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“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.

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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.

 

 

Periodically we invite our members to contribute to this blog with their recipes or expertise. Several months ago Carol Borchardt of A Thought for Food Personal Chef Service in Memphis gave us some wonderful tips on food photography. So when we saw her drop-dead gorgeous photo of these Vietnamese Beef Lettuce Wraps we had to get the recipe–and share it with you. So, with thanks to Carol…

chef_borchardt

If your clients want to consume more vegetables and healthful foods, these Vietnamese-inspired beef lettuce wraps are a delicious, fun way for them to begin. A sweet-sour cucumber relish, gluten-free rice noodles, shredded carrots, fresh basil, and peanuts top a spicy beef filling wrapped in lettuce leaves, all accompanied by a tangy dipping sauce.

I like to think of recipes as a roadmap. A recipe provides the directions, but how I get to the final destination is up to me. So, inspired by a recipe from a magazine, I made numerous adjustments to it such as increasing the flavor and spiciness of the filling and adding elements such as the cucumber relish. At first glance, the recipe may look long and involved; however, it comes together fairly quickly. All the elements for a satisfying meal are here: protein, lots of fresh, crunchy vegetables, and starch in the form of rice noodles, so no extra sides are needed.

The filling can also be made with ground chicken, turkey, pork, and even tofu. Therefore the recipe is easily adapted to numerous dietary requirements. Using wheat-free tamari or coconut aminos will make the wraps entirely gluten-free.

There’s quite a bit of fresh ginger in this dish. I find grating ginger to be wasteful and time-consuming—so much stays on the grater. Instead, I like to peel and coarsely chop it, then process in a mini food processor with just enough water to create a puree. The puree is similar to prepared ginger products that are available in the produce section but without the additives. If you make too much puree, freeze the excess in a snack-size zipper top bag to use another time. It’s a great time-saver to have the ginger in your client’s freezer ready to go because they’ll ask for these wraps over and over!

By assembling each wrap as desired, kids of all ages can play with their food–and get away with it!

Vietnamese Beef Lettuce Wraps with Rice Noodles and Cucumber Relish

VIETNAMESE BEEF LETTUCE WRAPS WITH RICE NOODLES AND CUCUMBER RELISH
Serves 4-6

DIPPING SAUCE
½ cup water
¼ cup soy sauce or tamari<
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced

FILLING
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 ½ pounds lean ground beef (or turkey, chicken or pork)<
2 tablespoons minced ginger
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/3 cup soy sauce or tamari
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce, or to taste
freshly ground black pepper

CUCUMBER RELISH
2 large English (hothouse) cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 bunch scallions, white and light green part only, chopped
½ cup chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 teaspoons sugar
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

LETTUCE AND TOPPINGS
1 large head Boston lettuce (12 leaves)
½ cup thinly sliced fresh basil
1 cup shredded carrots
2 ounces rice noodles (maifun), soaked in hot water and drained well
½ cup peanuts, coarsely chopped
lime wedges

SAUCE: Combine all sauce ingredients in a small bowl.Divide into small bowls for each diner.

FILLING:Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat until hot. Cook and stir onion and ginger 4 minutes or until soft. Add garlic and beef, breaking into small pieces; cook and stir 3 to 5 minutes or until beef is browned and no longer pink.Drain well. Stir in all remaining filling ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 15-20 minutes or until evaporated, stirring occasionally.

RELISH: Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Divide into small bowls for each diner.

TO ASSEMBLE: Spoon meat mixture onto lettuce leaves, top with basil, carrots, rice noodles, peanuts and lime wedges.Roll up and serve with dipping sauce.

Thanks, Carol! This looks and sounds delicious and like a perfect meal for clients!

*****

On a special note, we want to let you know that APPCA member Nicole Gaffney is a contestant on the new season of Food Network Star. Nicole, who runs her personal chef business in Atlantic City, New Jersey, did us proud on Sunday night’s debut episode. For that night’s Hollywood-style party competition she prepared sesame-crusted tuna with spicy soy glaze and introduced herself to the party guests as coming from a family of fishermen on the Jersey shore.

“I want to bring a splash of the ocean in to kitchens all over America and be your Food Network Star de la mar,” she said.

Nicole Gaffney

Judges Giada de Laurentis, Alton Brown, and Bobby Flay all found her pitch authentic, original, and compelling–and, more to the point, loved her tuna dish. She made it to the top three in the elimination segment. So, let’s root her on next Sunday! Team Nicole! We’re working on getting a chance to interview Nicole for à la minute.

What is your “Food Network Star winning recipe? How do you introduce yourself to clients?

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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