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.

There’s altogether too much zucchini that grows over the summer! Don’t you agree? If you have a garden planted with it or other summer squashes, you can pare down the bounty by picking some of the blossoms, which can be used for a variety of dishes. (And if you aren’t gardening, look for squash blossoms at your local farmers market or Latin markets.)

Squash blossoms can be chopped up and incorporated into an omelet. In Mexico, they’re frequently used in making quesadillas with beautifully runny cheeses. But, they’re also a favorite in Italy, where you’ll find them stuffed and fried.

Our friend Caron Golden spent some time in the kitchen with San Diego chef Miguel Valdez and he taught her all the tricks you need to know to turn these magnificent but fragile yellow blossoms into a winning appetizer. We’ll let Caron take it from here.

fried blossoms

So, here are some tips Miguel gave me that have really helped me do a better job in making stuffed squash blossoms. The first, of course, is the purchase. They should look fresh and firm, not wilted or browned around the edges. But you also want them closed, not wide open. My friend Trish Watlington, who grows squash for her restaurant The Red Door, where Miguel used to be the chef, gave me an additional tip. Wait until late afternoon to pick them. In the course of the day, they’ll have opened. By late afternoon they’ll have closed again and are ready for the taking.

When you’re ready to prepare them, don’t rinse the blossoms. They’re too fragile for rinsing and will bruise. Instead, fill a bowl with cold water, and after opening the blossom just enough to check for bugs, dunk the blossoms in the water and then lay them down gently on paper towels.

Now you want to make your stuffing. Miguel showed me a very basic approach, using ricotta, marscapone, eight ball squash, a red onion, fresh thyme and mint, eggs, bread crumbs, and oil. You’ll want to do a small dice on the squash and onion so they’ll fit through the hole of the pastry bag. The squash, onion, and herbs are sauteed in olive oil until they’re soft. While the vegetables cool, whisk the eggs vigorously to incorporate lots of air. What you want are large bubbles and a liquid texture–no strings of egg whites. (And, don’t toss what you don’t use. The eggs will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days.)

Once the vegetables are at room temperature, you’ll make the stuffing by stirring them together with the two cheeses and some salt and pepper to taste. Then fill a plate or flat container with bread crumbs. They don’t have to be store purchased. If you have stale bread or crackers (or crackers you enjoy), pulverize them in the food processor.

Now, what’s your stuffing technique? Here’s where things can go seriously wrong–I know because I’ve been a perpetrator of this. Don’t do what I used to do, which was to open the blossom and fill it from the top, keeping the petals open. It makes a mess and tears the petals. What you want to do instead is slice off about a quarter inch of the bottom of the blossom, where the stem is. Keep it though. You’ll fill the blossom from that clean opening and then insert the bottom/stem inside so that it will look whole. Brilliant.

Another tip Miguel offered also related to stuffing. If you’re doing this solo, filling the pastry bag can be a tricky mess. Instead, pull out a tall container–like your utensil holder on the sink. Place the empty pastry bag inside and fold the top of the bag over the container. Then your hands are free to fill it with your stuffing. Pull the top up and twist it gently to ease the stuffing solidly down toward the tip. At that point, gently place the tip into the bottom of one of the blossoms to measure how far you need to cut (assuming you are using a plastic pastry bag or a plastic storage bag and not a pastry bag with plastic tips). Then you can cut the tip of the bag and start squeezing, filling the blossom until the top of the petals begin to bulge a little. Pull out the pastry bag and insert the stem piece, wiggling it to work it just inside so it will stay put.

Now you’re going to put it all together. Using one hand (to keep the other clean), gently dip the stuffed blossom into the egg, shake off the excess, then dredge it lightly in the bread crumbs. When you’ve done all of them, put them in the refrigerator to chill for about an hour or, if need be, overnight.

Then you’re ready to fry them. Use a vegetable oil and heat in a tall pot to 400 degrees. Add the blossoms (don’t crowd them) and give them two minutes in the fryer. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Serve them on greens or over a favorite sauce.

And, here’s the final tip. Be creative. One night last summer, The Red Door served stuffed blossoms for dessert. The stuffing was Nutella and cream cheese, breaded in panko crumbs, fried, then dipped in dark chocolate and chopped walnuts. Who knew…?

Nutella and cream cheese

Stuffed Squash Blossoms
by Miguel Valdez
Yield: 10 appetizers
20 fresh, firm squash blossoms
1 8-ounce container of marscapone
1 15-ounce container of ricotta
1/2 small red onion, diced
1 eight-ball squash, diced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, leaves stripped from stems and chopped
1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 eggs, well beaten
1 cup bread crumbs (purchased or made from crackers or dry bread)
Grapeseed, canola, or other vegetable oil for frying

Gently wash the squash blossoms by dipping them a few times into a bowl of cold water, then lay them carefully on paper towels. Heat olive oil in a pan and add diced vegetables and herbs, sauteing until soft. Spread on a sheet pan to cool so added cheese won’t melt.

Trim the bottom of the squash blossom and shake out the piston. Save the end/stem to place inside after stuffing the blossom.

In a bowl, mix the two cheeses and the cooled vegetables with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until they’re quite liquid and bubbly and there are no strands of egg whites. Fill a plate or flat container with the bread crumbs.

prepping the blossoms

Using a tall, empty container slip a pastry bag (or large plastic bag inside, handing the top of the bag over the side of the container. Fill the bag with the cheese and vegetable stuffing. Pull the sides up and, twisting the bag, push the mixture to the tip of the bag. Measure the cut of the tip by inserting the tip into the cut end of the blossom. Snip the tip so that it will just fit inside the squash blossom bottom hole.

Squeeze the mixture into the blossom until the petal begin to bulge. Pull the pastry bag tip out and carefully insert the step back into the hole. When all are stuffed, dip the blossoms into the egg, then with one hand, dredge the blossoms lightly in the bread crumbs. They should be covered with the crumbs but not so thick you can’t see the blossoms. Place on a plate or tray and refrigerate. You can let them sit for an hour to firm up or even overnight. If you have leftover cheese mixture or eggs, you can keep these for other uses.

stuffing the blossoms

Heat the grapeseed or canola oil in a fryer or tall pot until it reaches 400 degrees. Dip the blossoms in the oil for two minutes. Remove and drain on a paper towel. You can plate them on a bed of greens or tomato sauce or salsa. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

———-

New York, New York! The Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. And, the Chelsea Market, where the Food Network is headquartered–and where the five remaining Food Network Star contestants, including our own Nicole Gaffney, headed to from Las Vegas for week nine of the competition. And what was the challenge? Making an appearance on The Rachael Ray Show!

Ronnybrook Milk Bar

But, we get ahead of ourselves. The five met up with all three mentor judges and learned that they would be going downstairs to the Chelsea Market to do a live feed story on a summer food staple. Each got an assigned vendor and Nicole was sent to Ronnybrook Milk Bar. As in… ICE CREAM! Nicole sailed through her stand up, even giving a tip about Philadelphia ice cream. Bobby Flay told her that she seemed a natural in her environment and she won the challenge. This gave her an advantage for the main competition. Each contestant was to appear on The Rachael Ray Show and in three and a half minutes cook a dish that resolved a dinner dilemma for a family. Nicole got to view each clip of each family and their dinner dilemmas and then strategically assign a contestant to that family.

Nicole chose the Flag family, who wanted healthier food ideas. Nicole gave them a shrimp and vegetable lettuce wrap. Her tips on her segment were terrific–keeping a well-stocked pantry among them. And she cooked up what looked like a terrific dish. Except that she included a sriracha sauce for the kids and the littlest one spit it out. Not good.

On Rachael Ray

Fortunately, Giada liked the dish, but did point out the obvious gaffe. Poor Sara and Loreal did worse. So, Nicole made it to the final four, while Loreal, the butcher babe, was cut. Next week should be interesting! Keep it up, Nicole!

Have you cooked with squash blossoms? What do you make with them?

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.

Perhaps you’re a new personal chef eager to jump start your business. Or maybe your client base is going through a shift. Are you anticipating summer holiday slowdowns? You could be launching a new line of services under your business–like catering or teaching cooking classes. Whatever it is, you need some media attention to draw in eyes who could turn into potential clients.

Now let’s stipulate first that simply getting a story about you in your local paper or getting quoted in a public radio story on food trends isn’t necessarily going to translate into more business. But media outreach should be another marketing tool in your arsenal–like social media, cooking demos, and, of course, having a quality website and business card.

Not sure how to get started? Well, here are five ways you can get reporters and editors to talk to you and, hopefully, about you:

1. Write a brief but well composed press release and send it to reporters covering the food, business, lifestyle, and/or health beats in your local media outlets (newspapers, news websites, radio, TV, bloggers, and podcasters). If you’re an APPCA member you have access to press release information in the training materials, including sample releases that you can personalize with information about you and your business. Be sure that the contacts you find are up to date–you don’t want to send a release to someone who hasn’t held that job in three years. And also be sure that the people you’re targeting are the right people for what you’re trying to accomplish. Tailor your press release to the angle of the story you’re pitching. You shouldn’t send the same release to a business reporter and a lifestyle reporter.

Facebook

 

Twitter logo

2. Assuming you’re on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or other social media platforms–and you should be–start following/friending reporters with whom you want to develop a business relationship. Periodically ask them relevant questions. As you get friendly, let them know what you do and ask if you can send them info about an event you’re participating in or a new type of service you’re launching. Offer to serve as a resource if they have an article or segment they’re working on in an area you specialize in.

3. Do some research and find out if your target media people have their own blogs. Subscribe to them. Read them. Most important, leave friendly comments on them–but only if you can offer a relevant observation to the discussion. Be sure to include your website URL in the comment or sign in with the web URL to leave the comment so they can find you.

DSC01811

4. Create a small media event. Perhaps you’re launching a new fall menu for catering or you’ve just started a new cooking class series. Set up an event exclusively for media–a tasting, cooking demo or class. Alternatively, invite them to attend an event you’re already holding–as your (comped) guest. Either way, be sure to have useful takeaways on hand for them, such as recipes, a press release and fact sheet about your business and what you’re promoting, and perhaps a small package of cookies or jar of jam or some other edible treat you made.

5. Read, watch, or listen to stories by your target media. As you get to know what they’re interested in, you can tailor an email note, mentioning pieces of theirs you’ve found interesting and ask if they have an interest in an area in which you specialize–cooking for seniors or athletes, lessons learned in running a personal chef business, teaching cooking classes to children, etc.–and offer your expertise in a story. Do some research and provide data about related trends to demonstrate your knowledge of the topic. Reporters are always under the gun to come up with unique story ideas. If you have a pitch for a piece they find intriguing, you’re helping them do their job. That’s priceless.

Remember, this isn’t a one-shot attempt. This is a process. You’re building relationships and that takes time. And, honestly, you have to have something newsworthy to cover. Don’t waste attempts at attention with news that really isn’t all that newsy or media targets will simply delete or block your communications. Give them something to really excite–and help–them.

—————

Vegas sundae

Back in Las Vegas for week eight of Food Network Star and our Nicole Gaffney was one of six contestants left. This week, the six met with Alton Brown and Giada De Laurentiis in the Poker Tournament Room of Caesar’s Palace to learn what one-of-a-kind culinary experience they were to enjoy, take in the meal and the ambiance, and then divide into two teams to create their own special meal for the judges.

Nicole drew the $1,000 Golden Sundae at Serendipity 3, which she described as “Vegas on a plate.” She couldn’t finish the scoops of Tahitian vanilla ice cream and passion fruit-infused caviar served with a 24-carat gold spoon, but she told us on Twitter, “It was crazy good!”

Nicole then joined team Sarah as Sarah’s first pick, along with Luca, to create a four-course “Around the World” meal. Sarah gave Nicole frogs legs as an ingredient–something foreign to Nicole–who decided to fry the legs and accompany them with a spicy tamarind-glazed sauce with cucumber mango slaw. Then she took on dessert, with her toasted marshmallow ice cream as the star of a deconstructed s’mores dish.

Team Sarah totally bested Team Emma in the eyes of Alton, Giada, Susie and Bob, and guest judge Penn Jillette. Kudos to Nicole, whose frog legs (if not her story) and dessert were a big hit. Sadly, Emma, who surprisingly was unfamiliar with her assigned ingredient, Mangalitsa pork, and told a gruesome story about burning pigs in a barn, was eliminated.

And then there were five–who are off to New York for the next challenge! Stay tuned! Go Nicole!

Big Apple Bound

How have you successfully gotten media attention for you and your business? Please share!

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.

 

Natalie Lewis

APPCA member Natalie Lewis may have a raging sweet tooth, but she’s deep into savory dishes that she makes for both her personal chef and catering clients. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu, Paris, with a diploma in French cuisine, the Cincinnati native is a dedicated traveler who has enjoyed enhancing her knowledge of regional and cultural fare. Early in her career she took that knowledge to jobs at upscale catering catering companies and restaurants. Her move to Napa gave her a greater appreciation for local, sustainable cooking and the art of viticulture. Today, she lives with her family in Northern New Jersey.

Natalie's Sweet Pea and Parmesan Salad with Burrata and Capiocola

Natalie’s Sweet Pea and Parmesan Salad with Burrata and Capiocola

Natalie found us like many others–with a desire to get out of the restaurant business she starting researching other career options in the food world and found APPCA through an Internet search. She joined us in 2010.

“The best benefit has been that people find me easily when they do Google searches for personal chefs,” she says. “The APPCA website is one of the first to come up. So I’ve gained a lot of clients this way. The forums are also great, so I can connect with other personal chefs and compare notes.”

Natalie's Crab and Shrimp Avocado Salad with Tomato Coulis

Natalie’s Crab and Shrimp Avocado Salad with Tomato Coulis

Among Lewis’s other passions is her food blog, Natalie’s Daily Crave, where she posts recipes–mostly original–and gorgeous food photography.

The recipe below originated from cocktail appetizers she makes for her catering clients. “I make little bite-size red potatoes stuffed with blue cheese and bacon,” she says. “They’re always a hit at parties so I thought a potato salad with a similar concept would be a crowd pleaser also.”

This salad is perfect for summer picnics and barbecues–and something you can adapt for your own catering clients!

Natalie Lewis' Bacon-and-Blue-Cheese-Potato-Salad-so-delish1

Bacon and Blue Cheese Potato Salad
from Natalie Lewis

  • 3 lb red skin potatoes
  • 6 oz good blue cheese
  • 10-12 strips thick cut bacon
  • ¾ cup mayonnaise
  • 3 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 3-4 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh chives
  • 3 heaping Tbsp fresh chopped dill
  • salt and pepper

Clean and scrub outside of potatoes. Cut potatoes in half and add potatoes to a large pot of salted water and bring to a boil. Boil for approximately 10-15 minutes, or until they are fork tender, but still firm.

Meanwhile cook the bacon and crumble the blue cheese with a fork. Next, make the dressing. In a small bowl add the mayonnaise, Dijon, vinegar, chives and dill. Mix well and set aside.

Once the potatoes are cooked drain well. Roughly chop the potatoes into 1-inch chunks and while warm, pour the dressing over the potatoes. Mix well and add salt and pepper.

Add the crumbled bacon an blue cheese. Top with additional bacon, blue cheese and chopped chives. Can serve warm or cold. Store in fridge 2 days in advance.

*Photos courtesy of Natalie Lewis

—————–

Vegas pool party

So, here we are at week seven of Food Network Star, so thrilled that our own Nicole Gaffney is now one of six contestants and in Las Vegas for a series of new challenges. But, there’s always a wrench thrown into these competitions–and one came this week in the form of reinserting a contestant. Yes, Star Salvation has ended and into the competition returned… ta dah… Luca! Gorgeous Luca, whose English has been transformed.

So we’re back to seven contestant and have two related challenges. The first, taking place in the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace, was with judge/mentor Giada De Laurentiis, who gave each contestant 90 second to describe up to three dishes in a way that would make her hungry. Kudos to Emma, who was the only one to nail it with all three. Nicole, starting with a beef pho, used words like viscosity and unctuous–great in an essay for an English class, but not very appealing or understandable for the general public looking for something delicious to eat.

Moving on, this critical skill was to be on display again for the main challenge–a pool party at the hotel’s Venus pool. Each contestant had an hour to prepare a dish representing their culinary POV and then a minute to pitch their dish to the crowd. Each of the 100 party guests was given three tokens to spend on three dishes, plus they were given what Alton Brown calls the “dial of doom,” a marketing gadget used to measure each person’s reaction to each pitch.

Our Nicole decided to make a seared scallop wrapped in serrano ham, accompanied by romesco sauce. Just one problem. There was no serrano ham and Nicole decided to substitute prosciutto. But, she wasn’t exactly forthright about that in her pitch. “I’m guessing that no one at this party is going to be able to tell the difference between serrano ham and prosciutto,” Nicole said. Well, no one except the judges…

The good news? Alton and Giada liked her pitch, calling it concise and connected to her viewpoint. And, she was grace under pressure as a gust of wind almost swept away her dish during her pitch. But while both judges liked the flavors of her dish, Giada took her down on the misleading description. “I loved the scallops but not the serrano ham,” she said. “Don’t misguide them or they’ll never trust you again.”

It was a good lesson. Gotta make a substitute with an ingredient? Be upfront about it.

Nevertheless, Nicole made the first cut with the top four, with Lenny winning and doing a celebratory belly flop into the pool. Can’t wait to see what next week brings!

Have a favorite summer dish you make for clients? Please share!

 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