New Jersey’s Own Nicole Gaffney

Nicole Gaffney

Fans of The Next Food Network Star know Nicole Gaffney—aka “Coley”– the Jersey chef who made it all the way to the season 10 finals. The show was just the beginning for the Brigantine native, who recently launched a new blog and video cooking series, Coley Cooks, and has been busy filming episodes of The Chef’s Kitchen, which airs on Comcast and is also available on Hulu, YouTube, and iTunes. Coley took some time out to talk with Jersey Bites.

JEREY BITES: You were recently at the South Beach Food & Wine Fest. Any particularly memorable moments or great meals?
NICOLE GAFFNEY: The entire trip was such a blast with incredible food! The biggest highlight was attending Bobby Flay’s Caribbean Heat party, where we ate amazing food, drank delicious rose wine and rubbed elbows with none other than Martha Stewart! I also loved getting to spend some time with Reuben Ruiz, one of my fellow contestants on Food Network Star. We also had an incredible meal at The Bazaar, Jose Andres’ restaurant in South Beach.

Food Network Star insisted on a culinary point of view, but your style seems much more than Coastal Cuisine.
I cook food that makes me feel good. Sometimes that means a kale salad, and other times that means doughnuts. Some food feeds our bodies and other foods feed our souls. It sounds cliché, but I really do think it’s all about balance. It’s not ok to eat doughnuts every day, but eating super healthy all the time would make me miserable. I have so many influences: my Sicilian-American upbringing, my French culinary training, my years spent living in Louisiana, my life on Brigantine Island, my fascination with exotic foods from different cultures, the various blogs and magazines I follow to keep up with the changing trends. I love food, I want to learn everything I can about it, and I want to pass that knowledge on to my friends, family, fans and followers.

It’s the weekend at Coley’s house—what’s cooking?
If it’s the weekend, you can bet I’m cooking up something seasonal. Right now, spring veggies are [in] season so there’s been lots of asparagus, peas, favas, radishes, and spring lettuces. Come summer, there’s lots of grilling and enough Jersey tomatoes to feed an army. They are, without a doubt, my favorite food. In the fall, pumpkins, apples, and winter squash. And in the winter, hearty braises and root veggies. 

If friends were visiting the Atlantic City area from out of town where would you take them for dinner—or even some great beer and pizza?
Steve & Cookie’s in Margate and the Knife & Fork Inn in AC are two of my solid go-to spots. We almost always opt to sit and eat at the bar. The food is delicious and always consistent, plus the bartenders are attentive, friendly and mix great martinis. But for beer and pizza I’d hit up our local spot, Andre’s, here in Brigantine. Andre, who’s from Sicily, is always there running back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room. He always brings out something special that’s not on the menu for us, be it pasta with his insane tomato almond pesto, or homemade zeppolis. It’s a humble spot with a really warm, family-like vibe.

If you could hang out and cook with anyone—living or dead—who would it be?
My mom, hands down. She died of ALS in 2007 when I was 22. I had graduated college only a few weeks before her passing, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or where I was headed. She knew my love for cooking and encouraged me to pursue it even though earlier in my life my parents both discouraged me from becoming a chef. She never got to see me flourish as a person, never got to see me get married, start a business, and be on television. I’d give anything to spend a day with her in the kitchen cooking and telling her all about the woman I’ve become. 

Any advice for someone who might be pondering trying out for The Next Food Network Star?
Be yourself, but amplified! I realized during filming that it’s really easy for fun and exciting people to come off as dull and boring on TV. Don’t be afraid of offending people and trying to please everyone—you end up pleasing no one. There will always be people that don’t care for you, regardless of how great you are. I always have to remind myself of this: there are people out there—albeit crazy ones—who can’t stand the Beatles! Television gives you instant celebrity—and with the internet, suddenly your life is an open book. 

Any downside to all the attention?
Yes, for sure. I’ve been stopped by people in all sorts of different situations that recognize me and want to chat about the show. A lot of the time, it’s great, and I enjoy it. But there are just as many times when I’m in a bad mood, sick, or left the house in sweats with bed head and no makeup. It’s still flattering to be recognized, but I miss having anonymity. And this is on such a tiny microscopic level, I can’t imagine what it must be like for real celebrities. The experience has given me so much empathy for them. 

What’s next for Nicole Gaffney? What’s your dream job?
Great question! My dream job is to make a living influencing, teaching and inspiring people to get into their kitchens and cook more from scratch—and I’m open to doing that in different ways. Having my own TV show would be great, but it’s not the only outlet. There are so many problems on so many levels with the way people approach food in this country, from the overwhelming acceptance of processed foods being passed off as home cooked, to the complete lack of understanding of what is and what isn’t healthy. I want to get people back to the roots of cooking simple, nourishing, delicious food. The superstar chef and molecular gastronomy movements—while I think they’re great—have largely contributed to home cooks feeling inferior and insecure about their abilities. Cooking, especially at home, isn’t rocket science, it just takes a little practice, intuition, confidence and desire.

I just have to ask—what’s Bobby Flay really like?
Bobby is a genuinely down-to-earth guy. While filming, we weren’t allowed any real interaction or fraternizing with the mentors. But when we went back to New York to film the finale last August, all rules were off the table since the competition was finished. During our lunch break, Bobby came in to our green room to hang out with us, eat, talk shop, answer questions and give advice. We we’re all pretty blown away by that. He didn’t have to do it, and I thought it really showed his true character. I’m a fan.