tryout for the show in December 2007 at the Chambers Hotel in Minneapolis. With two years of running her own restaurant behind her, Bhatt was encouraged by friends and old customers to give it a try – her Indian cooking in particular could be her ticket to the big time.

She thought she was trying out for a cooking show, not a show about trying out for a cooking show.

“I’m completely passionate about food,” she says. “It’s a definite love of mine, and I’ve always wanted to know what it’d be like [to host a show].” At the initial tryout, the casting director took an immediate liking to Bhatt, and a month later she was called back. Learning both the premise of the show and that it would remove her from her family for five weeks, she was reluctant at first. But Bhatt’s husband and others encouraged her to do the show.

In April, she joined her nine competitors for the culinary slug fest in New York City. The contestants on the show lived in nice but cramped quarters – all designed to amplify the tension on screen. They had to agree to essentially be sequestered for five weeks with minimal contact with anybody.

The show’s drama centers on the tasks contestants have to perform on short notice, with limited ingredients and in unusual circumstances. In the first episode, they were given 30 minutes to prepare three dishes. Later they would be ordered to create easy versions of complicated dishes for the staff of Bon Appetit, team up with girl scouts to create healthy meals, and work in Las Vegas.

“The experience was mentally and physically exhausting,” says Bhatt, who saw the end coming when it was discovered she didn’t know how to fillet a fish.

“And then I didn’t know how to clean a squid,” she says. “I’m not a professional chef, and I’m pretty much the only one who wasn’t. I’m a cook, but I’m not a professionally trained chef. It was really just a technique that got me kicked out. After the second episode, I kind of walked off stage because I didn’t want to cry on camera.”

She was the fourth contestant voted off the show and was back home and working by the time it began airing in June. As a result, she got to see herself become a celebrity as well as a ripe target for viewers who loaded up blogs with rants about the contestants, including Bhatt. “You get to read all those nasty blogs about yourself,” she says. “I got emotional about it a couple of times, but for the most part all I really care about is what my friends and family feel about me, and they just felt proud I was one of the 10 contestants.”

There was some good fallout from being on the show. She regularly appears on cooking segments for KARE 11 and KSTP, showing her talents at preparing Indian cuisine which, she says, was her main motivation for being on the Food Network show.

Pressed for her personal favorites of area Indian restaurants, she mentions Namaste Café and Kabob’s in Minneapolis and India Palace in Eden Prairie.

“But I don’t go out that often for Indian,” she laughs, “I can cook it myself.”





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