‘Food Network Star’ rings up The Dinner Belle

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Personal chef Nicole Gaffney of Brigantine will compete for a chance to host her own national cooking show on Season 10 of “Food Network Star.” The series premiere is 9 p.m. Sunday.  Personal chef Nicole Gaffney of Brigantine will compete for a chance to host her own national cooking show on Season 10 of “Food Network Star.” The series premiere is 9 p.m. Sunday.

South Jersey personal chef Nicole Gaffney steps up to the plate Sunday as a hopeful on the reality TV cooking show

In 2006, California chef Guy Fieri won Season 2 of “The Next Food Network Star.”

With his outsized persona and trademark spiky hair, Fieri went on to host TV shows such as “Guy’s Big Bite” and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” became a world-famous restaurateur, and wrote three bestselling cookbooks. According to a January report in Forbes, his 2012 net worth was $8 million.

This year a woman from Brigantine could follow in his footsteps. Nicole Gaffney – aka The Dinner Belle, a personal chef who creates custom meal plans for clients and then shops for the groceries, preps, cooks and stores the meals – is a contestant on the series, now simply called “Food Network Star.” Season 10 premieres 9 p.m. Sunday, June 1.

Gaffney, 29, specializes in coastal cuisine and promises to bring the flavors of the Jersey shore to the series.

“I’m so inspired by the fresh produce and seafood we have here,” she said in a recent interview. “I love going to farmers markets, and I get a kick out of gardening – watching a seedling turn into food, and using that in my culinary creations.”

A longtime fan of the show, Gaffney decided to try out last October. Originally she planned to film her audition tape on the beach in Brigantine. A sudden nor’easter nixed that plan, so she took the party indoors, whipping up a big pot of soup for her guests and for the camera.

“It was a narrative, a small version of what I’d do if I had a cooking show,” Gaffney said. “That’s a day in the life for me – going to the beach and cooking for my friends.”

After a second audition, Gaffney was chosen to appear on the program along with 11 other contestants.

“It’s very surreal,” she said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Food for thought

Nicole Gaffney enjoys living at the beach in her hometown of Brigantine.  Nicole Gaffney enjoys living at the beach in her hometown of Brigantine. “I grew up in a family obsessed with food,” said Gaffney, whose father was commercial clammer in Cape May. Her great-grandfather was a fisherman in Gloucester, Mass. She said she is half Sicilian, and that the lineage has greatly influenced her cooking. When she was growing up, every Sunday was spent at the home of her grandparents, where the main event was spaghetti with gravy, or, as the Sicilians called it, “bista goo-goo.”

Despite her love of cooking and a history of working in restaurants, Gaffney studied communications in college with the goal of becoming a broadcast journalist. She soon found that the news business was “too cutthroat.”

“And you don’t make a lot of money unless you’re Katie Couric,” she added.

She dabbled in sales, modeling and office jobs, but nothing proved a good fit until she turned to cooking.

“I realized my passion was food.” 

She enrolled in the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, and in 2010 started her career as the Dinner Belle.

In addition to the personal chef services, she also caters dinner parties and offers cooking lessons.

“Then local TV opportunities came up,” she said, including offers to host two Philadelphia-based cooking programs, “Best of the Best” and “The Chef's Kitchen.”

“The more I did, the more I realized this is what I want: to have my own cooking show, and teach and inspire and share my passion with the world,” Gaffney said.

Taste of Success

When Gaffney learned she would be a contestant on “Food Network Star,” hosted by celebrity chefs Alton Brown, Bobby Flay and Giada Di Laurentiis, she tried to prepare by boning up on past episodes. “But after a while I thought, what’s the point? You don’t know what challenges they’re going to throw at you.” 

She describes the show as “Survivor” for foodies, and said it is akin to “The Bachelor,” in that most of the episodes have already been filmed, and she is sworn to silence about what happens until after the shows air. The only one who knows if she won or lost is her husband, Chaser, an architect and Atlantic City firefighter.

“It was incredibly nerve-wracking on so many different levels,” Gaffney said. “You have to be able to cook and be really knowledgeable in the kitchen. You have to be an excellent communicator. And on top of that, you have to be able to communicate tips and techniques in a way that keeps people entertained. Between the ‘star factor’ and the cooking expertise, it’s like walking, juggling and chewing gum all at once – and doing it all on national TV.”

On the Food Network website, Gaffney confessed she was most intimidated by Bobby Flay.

“He seems like he takes no prisoners,” she said. “I don't want to serve him bad food. That'd be mortifying.” She was most excited about learning from Alton Brown. “He really knows this stuff,” she said, “soup to nuts.”

While she obviously cannot disclose the results of the competition, Gaffney said she would not be deterred if she did not come out the winner.

“It would be totally amazing to win, but there have been some great contestants who didn’t win and went on to be successful. Win or lose, my goal is to have a show on the Food Network. I get the most enjoyment out of creating, teaching and inspiring. If I can do that on large scale, I’ll be really happy.”

Ask the Chef

 Nicole Gaffney studied to be a broadcast journalist, then gave it up for a career in the kitchen. Nicole Gaffney studied to be a broadcast journalist, then gave it up for a career in the kitchen.  What are some of your favorite foods?

I try to eat with the seasons. So right now, it’s fresh peas and fava beans and leeks, baby artichokes and ramps (a type of wild onion) and rhubarb. In summer, it’s green beans and tomatoes, figs and zucchini and the Jersey corn. Winter is great for citrus: blood oranges and Meyer lemons. I also love fresh herbs. Now that it’s getting warm, I can get my chives – I love the mild onion bite they give to things – and fresh basil. I plant some unique ones in my garden that you can’t get at the market: lemon thyme, pineapple sage, chocolate mint, lemon verbena, chamomile and lavender.

Who is your hero when it comes to great chefs?

I’ve always been inspired by female chefs like Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of “Two Hot Tamales.” They were pioneers: high-powered female executive chefs at a time that that was not common.  

Can you share some of your favorite local restaurants?

There are so many. Some of my favorites are Sage, Steve and Cookies, Luke Palladino, the Knife and Fork, 2825, and Girasole.

What are your guilty pleasures, food-wise?

I love a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I have to say we order pizza an embarrassing number of times per week. And I have a major sweet tooth, so I’m always running to Wawa to pick up a pint of Haagen Dazs.

Want to cook like Nicole Gaffney? Here is a summer recipe from her personal collection

 Pasta with fairytale eggplant, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil Pasta with fairytale eggplant, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil  Pasta with Fairytale Eggplant, Tomatoes, Fresh Mozzarella and Basil


8-10 fairytale eggplants, unpeeled, or 1 medium standard eggplant, peeled and cut into large dice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
1 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided, plus some for salting the pasta water
Freshly ground pepper
8 medium plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into chunks
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound pasta with a short shape, such as gigli or campanelle
1 8-oz. ball of fresh mozzarella, diced
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
3 sprigs basil, torn or cut into ribbons


Preheat oven to 450 degrees and set a medium pot of water on the stove to boil. Toss the eggplant with half the olive oil, a half-teaspoon of salt, and pepper to taste. Spread evenly on a sheet pan and roast until golden brown, about 20 minutes, tossing halfway through.

While the eggplant is cooking, place the tomatoes in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until pureed but still chunky.

Pour remaining 1/4 cup olive oil in a pan and sauté the garlic over medium heat until it just barely starts to toast, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and cook over medium high until reduced slightly, about 10 minutes.

While the tomatoes are simmering, liberally salt the boiling water and drop in the pasta. Cook according to the directions on the package, until al dente. Drain the pasta, then add it to the pan with the tomatoes and roasted eggplant. Toss and cook for another minute or two so the pasta can absorb the sauce. Remove from heat and toss with the fresh mozzarella, basil and half the Parmigiano cheese. Drizzle with a little more olive oil if desired, sprinkle with the rest of the Parmigiano and serve.




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