Exclusive: Past Star Winner Aarti Sequeira Is Back for the Finalists' Last Presentations

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It was just a few years ago that Aarti Sequeira secured her future as a Food Network Star, besting her fellow finalists to earn the Season 6 crown. Now, with incomparable been-there-done-that wisdom and an acute realization of what the remaining Season 12 finalists are feeling at this point, she's set to return to Food Star Kitchen on Sunday to watch Damiano, Jernard, Tregaye and the returning Star Salvation victor compete for three pilot opportunities.

We caught up with her on set to hear what it's like to be back on Food Network Star and walk down competition-memory lane. Read on below for an exclusive interview with Aarti to get her take on what's ahead for the finalists this week.

What's it like to be on the other side of the competition, as a judge and not a finalist?

Aarti Sequeira: It feels way better to be on this side of it. ... It's so hard to actually put yourself back in that position, only because it feels like so long ago, and it kind of was so long ago. I remember that it was bittersweet at this point. Maybe it's my nature or maybe it's the nature of the competition, but you get so close to these people, you know what I mean? And you know what it would mean for them to win, you know obviously what it would mean for you to win. But you want only the best for them ... and it's hard because you know that it's a mutually exclusive deal. If you win, they don't. If they win, you don't. There's no gray area there, and so it's tough. It's a tough psychological place to be.

Having walked in their shoes, what kind of been-there-done-that advice do you have for the finalists?

AS: What got me into sort of the final-four position was not clinging to it too tightly, and sort of like knowing that this was important and knowing that this was something that I wanted to do, but ultimately this was not my identity. ... And I think that when you do that, then you're not, like, so closely tied into it that you have no perspective anymore, you know what I mean? So, and then you lose your joy. I mean, that's why people watch Food Network, is they watch people because they have so much joy in doing what they're doing in either cooking or experiencing or describing. And when you get so tied up in it and you get your identity tied up in it, you lose your joy, because you're so ding dang anxious about the whole thing. So I would say just try and keep a light spirit about it, which I know is much easier said than done.

How would you explain the kind of pressure that they're facing at this stage of the game?

AS: Your mind is all flipped around. Like, I remember at that point — because you're competing in seclusion, so your whole life is a competition. I mean, you wake up in the morning to compete; you go to sleep at night knowing you're going to wake up in the morning to compete. And you have people that are judging you, you know what I mean, so your mind is definitely messed up at this point. ... People think it's so much about your cooking chops and your camera chops, and it is about those things. But it's so much of a psychological game and how strong are you mentally. ... What's your root? ... I just keep coming back to this, like, who identifies with you first and foremost? And if you identify yourself too much by the people around you, you're just going to fall over, so it's a huge mind game. Huge.

For the three finalists who will go on to film pilots, how would you explain what that shooting process is like, compared to ultimately filming their own show?

AS: I think that filming the pilot is actually a little bit more pressure than filming your own show. Because when you're filming your own show you're already there, you know what I mean? The pressure's off a little bit. At this point when you're shooting your pilot, you're not only dealing with the pressures of being on camera and remembering everything and telling a story and smiling and looking directly into the camera and all of that, but in the back of your brain you're like, "This is it ... everything rides on this pilot." ... Alternatively, it's sort of like: "OK, this is the last thing, right? I'm either going to get this or I'm not." ... I believe that my story is already written, so I just sort of felt like ... there's nothing I can do to mess this up, and there's nothing I can do to win this. I just kind of have to do my best and then surrender it and let it go. Because otherwise, you're going to drive yourself nuts.

Knowing what you know now, six years removed, what do you wish you'd known on day one?

AS: So for me, my story was like the girl who didn't believe in herself and then won the thing, right? So I wish that I had been able to see how good I was. ... And the way that it played out [happened] for a reason, but I wish that I had known that, because I think I would have enjoyed it more. I think what I would tell people at this point, when they're about to walk into their pilot, is just try to let the everything-is-riding-on-this-and-this-is-my-big-break and my-children's-college-education-is-riding-on-this — you know, like, let that all go and just try to enjoy it for the gift that it is. I mean, it may be that you win, it may be that you don't, so you may as well enjoy this moment as much as you can because there are so many people who would kill just even for the chance to make a pilot, just for that. Not necessarily for it to lead anywhere. It's fun! It is such a fun thing that you get to do, so just enjoy the heck out of it because that will translate on camera, and that is the most-important thing.

All of these finalists are competing for the title of Food Network Star. How would you explain what that role is really like, as someone who's living it now?

AS: For me, winning Food Network Star really forced me to go: "OK, what are my priorities here? What do I want to do with my — because you never know — 15 minutes?" You just never know how long it's going to last, right? So it really makes you think — apart from, like, I want to build my empire and I want to have a spice line and I want to blah, blah, blah — like, what do you want to use your time in the spotlight for? And it's got to be something beyond yourself, or else it's just too self-consuming.

How would you compare judging Food Network Star to being a judge on Guy's Grocery Games?

AS: I am kind of nervous about judging. ... I'm not going to lie. Because A, I've been in these people's shoes before, and so I want to be a source of grace and encouragement and exaltation. But I also feel some pressure. ... I'm passing the baton on and I have — there's a legacy here, we're a family. ... There's only a few of us, and I want to do right by us, you know what I mean? It's like when you're dating, you're like, "Well, this is the person that's going to be part of my family, so I better choose right." So there's that part of it, and then the other part that makes me a little bit nervous is that I know that, at this point, the contestants are almost at their most fragile. Because they're worn out, dude, and this is the second-to-last hurdle, and this is the rest of their lives potentially.

Tune in to Food Network Star on Sunday at 9|8c.