It was a momentous day for Fatima Ali, the youngest contestant on season 15 of “Top Chef.”
The evening of Feb. 1, fans of the Bravo reality show watched judges in Denver decisively eliminate the Pakistan-born New Yorker from the culinary competition for some underwhelming blue-and-orange, Broncos-themed nachos; earlier that day in Manhattan, doctors had delivered a verdict of clemency.
Since October, the 28-year-old chef viewers had come to know as “Mini Padma” and “Baby Bear” — an energetic figure consistently zipping around the kitchen and expressing her effusive self to the camera — has been battling an extremely rare bone and soft tissue cancer most commonly diagnosed in Caucasian boys younger than 18.
“Joking with my friends, I was like, ‘I’m a little white boy on the inside, so it makes complete sense that I would get something like [Ewing’s sarcoma],’ ” Ali recalls, sitting in her Yorkville apartment one day after receiving news that surgery to remove the walnut-sized tumor in her left shoulder in January has left her officially cancer-free. (There remains a 30 percent chance of remission, she notes soberly.)
Her intrinsic dynamism has made it all the more difficult to sit still for four, five-day-long rounds of aggressive chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on the Upper East Side. The treatment comes with side effects ranging from hair loss to hallucination to intense nausea and a lack of appetite, particularly cruel symptoms for someone whose livelihood and happiness hinge on food.
Ali, an alum of the Patina Group restaurants Stella 34 and La Fonda Del Sol, hasn’t worked in a professional kitchen since managing Tony Mantuano’s Cafe Spiaggia pop-up at the 2017 U.S. Open. She dropped 10 pounds the week she started chemo — and didn’t gain them back until just recently. And yet food, and the connections it forges, have fortified her in unexpected ways.
“Even when I was so nauseous in the hospital, the one thing I wanted to eat was Pakistani food,” says Ali, whose own cravings for anything but smoothies and bland fare surprised her.
It was those bold flavors — cumin, cardamom, turmeric, rosewater and more — that made up her calling card on “Top Chef.”
“I wanted to start a conversation about Pakistani food that wasn’t being done anywhere else. I wanted viewers to go out and try to find a Pakistani restaurant and explore that,” says Ali, who worried that judges wouldn’t find her cuisine “exciting enough or creative enough.”
“But they did, and that was really heartening for me to see,” she continues.
On “Top Chef,” Ali’s food won her a devoted mentor in India-born host Padma Lakshmi, whom she grew up watching on a food tourism show on the BBC.
“Going on ‘Top Chef,’ and having the opportunity to cook for her directly, it was very daunting, but it was also very cool,” “Mini Padma” says. Daunting: When your culinary role model asks why you can’t cook “our food” the way you do Western food? Cool: When she’s so committed to your well-being that she brings her daughter and sits with you during chemotherapy, pays a visit before your major surgery, and sends you gifts to raise your spirits.
“Watching the show, she likes me as much as I like her, but when I was actually on the show, you can’t tell,” Ali reflects. “She has a really good poker face.”
Lakshmi isn’t the only “Top Chef” friend to support her in the trying months that followed her diagnosis.
On a recent Friday afternoon in her apartment, she has daytime television turned on to catch “The Bears” (the self-ascribed nickname for burly ‘Chef’ contestants Joe Flamm, Bruce Kalman and Tyler Anderson) make an appearance on “Harry.”
Kalman and Anderson came to visit her at Sloan Kettering right before filming. (An Instagram photo captures all three with a wall of medical equipment behind them and Ali dressed in her hospital gown and sling; like many of her cancer-related posts, it features the defiant hashtag #f----cancer.) Flamm and his wife stopped by, too.
Ali’s sizable fan base has been rooting for her, too. At the pediatric unit where she receives chemo, the hospital’s chefs, who follow her Instagram account, dropped by to take any special requests she might have.
The youngest participant and the first Pakistani woman to win on Food Network’s “Chopped” also has a drawer full of socks and cat-eared beanies to show from her almost 43,000 followers.
“I have a hoodie that says ‘F--- It’ and all these random things that people keep sending me . . . moisturizing cream, bath salts, cookbooks,” she says.
The cookbooks are artfully displayed beneath a glass coffee table in the living room, one of the items Ali’s mother, her full-time caregiver, has furnished their shared apartment with.
Ali’s mom, Farezeh Durrani, cooks Pakistani food for her daughter whenever she craves it, typically every other day. She’s grateful for that support and her older brother’s, who has stood by her during such fateful moments as when she shaved the rest of her remaining hair.
But she is still her happiest when she’s cooking the food she first learned to love by her grandmother’s side in Pakistan.
Over the holidays, the preparation of a feast that showcased a duck brined in her own garam masala spice blend “was a really nice distraction,” she says. Setting off to shop at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods with her surgical mask on and then cooking in her own kitchen resurfaced her “old self again.”
After she completes her treatment in the next six months, Ali plans to move to California (where she spent one month interning at the three Michelin-starred Napa Valley restaurant Meadowood right before competing on “Top Chef”), find a restaurant space, “and start cooking my ass off,” says the chef who ran a Smorgasburg stall called Van Pakistan in the summer of 2016. “I really miss it.”
Ali’s casual, sit-down spot may open on the West Coast, but it will channel the best qualities of every foodie’s favorite Thai eatery in SoHo. Uncle Boons Chefs and owners Matt Danzer and Ann Redding do “really incredible Thai food, really classic flavors, large-format . . . but their technique is flawless, the plating is beautiful, the flavors are really bold, and it’s just really delicious, clean food.
“That’s exactly what I want to do,” says Ali, “but with my own spin on it, using Pakistani ingredients.”