Nicole Gaffney

This time last year, every Sunday night for several weeks I, along with APPCA chefs across the country, watched Food Network Star with a vested interest. One of our own was in the competition. Every week, APPCA member Nicole Gaffney undertook a grueling challenge and she outlasted almost all the competition. No, she didn’t win but she made it to the finals and made us proud.

So, I thought it would interesting to check in with Nicole a year later and find out how that experience impacted her life and career. I was moved by Nicole’s personal and professional growth, as was Candy Wallace, APPCA’s founder and executive director.

“This career path was designed to be a personal chef “umbrella” under which the owner operator develops and offers services and skills that represent the chef/owner’s own level of expertise and personal preferences and specialties. No two personal chef businesses should look alike. And the process of operating a personal chef business is in a constant state of evolution,” said Candy.

“Nicole’s evolution is profound and we are not only proud of her journey but also excited for her since she is at a point in her journey, post-food TV, that she has taken a good hard look at her life and experiences thus far and has re-prioritized her needs, her truths, and her goals.

“Reading this interview,” Candy added, “reconfirmed my commitment to continue to provide training and support for individuals who choose to build a culinary career that reflects who they are, what they need to provide for themselves and their loved ones, and where they choose to go on their professional and personal journey.”

Stomping the grapes

APPCA: How has your life changed a year after your run on Food Network Star?

Nicole Gaffney: It’s changed a lot and also is still very much the same. I have a brand new kitchen – so that has changed the way I cook and interact with food, as my old kitchen was cramped and uninspiring. My career path has changed, which I’ll elaborate on in the next question. But mostly, my attitude has changed. I went in to FNS knowing completely who I was, and feeling really confident in that. But after the show had ended, I didn’t know which way was up. Full disclosure: I had accepted my loss and was able to put it in perspective on the surface, but deep down I was devastated. I put my heart and soul (not to mention my life on hold) into a competition I had dreamt about entering since I was a kid. So having made it all the way to the end, and then coming out of it with essentially nothing was heartbreaking. This past year I experienced a lot of growing pains as a result, but I’m happy to say I’ve come out of that funk and feel a lot better about who I am and where I’m at in my life.

APPCA: How has your business changed? Are you still a personal chef? Are you still teaching?

NG: I’m no longer working as a personal chef. As much as I loved my clients, and loved running my business for five years, I began to feel like it was holding me back from pursuing what I really wanted out of life. I felt creatively stifled by the restrictions each client had in their diet, and rather than creating food that made me excited, I was expending all of my energy problem solving on their behalf. I was providing them with a valuable service and it was paying the bills, but I started to feel like I had hit a wall. I always felt much more gratified when I taught someone to cook as opposed to when I just cooked the food for them. I am still teaching through a few different local cooking schools, demos at food festivals, on my blog and YouTube channel. I have my hand in a lot of different pots right now and am working on monetizing the most time-consuming ones.

APPCA: Are you watching the current season? What are you looking at when viewing? Are you “virtually coaching” contestants based on your experience with the mentors or with challenges?

On Rachael Ray

NG: I’m actually not! My husband and I made the decision to get rid of our cable around Memorial Day weekend in order to save a little (actually, a lot) of money, but mostly to inspire us to get out and enjoy the summer. It feels really pretentious and hippie-ish to talk about, but I’ve been really happy with our decision. We’ve been spending more quality time together with our family and friends, have been taking sunset paddles on our paddle boards every night, I’ve been learning the ukulele, keeping up with my garden and reading a lot more. I did watch the first episode online, and it brought back a lot of uneasy memories. I have to say I’m rooting for Jay – he’s a Baton Rouge guy, and I have a lot of love for that city (LSU – geaux Tigers!).

APPCA: What opportunities have you gotten as a result of being on the show?

NG: I think the biggest opportunity for me has been the overall name I’ve made for myself and the fanbase I’ve built online. It’s propelled me to be able to grow my blog and my YouTube channel with far more ease than it would have otherwise, and gives me instant credibility to brands and networks.

APPCA: Are you still connected to Food Network? Are you still in touch with some of the people you got to know on the show?

NG: I’m not still connected to Food Network. Unless I become super successful in one of my ventures, then they are contractually entitled to a piece of it. I have stayed in touch with Bobby Flay a bit, he has been very good to me in terms of encouragement to keep pursuing my dream. My other cast mates and I have all stayed in touch with the exception of Lenny. No one has been able to get a hold of him since the last time we were all together for the finale.

APPCA: Are you doing TV?

NG: Yes! I still host a local Philadelphia-based TV show called The Chef’s Kitchen where I get to cook in the kitchen with some amazing chefs. I also will be starting to represent a few different sustainable seafood products on QVC very soon, possibly as early as next week. I also post weekly quick cooking videos to my YouTube channel, Coley Cooks. I’ve found that my husband and I are not alone in the quest to do away with cable tv, and YouTube and self-created online content are very much the way of the future.

Reese's Pieces

APPCA: Now that a year has passed, what do you think you learned about yourself and what you want in your career and life following what was certainly a life-changing experience?

NG: I think my biggest lesson in all of this is to care much less what people think of me. Being a young personal chef, I was always so concerned with keeping up appearances, staying PC, not wanting to offend anyone, and being seen as trustworthy, professional, and polished. I used to get really upset over any negative criticism I received online or anytime I would lose a follower. I would try to think about what I did or said that made someone dislike me, and then try not to ever do that again. I realized through this whole process that it is impossible to win over 100% of the population and I will not be everyone’s cup of tea. I learned to stay truly authentic to myself, and at times that means being opinionated, super sarcastic, having a potty mouth, and just generally being weird. I stopped being so concerned with having to uphold this perfect persona in order to maintain a business that focused on people pleasing. At the end of the day, the people who do like me will appreciate it, and those who don’t… well, I stopped worrying about them.

teaching

In terms of what I want out of life and my career, I mostly stopped being a personal chef because trying to maintain my business while pursuing these new ventures was detrimental to both. I was spread too thin and my clients always took precedence over anything else. They owned me, and my loyalty to them caused me to miss out on some really neat opportunities. The transition hasn’t been an easy one, but nothing worthwhile ever is. My goal continues to be teaching. It is my mission to boost confidence in home cooks, and to inspire them to cook as locally, seasonally and sustainably as possible. I believe that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I’m not quite sure where this path will lead me, but I’ve learned to be much more excited about the journey than the final destination.

Nicole Gaffney

We’re all a little too aware of the way personal chefs have been portrayed on reality food shows. The producers have long had a habit of selecting wackadoodle folks who have nothing in common with the craft and career path we’ve honed. So, when we learned that APPCA member Nicole Gaffney was selected as a finalist of Food Network Star, we knew that finally we’d be well represented to the public.

Nicole didn’t let us down. Indeed, she did us proud. On Sunday night we watched the finale with bated breath, hoping that as one of the three finalists in this long road she’d prove the winner. Unfortunately, viewers–in all their wisdom–selected cowboy Lenny.

On Rachael Ray

In our eyes, though, Nicole is truly a winner–and she knows it, too. Out of tens of thousands of applicants she was selected to compete. She made some gaffes (who didn’t!), but she learned from them. And, she was a trouper. Remember Episode 3’s Cutthroat Kitchen challenge when she got a spice grinder to grind her meat for spaghetti and meatballs and then, in the middle of making her dish, she was sent to stomp grapes? Who else could channel Lucy Ricardo and turn grape stomping into a charming comedic routine? That was our Nicole!

Stomping the grapes

“You have to be slightly insane to do a competition like this,” she laughed back then.

In that same episode, she came out of whatever shell they judges felt she’d been locked in and helped create a zany Hershey’s commercial selling Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, trilling her Spanish R’s like a nut in her blue poncho–and helped win the challenge.

Reese's Pieces

Nicole’s Coastal Cuisine point of view (our Jersey girl “Food Network Star de la Mare”) was consistent, week after week. Okay, she had to get over her self-acknowledged “resting bitch face,” and find her bubbly side. And she did. She came to be at ease in front of the camera. The turning point came in week six, when Giada told her to just let go and stop being wound up so tight. “Be who you want to be.”

Green screen dreams

That was what she told call-in viewer Traci from New Jersey on finale night. “When Giada told me I was wound up too tight, I realized I needed to relax.”

Presentation counts for a lot, clearly, on a television show. But the food can’t fail. And in every challenge, Nicole’s food was praised by the mentors. They loved her food from the first–from her sesame-crusted tuna with spicy soy glaze that was her introduction to us, her couscous salad that chef Alex Guarnaschelli had to follow her on, her spicy pork kabobs with pineapple that she demoed at Knott’s Berry Farm, her fried frogs legs with spicy tamarind glaze and cucumber mango slaw along with her desconstructed s’mores dessert in Las Vegas, and even her spicy shrimp and vegetable lettuce wraps–even though it wasn’t a hit with the little kids. Okay, there was that brush up over prosciutto versus serrano ham–but let’s just let that go…

Vegas pool party

When Bob opened that first red envelope on finale night and it turned out that Nicole had hit third place, you could see the disappointment on the part of the judges and Susie, who told her, “I’ve always thought the world of you and just seeing you today so elegant and such a lovely person… It would have been a pleasure to have you join this family.”

With Robert Irvine

Bobby Flay told Nicole that she had a natural ability to be on camera. “I was rooting for you all the way. This is just a bump in the road to your success.”

And here Nicole showed all the class she’s demonstrated throughout the competition. “It’s been a huge dream of mine. It was life changing. I’ve grown so much as a person and learned so much about myself. Maybe I’ll get to be on TV someday.”

Ronnybrook Milk Bar

Nicole, no doubt your dreams will be realized. But whatever you do and whatever path you take, you’ve already shown the world what a real personal chef can do and be. You’ve been one of the best ambassadors for our career that we could dream of. Bobby’s right. This is just a bump in the road. Your journey is just beginning and there are great things in store for you! We will avidly be reading your blog Too Full for School to learn what’s up next!

#teamNicole

What did you think of Nicole’s run on Food Network Star? Is there a cooking show you want to audition for?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

Nicole 3 NF1001_0145

“You have to be slightly insane to do a competition like this!”

That’s APPCA member Nicole Gaffney, owner of The Dinner Belle Personal Chef Service in a new Food Network commercial for their Summer Sundays line up of shows. And, given what Nicole has been up to as a contestant in season 10 of Food Network Star, she’s not kidding.

Week 1 had her offering a party bite for 100 people that demonstrated her culinary point of view (“I want to bring a splash of the ocean into kitchens all over America and be your Food Network star de mare.”). The sesame-crusted tuna with spicy soy glaze was a hit with the judges, as was her presentation.

Nicole 1 NF1001_0446

Week 2 was successful enough. Cooking simultaneously with chef Alex Guaranaschelli, who had to orally follow Nicole’s instructions to make a couscous salad with arugula, had the judges enjoying both the salad and Nicole’s tips, but wishing she had more energy. Still, she made it to week 3.

And that was the Cutthroat Kitchen challenge. In her mini group everyone was to make spaghetti and meatballs, but Nicole forgot to pick up a package of spaghetti in the pantry–and then was thrown a couple of curve balls by her fellow competitors. The first was having to grind her meat in a spice grinder. The second was a Lucy-inspired grape stomping–so far her most memorable moment of the competition. “Cutthroat Kitchen was really hard but you had no choice but to have fun with it. I had to stomp and fill up a carafe, so I might was well laugh and dance and have a good time.”

Stomping the grapes

Not only did she show grace under pressure, she also displayed resourcefulness–after all she still had that spaghetti and meatball dish to get out. No pasta? No problem. She made the meatballs with pan-fried breadcrumb gnocchi. And got through to this past Sunday night’s competition.

Week 4 was all about social media, something Nicole is quite accomplished in, so she dove into the first challenge–making a 60-second personal video selfie that required her to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the show and a favorite cooking tip. “Social media is all about being memorable and being real so people will follow you,” she said. “I need to look at this camera as my best friend and just get real with it.” So, she ran around the set, giddily pointing out the “sick” pantry and its fresh ingredients before stopping at a counter to demonstrate peeling ginger with a spoon.

Then things got whacky, as the competitors were divided into teams of three to make a viral marketing video for YouTube featuring a Hersey’s candy. Nicole’s team got Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. With Cuban-American Reuben Ruiz playing a Spanish teacher, Nicole played the tone-deaf student who couldn’t get the accent–until she ate a Reese’s. Then the r’s began to trill. The judges loved her craziness and on she goes to Week 5.

Reese's Pieces

How did this even happen for a second-generation Sicilian American girl from Atlantic City? Let’s just say strong family influences got her into cooking, the APPCA helped her develop a thriving personal chef business, and her own drive and ambition and fan love of the show motivated her to audition.

Nicole’s Sicilian grandfather was a huge influence on her. A commercial fisherman, along with his father, brother, and uncles, he immigrated to Gloucester, Mass., and eventually made his was down to the Jersey shore. When he returned from month-long fishing trips at the end of the summer with clams and lobsters–by-catch from hunting down giant bluefin tuna–there would be a huge family feast with corn, potatoes, and, says Nicole, lots and lots of butter. Leftover lobster would go home with Nicole’s family to make lobster salad.

“I never realized how unique that was when I was a child,” she muses.

When on dry land, Nicole’s grandfather loved to cook, making homemade bread, fishcakes, pizza, and fried dough for dessert. “He loved to watch people eat it. He’d have the biggest grin on his face. I have his smile so I find myself doing the same thing.”

He taught Nicole his bread and pizza recipes, but like most of us who enjoyed dishes made by family members, she is convinced she can’t get it to taste the same. Nicole also spent hours in the kitchen with her late mother and grandmother making really great pies, she says. “We still get together–aunts, cousins, and my grandmother–to make the pies.”

Nicole attended Louisiana State University, majoring in communications, before returning to Atlantic City, where she worked in sales, modeling, and managing an Italian market. But Nicole realized she wanted to immerse herself in the culinary world so she attended The Academy of the Culinary Arts. After one semester she left to get back to work. Having been a waitress she knew that lifestyle and environment and wanted no part of it as a career so while holding down a desk job, she did some computer research and came across the APPCA.

“After scouring the site, I felt like ‘let’s give this personal chef thing a try,'” she says. “I did the training program and started my business, The Dinner Belle Personal Chef Service, in June 2010. It gets really busy here in the summer, so I got some clients.

Nicole's dishes

“It’s been a lot of hard work but has been incredibly gratifying,” she adds. “Once you get that first client who is a great fit, it really catapults your business because it gives you a steady income.”

Nicole says that the APPCA helped her get the ball rolling, get a business plan together, taught her how to approach clients, pricing–“everything! It really gave me the backbone to my business, which is what I really needed,” she says. “The web forums are really helpful. I could see other people’s problems and really learned from the feedback.”

teaching

Nicole also does dinner parties and teaches cooking classes, which has given her the poise and self-confidence she needs to be in front of the camera. So, after she turned 29 last September–looking to shake things up a bit in her life–she decided to make an audition tape for Food Network Star, with her husband’s encouragement.

“Next thing I knew I was on a plane to L.A. to tape the show,” she recalls. “It’s an extensive application and interview process. They ask you everything and do a thorough background check.”

Making dishes on the fly for each challenge could be tricky, but Nicole tries to stick to what she knows. “You have to be inspired but you have to be smart about it and make something you know you can cook within the time limit. I just wanted to make sure I always finished. And I wanted to not rush through everything to make sure I did it the right way.”

judges

She also had to focus on not getting psyched out by the situation or the competition–or simply being in the presence of judges Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis, and Bobby Flay. “That was probably the biggest challenge throughout the time I filmed. When you’re out there you don’t have any contact with family, friends, or spouses. And you work so many hours in a day it gets tiring. You’re really running on a lot of adrenalin. Being in the presence of Alton, Giada, and Bobby, you try to stay calm and not act nervous, even though it’s so overwhelming. So you have to keep coaching yourself. I love the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ So, I just had to try to keep thinking I’m good enough–but it’s hard to not get psyched out.”

Now, as viewers and competitors alike wait for August when the competition concludes and we all learn who is the next Food Network star, Nicole is adjusting to life in the spotlight even as she returns to cooking for her longtime clients.

“This has been so exciting! It’s a wonderful time in my life. I’m just trying to sit back and take it all in and enjoy it!

What’s your ambition as a personal chef? Do you have any questions for Nicole about her experience on Food Network Star?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

Photos courtesy of the Food Network and Nicole Gaffney

Our organization’s name is the Association of Personal and Private Chefs of America. It seems straightforward, yet there still remains confusion over the difference between personal and private chefs–and, to my chagrin–the terms are frequently used interchangeably.

So, I thought I’d take the opportunity here to make the distinctions because they are, in fact, quite different animals.

Let’s talk about private chefs first. Remember Rosie Daley, Oprah Winfrey’s private chef who got a lot of publicity in that role? Or Art Smith, who also worked as a private chef for Oprah for 10 years? These two are examples of a chef as an employee. Private chefs like Rosie and Art receive a paycheck and, hopefully, benefits.

Chef Art Smith with Chef Candy Wallace at FENI 2011

Private chefs satisfy the culinary needs of their employers, usually preparing three fresh meals daily, along with any other entertaining, creating menus for parties, perhaps business meals–essentially whatever the client, excuse me, employer–wants. Some private chefs travel with the boss, especially if he or she maintains multiple homes. Since they’re subject to their client’s business, social, and family schedules, it’s often necessary to disappear into service, with long hours and work schedules frequently par for the course.

And, don’t be surprised if you encounter the need for security clearances, drug testing, and confidentiality agreements. You’ll likely need to be well versed in etiquette and protocol. And you’ll be expected to have culinary training and experience, as well as rock-solid references.

Unlike private chefs, personal chefs are entrepreneurs operating their own small business. They don’t have a single employer but instead numerous clients. They determine their own level of service, pricing, location, and availability. They locate and schedule their own clients.

When we created the personal chef career path, it was with the goal of offering an alternative for culinary pros who chose to no longer cook in commercial situations. That included women chefs who wanted to have and raise children as the heart of the household, chefs who are also family caregivers and need flexibility in their schedules, chefs of a certain age who choose to extend their professional careers, and chefs who choose to own and operate their own small culinary business without the financial and time-intensive commitment of owning a restaurant.

As the profession has grown it’s also come to include culinary school grads who may or may not have worked the line in a restaurant. Others are adept home cooks who want to put their skills to use for others. Some have degrees in nutrition or are dieticians. They may specialize in gluten-free or low-carb diets, weight loss, paleo, cancer or other disease-related nutrition–or be generalists. They may have a full schedule of regular clients–or prefer to service just one or two. Their business. Their rules.

Hidden Harves

Unlike private chefs who are employees, personal chefs create their own income stream through their small business. And to generate that income, many personal chefs also have multiple revenue streams under their personal chef brand umbrella. They may cater parties or other events for clients and others. They may offer cooking classes or do cooking demos at local shops or events. They can be authors, speakers, and media personalities. One of our members, Nicole Gaffney, is currently competing on Food Network Star. (see below)

How do they learn how to run what can be a complex business? Well, that’s where we come in. We have honed our training process to help our members get started quickly so they can achieve success in the shortest amount of time. We have forums where you can chat with your colleagues to share and get information. We have seminars and videos. We have social media. All these together help personal chefs–and private chefs, too–get the information and support they need to make their business work for them.

Being a personal chef is hard work, but it has proven to be appealing on so many levels. Many personal chefs feel it’s a calling and that they’re serving their clients and their community through their food and knowledge about food. Others have wanted to find a culinary alternative to restaurants where grueling hours and low pay sap the life out of them. By creating their own business, they can make a living cooking what they want, when they want, and for whom they want. Being a personal chef allows you to be a culinary professional on your own terms.

You can hear more on my thoughts about what it takes to become a successful personal chef in this video I made for our partner Escoffier Online:

 

*****

Nicole Gaffney

APPCA member Nicole Gaffney did it again! In the first part of this week’s competition, she helped talk Alton Brown through the breading part of making chicken fried steak, something she acknowledged she didn’t make or eat since it’s not a dish popular in New Jersey. But she offered what Brown felt were good tips. Then came the elimination part of the show, in which the contestants had to prepare a dish out of random pantry ingredients in front of the camera with Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli serving as the “viewer” following them and simultaneously making the dish. Nicole created a couscous salad with arugula. Bobby Flay liked her salad and her kitchen tips. Alton Brown thought she was adaptable and offered cogent instructions. Yes, she needs to pump up the energy level, they said, but she was unquestionably in for another week. So tune in next Sunday night to cheer her own! 

Have you channeled your passion for food? Do you have any questions about becoming a personal or private chef?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

 

 

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