Before she became a judge on Food Network’s Chopped, Maneet Chauhan was an anxious competitor on the other side of the judge’s table. And although she’s now won Tournament of Champions and competed on other shows, what she felt back then has not gone away.
“The first time I competed on television was Iron Chef against Chef Morimoto in 2007,” she told me. “I am still as nervous, because that is what drives me. So I always tell people that if they’re looking for whatever they’re doing, be nervous because that works in your favor. Then you push yourself and you give your best.”
“If you become like confident about it and like, Oh, I got this in my back pocket, you’ll be the first person to leave,” she added. “Just always play to your emotions, because that’s who you are. That’s what makes your dish and that’s what pushes you to be a better competitor.”
That’s great life advice, I told her—and an approach that has certainly paid off.
Maneet won Food Network’s Tournament of Champions season 2, and this year, during season 4, made it to the final match yet again. In season 1, she was in the final four, and in season 3, she won the first two battles, defeated in the third by eventual winner Tiffani Faison.
Guy Fieri first pitched her the idea of Tournament of Champions on the set of Guy’s Grocery Games, where Maneet is a frequent judge and sometimes competitor.
“His enthusiasm is very infectious,” she told me. “I did not hesitate to say yes, because I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.”
While she said the season-one contestants “had an idea of what it was going to be,” but “nothing prepares you for it.”
Maneet has competed in all four seasons of TOC now, and I was curious if that’s made things easier or more comfortable in any way.
“On the contrary. I think it’s become tougher,” she said. “When you walk into the unknown, you are ready for things to come from any side. But knowing that how evil the Randomizer can be, you’re already stressed: What am I going to get? And then you get something which makes no sense. And then you’ve got to make sense out of it. I think it just gets tougher. Because your mind starts: what if, what if, what if.”
It becomes, she added, “scrambled eggs in your mind.”
‘Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay’
After the Randomizer stops spinning, Maneet said she stars planning. “One is that I’m reminding myself where all the ingredients are, and just starting on one focal point of what I am going to do,” she said.
But she’s also thinking about how someone will eventually experience her dish.
“Especially on Guy’s Grocery Games, Guy keeps on [talking] about gameplay, gameplay, gameplay, and that is something which always plays in my mind.”
What that means for her, she said, is that “if somebody tastes a dish, they should know exactly what was asked.”
“I always utilize the ingredients that have been given to us in a couple of different ways. It’s not only one way,” she added. “And then flavor, flavor—flavor is king, right? I use my spices not because I’m the ‘Dancing Spice Queen,’ but because that’s what speaks to people. You want them to take the first bite and have driven the point home.”
She used an example of making a dish smoky. “If you taste it, if you look at it, if you smell it, you get smoky, right? It shouldn’t be, like, you are digging through it and then you find the treasure of smokiness. That leaves it to people’s interpretation. You need to be clear, place it in front of them: this is what was asked and this is what I’m giving.”
Another strategy Maneet employs is quite practical: “As soon as I’m done with a component, it goes right next to the plates, so that I don’t forget a component,” she said.
Having already won Tournament of Champions, I was curious what draws Maneet back to compete again.
“You know, it’s a rush. That’s the truth,” she said. “Working in the kitchen, especially Saturday nights are our favorite nights because the ticket machine doesn’t stop. You keep on: Will I make it through the next three hours of nonstop tickets, and make each and every person happy? That’s the adrenaline rush. I think that’s what it is.”
She told me that competing on TOC has given her “validation that in, you know, 30 minutes, 35 minutes, 40 minutes, 45 minutes, I was able to crack the code and make a dish and people liked it without [them] even knowing who the person behind it is.”
Her time competing on Food Network helps her off-camera, too. “What happens in competition cooking is that it pushes your creativity to the next level,” she said. “You need to show your best in that much amount of time. And that really helps me in my everyday cooking, because at times when you think that you have unlimited amount of time, you’ll come up with something and then you’ll second-guess yourself. This gives you the ability to really rely on your instincts, because it’s your instincts which have got you over here.”
I asked Maneet if she’ll keep returning to Tournament of Champions year after year. “I have no idea. It really depends—’til my old bones can keep up with my mind, I guess,” she laughed. “That’s what it’s all about. But it is a lot of fun.”
Only women have won Tournament of Champions in its four-season history, and only women were in season-four’s finale.
I asked Maneet if she had theories about why that was—beyond, of course, that all four winners are exceptional chefs. Is it casting a more diverse group than other shows? Blind tasting? Something else?
“I think it’s a combination of everything. I definitely think that blind tasting does work,” she told me. “it doesn’t cloud somebody’s judgment. People who are judging are human beings, right? They might be some perceptions that they might have.”
“I also think that we as women—and I think it’s changing with the next generation—when we are presenting a dish, we are like, Let the food speak for itself. We don’t do a better job at selling it, right? The proof should be in the pudding.” But, she said, “how you market a product is very important, right? So we as women need to be better at that.”
On TOC, the contestants don’t sell their own dishes; Simon Majumdar and Justin Warner do. And watching Justin or Simon present their dish—doing that marketing for the chefs—is actually comparable to a chef’s everyday experience
“That’s what your servers do at your restaurant,” Maneet told me. “They’re selling the dish without you being there. So there has to be a very implicit amount of trust in the people who you work with because they are responsible for selling your dish. Now it’s just happening in front of the camera.”
‘What Mei Lin and I were doing is what American cuisine is all about’
During the finale of Tournament of Champions IV, Maneet spoke about how, since winning, she’s been approached by people who see themselves represented on screen by her, and the “huge responsibility” she feels.
Maneet also noted how remarkable it was to have two women of Asian descent in the finale, since she was competing against eventual winner Mei Lin. Maneet told me that was “a surreal moment.”
“I came to America in 1998 to go to the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America. At that time, Indian food really wasn’t as cool as it is right now—and I still think that it has a long way to go. For the longest time, when I was young, all I wanted to do was learn baking and pastry or French food, because those were the coolest cuisines out there,” she said.
“If you wanted to be a serious chef, that’s what you wanted to do. So the fact that I can embrace my cuisine and still be a forerunner, on the top of my game with a cuisine which was not considered cool for a very long time, it gives me goosebumps.”
Maneet added that her success “gives me the validation that yes, I can embrace who I am and I can excel in it and people respect me for that. And I think it’s the same with Mei Lin. The fact that she did so incredibly in Top Chef, right? I saw that entire run and she is so focused, head down, this is who I am, but I am embracing things from all over the world and celebrating it.”
“I always think that America is one of the world’s best melting pots, especially when it comes to cuisine. And what Mei Lin and I were doing is what American cuisine is all about,” she said.
“For the longest time, we’ve had to fight to find our place in the kitchen. Because American chefs didn’t look like this, but this is what today’s American chefs look like. And that just gives me goosebumps.”