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Living at the Jersey Shore can certainly affect various aspects of your life — your personality, your clothing, the way you speak — and especially the kind of food you like. Take a look at South Jersey native turned Food Network Star, Nicole Gaffney.

Nicole’s love of all things culinary led her to audition for the 10th season of the popular reality cooking competition, Next Food Network Star, where she took second place. Viewers really enjoyed her fun personality and Coastal Cuisine style of food, a food philosophy that has been influenced by her life here at the Jersey Shore.

We sat down with Nicole to find out just what it is she loves about cooking, how being on Food Network affected her life, and why living at the Jersey Shore has helped fuel her love of food.

If you could only choose one word to describe your current cooking philosophy, what would it be? I like how you included the word “current,” because it does seem to be always evolving. I’d say right now, as cliche as it is, the one word I’d use to describe my cooking philosophy would be seasonal. I’m all about eating seasonally and taking advantage of what each season has to offer. I’ve become really into gardening over the years, and love to cook whatever I’m harvesting.

Do you still stand by the “Coastal Cuisine” philosophy you had on Next Food Network Star? Totally. Coastal is a lifestyle and there’s a cuisine that goes along with it. Easy, breezy, fresh and simple. I’d say most of the food I cook and eat follows that formula — maybe with the exception of dessert. I have a sweet tooth I’ll never be able to shake.

How did you feel when you were chosen for Next Food Network Star? What were the reactions from your friends and family? I was in disbelief! I found out only two weeks before I had to leave to film. [We would be] away in seclusion for over a month. It was really hectic running around tying up loose ends and trying to prepare as much as possible. It was also smack during the holidays, so that complicated things, too. I had to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement, so I couldn’t really tell any of my friends or family what was happening. I told my friends and clients that I was leaving for a while and couldn’t tell them what I was doing, but that it was something really cool, and they’ll find out in due time. Those who knew I auditioned figured it out pretty easily.

How has living in New Jersey influenced your cooking? Living in New Jersey has influenced my cooking in so many ways. There’s a heavy Italian influence here, so I veer towards that style more often than not. There’s also such an abundance of incredible Jersey produce and seafood. Clams? Scallops? Flounder? Striped bass? Tomatoes? Corn? Blueberries? Don’t even get me started. People who’ve never been here don’t realize what incredible farmlands and fisheries we have all over the state. I kind of like how it’s our little secret.

Living at the Jersey Shore gives you access to a lot of great, fresh ingredients. What are some of your favorites? What kinds of dishes do you like to make with them? Well, Jersey tomatoes are my all time favorite ingredient. Hands down, no questions asked. The first tomatoes are just starting to ripen in my garden, and I’ve been making big batches of this Watermelon Gazpacho and lots of these tomato tarts. I’m also a sucker for Jersey corn, especially in this creamed corn recipe. I also love clams, and this recipe is a great way to incorporate clams and corn. [I also love cooking with] berries, like in this Summer Berry Pudding, and I love making zucchini gratin. I could go on and on!

Where are your favorite places to grocery shop at the Jersey Shore? Most residents around here bum out about not having a Whole Foods, Wegman’s or Trader Joe’s in the area, and I admit that I do too. But ShopRite gets the job done just fine. They’ve come a long way over the years, and I know mine like the back of my hand, so it’s easy in and easy out. They’re also more than willing to order new products if I ask. I also love B.F. Mazzeo’s produce market in Northfield, Ernest and Son’s butcher shop in Brigantine and Randall’s Seafood, Asia Superarket, and La Cosecha (all in Pleasantville).

What are your favorite restaurants at the Jersey Shore? Steve and Cookies, Knife and Fork, the Iron Room are probably the three spots I frequent the most. We always sit at the bar, and they’re always solid. Andre’s has the best food in Brigantine, especially when Andre brings out one of his special creations from the back. I also love the ethnic food in Atlantic City like Pho Sydney, Little Saigon, New Malaka, Pancho, and Kelsey & Kim’s.

Describe the first dish you remember cooking — what was it, where were you, who were you cooking with, who were you cooking for? Oh geez! I remember one year asking my mom if I could make my own birthday dinner and she agreed, albeit reluctantly. I used to watch her brown the meat for beef stew with garlic and olive oil, and it smelled so good I insisted we eat it just like that. So that’s what I set out to make. I called it “garlic steak” and I served it to my whole family. I don’t remember it going over very well, and I’m pretty sure I was disappointed too. It still sounds good in theory, though. What’s bad about garlic steak?!

You’re active in most of the food-centric events in and around the Jersey Shore. Tell me a little about your experiences at these events and what you like about participating in them. I’ve been so lucky to participate in so many of our local food and wine festivals. I’ve mostly done cooking demonstrations, which are always a blast. Last year, I was the official cooking demo MC for the Atlantic City Seafood Festival and that was awesome because I got to be up on stage with all of the other chefs, asking them questions and tasting their amazing creations. I’ll be doing it again this year! I’m a collaborative person, so I always enjoy working with other chefs.

What is your favorite Jersey Shore beach? I like the beach at the Brigantine jetty.

Where do you see yourself in five years? You know, I honestly have no idea. I’ve surprised myself so much in the past few years with what I’ve managed to do with my life, I think in five years I could be doing just about anything. If all goes the way I hope, I’ll still be cooking up a storm, traveling as much as possible, and not working too hard. My only goals in life these days are to enjoy it more.

By Shaina Wizov

Nicole can be reached at her website: http://www.nicolegaffney.com/