From Shore to Star

If you watch Food Network Star, viewers know one of the main components of the show is the development of the contestants’ POV. One of the POV’s we enjoyed most was Nicole Gaffney’s Coastal Cuisine cooking style, influenced by her family of fisherman and childhood on the Jersey shore. With this concept and her engaging personality, she made it all the way to the final episode as one of the last three finalists. We caught up with Nicole to learn more about her experience on the show and what she has been up to since the season ended.

Chef Nicole Gaffney. Picture courtesy of
Chef Nicole Gaffney. Picture courtesy of

FP: How did you get your start with cooking?

NG: I have been infatuated with food since I can remember. My maternal grandparents were Sicilian and always cooked big dinners for the family. I grew up loving my time spent with them in the kitchen.

FP: Do you remember the first dish you ever created?

NG: Yes! The first dish I can remember cooking was for my birthday one year, I was probably 10. My mom wasn’t very into cooking and was always shooing me out of the kitchen. So for my birthday, she finally let me cook dinner for the family. Having no interest in recipes, I wanted to just do what felt right. I used to salivate whenever my mom would start her base for beef stew. She would brown cubes of beef in a pot with olive oil garlic. It always smelled heavenly, and I would pester her to just serve the meat like that, but she would always carry on with the stew as planned. So that day, I set out to make what I called “garlic steak.”

Whatever else I made was a blur, all I remember was that it was terrible. The meat was tough and under seasoned and the garlic had overbrowned and became bitter. I was extremely let down, but my parents actually pretended to like it.

FP: You have to start somewhere right?

What do you enjoy most about being a chef? 

NG: I enjoy the creativity, and making people happy. It’s hard work, and it always feels great to finish a job. Nothing feels better than finishing a tough job.

FP: Name some chefs that have inspired you and why.

NG: I’ve been especially inspired by strong female chefs. Julia Child is a given. But I grew up loving chefs like Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Sarah Moulton and more recently, Alex Guarnaschelli.

FP: All great chefs to learn more indeed!

Tell us about your experience on Food Network Star from casting to filming.

NG: It was a completely overwhelming experience. I still can’t believe I did it.

FP: We thought you were great on the show!

What was it like to compete with others?

NG: It was great competing with the others, we all really bonded and became friends. They are a talented group, so it was hard not to constantly size yourself up against them all.

FP: What did you learn from the judges?

NG: My biggest takeaway from the judges is to just always be myself, never to sensor, regardless of who’s watching.

FP: Now that FNS is over, please give us an update of what you’ve been up to. 

NG: I’ve been taking a bit of a break from my personal chef business to pursue some other opportunities… and to enjoy the beach a little too. In the fall, you’ll find me at the Atlantic City Seafood Festival, The Greenwich Wine and Food Festival, and the Philadelphia Wine and Food Festival.

FP: We’ll be at Greenwich Wine & Food so hopefully we’ll run into each other!

When you go out to eat, name some favorite places in Brigantine/NJ or other cities/states you’ve visited.

NG: Locally I love Steve and Cookie’s in Margate, Sage in Ventnor, Luke Palladino’s in Linwood, Café 2825 and Girasole in Atlantic City. I love Osteria and all of Mark Vetri’s places in Philadelphia. I love Sammy’s Grill in Baton Rouge and Mr. B’s in New Orleans.

FP: So many places to eat, so little time for us…

What are some of your guilty pleasures? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name 🙂

NG: Oh man, there are so many. I love food, and I love to eat, which is why I love to cook. It tends to work that way! I love sweets, especially pastries…the butterier the better. Anything with butter, really. Brown butter, even better. Doughnuts…OMG, actually, cronuts! I think they are truly worth the hype. Anything fried, especially a good onion ring. Battered, never breaded. Bread, bagels, pizza, pasta. Carbs, carbs, carbs. Bring on the gluten. Love that stuff!

FP: On FNS, you built a strong bond with Emma Frisch. Tell us about your friendship with her and how it evolved throughout the season.

NG: Yes! We bonded from the very beginning over our common interests and feelings about the competition. It was hard at first, both of us not knowing whether it was smart to trust one another. But it became apparent after long that we were both far more interested in helping each other than hurting. Food Network Star is a crazy, overwhelming experience. You are cut off from your families, friends, and society. Emma always felt like someone I brought along from home, and it was very comforting to have her around.

FP: One aspect of the show we enjoy is watching the friendships develop on the show.

Any tips for novice chefs?

NG: Accept the fact that you will mess up a lot, and know that it’s essential to learning. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things.

FP: If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be doing? What are some of your non-cooking hobbies/interests?

NG: I’m honestly not sure. I love music, but I am terrible at playing it. I had a job working for the house of blues a few years ago as a runner- essentially running errands for the bands that played. I got such a kick out of hanging out back stage, and the whole element of production. I could have seen myself pursuing something like that. I don’t do well in an office setting. Aside from that, I love spending time outside with my friends and husband, at the beach, as much as possible. There is a small window for when we can enjoy nice weather at the beach in NJ, so we try to take advantage as much as possible. Also, gardening. I started as a hobby when we bought our first house about 6 years ago, and I’ve been learning and expanding ever since. I am a tomato junkie, and grow over 10 varieties a year.

FP: Thank you Nicole, for your time. We wish you continued success! 

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