Alexis Hernandez

WTVC Exclusive Next Food Network Star’s Serena Palumbo

Last year on Next Food Network Star Serena Palumbo drew a lot of attention with her delightful and bubbly personality.  Amongst all of the classically trained chefs it was this home cook who forged one of the most devout followings.  Her effervescent personality and spitfire “can do” attitude struck home with lots of viewers.

Serena Palumbo of Next Food Network StarOf all of the contestants to ever compete on NFNS, Serena may have had the best Plan “B” for not winning.  She could always fall back on her old job of being an international corporate lawyer in the global finance industry.  In 2001 she earned her Juris Doctor from Universita’ degli Studi di Napoli Federico II (Federico II University School of Law in Naples).  In 2004 she studied Corporate Law and Securities Regulation at New York University School of Law as part of a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship.

Serena proved she was no one-trick pony when she started her popular web series Cooking in Manhattan.  Since 2009 her channel has received roughly 50,000 page views with nearly 150,000 individual video downloads.  The success of Cooking in Manhattan has lead to appearances on Food2, CNN, BBC and ultimately as a finalists on Next Food Network Star.

Just a few days before the premiere of NFNS 7 I spoke with Serena.  When talking to her you cannot help but notice her accent.  It is not the stereotype Hollywood gives you of Italians but something warmer and just a touch exotic.  Underlying that accent is a complete mastery of the English language.

As a writer you are always looking for that perfect word to convey an emotion.  Usually it comes easily enough but sometimes you have to thumb through a thesaurus to find it.  That is why it is amazing  to hear Serena do it in casual conversation in what is essentially her second language.  That is an indication of a very keen mind.  She says unabashedly that she is a nerd and proud of it.

Today Serena balances her jet-setting law career with her emerging lifestyle brand on the web site SerenaPalumbo.com which chronicles her life as an attorney, cook, traveler & fashionista.   She has big plans for the site but why not hear about it from her.

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Are you planning to watch the new season of Next Food Network Star?

Most definitely.  Not only will I be watching but I will be live Tweeting about that.  Last year I was very new to Twitter and I didn’t have a chance to use it as a conduit for telling my story.  This year I have been a little more attuned to social media.  I am looking forward to the new season because it is very large in regards to the number of contestants and some of them are characters I would like very much to get to know.

Does it seem like a year since it was you standing before the judges?

It’s been an interesting year.  It’s hard for me to believe that just last year my season was premiering.  It’s been quite hectic.  And it’s been slightly different from what I thought.  It’s really amazing that people recognize you on the street and they tell you, I really liked you on your season.

It’s been really interesting in seeing who took advantage of the platform they were offered and who did not.  You look on my season you saw a lot of people who looked to be very entrepreneurial and you have imagined that they were ready to run with it.  Fortunately some people really ran with the exposure they got.  On the other hand some people didn’t take advantage of it at all.

What changes have taken place in your life since last year?

Serena Palumbo of Next Food Network StarI am very blessed that I participated in the Next Food Network Star because my life has been totally different than it was.  It gave me a lot of training in what to say and what not to say.

My web site now is all new.  There’s so many good things that are going on.  Obviously there is more Cooking in Manhattan.  I keep toying with that because it’s a nice hobby to have, to have this little cooking show that takes place in my own kitchen.  I have been a food writer; I have written for Boulevard Long Island, for Chibo Magazine.  Also in magazines in Italy; the Italian version of Cosmopolotan.

I feel more fearless.

Are there any members of your cast with whom you keep in touch?

Definitely.  I keep in touch with Aarti (Sequeira).  We were friends throughout the show.  I think Aarti is doing an excellent job.  I’m really glad that she got this opportunity.  I think it really went to a person that deserved it.

I’m very good friends with Alexis (Hernandez) and Doreen (Fang).  Alexis is really a person with a big heart.  I really appreciate him a lot.  And Doreen is wonderful.  I am in contact with Brianna (Jenkins).  When she comes to New York from time to time she calls me and then we meet for coffee.  Tom (Pizzica) and I follow each other on Twitter but I actually became good friends with some members of his family so we keep in contact indirectly.

You had a strong run last year and remain a fan favorite to this day.  Can we look forward to seeing you do more work on TV?

There are no plans so far.  If someone comes up to me and says, “Would you like to have a cooking show?”  I definitely would.  Maybe if I can make Bob Tuschman, Susie Fogelson and Bobby Flay change their minds one day then that would be good for me.

How much of your time would you say you spend working abroad right now?

I am the in-house council in America for an Italian bank so they send me traveling very often.  We have a branch in Brazil where they send me often.  They send me very often to Italy because that’s where the headquarters of the bank are.  I would say that my practice in 99% in the United States.

You’re an advocate for the war on childhood obesity, why is this cause so important to you?

I was very chunky when I was a kid.  You know the hippos in Fantasia?  I was more or less like this.

So I am very much an advocate for childhood obesity because I think that obesity is driven sometimes by the fact that kids are not exposed to real food.  They are not exposed to where the chicken is born, where the cows come from.  They are not seeing that and that is something in my culture I did have.  My parents would tell me the apple comes from this tree but the fig comes from a different tree.

All of the work I do outside of my job is for charity because I have something that pays the bills.  Childhood obesity is one thing I feel very strongly about.  The second thing is the American Cancer Society.

Do you have any desire to run your own restaurant?

A lot of people came up to me asking if I would like to have my own restaurant, it’s a lot of hard work.  Maybe in a different stage of my life I will have time to do that.

What other projects are you working on right now?

My web site.  My web site.  My web site.  It’s going to be not only about food but if you notice there is a travel section.  There will be a lifestyle section that I am going to beef up in the next few days.  There is a reason for all this and it is because I have so many friends all over the world.  I have friends in India, obviously a lot of friends in Europe and a lot of friends in the Americas.

I would like to share a lot of things that are not American with my followers.  I’ll start off obviously with travel advice because it is something that I get asked for all the time.  Everyone tells me, “I’m going to Sardinia where should I go?”  That’s the first thing – one place where people can find all of that information on what to do that is not traditional touristy stuff.

And secondly is the lifestyle section that is more about who I really am because food is a great part of my life but there is also another part.  Italian women have a very different esthetic than American women or French women and I would like to show that.

There’s also going to be a lot of food writing for magazines and whatever comes my way really.

 

Season 7 of Next Food Network Star premieres this Sunday at 9/8 Central.  As usual I will be live Tweeting the event.  You can keep up with the snark by bookmarking this link.

http://youtu.be/Vmnn5oVnNOE

Next Food Network Star 6 Rehash

NFNSThe finale to Next Food Network Star Season Six is tonight so I thought I would put together an index of posts to remind us just how we got here:

Next Food Network Star 6 Finale

next food network starWhy does it seem like this season has been going on for years?  Maybe because this was the weakest field of NFNS contestants to date.  Of the twelve seven never stood a chance and an eighth was at best a dark horse.  So that means there were only four legitimate contestants in the whole contest: Aarti, Brad, Tom and Herb.  With the finale upon us three of those four remain – Aarti, Tom and Herb.

Many Tweeting the show and commenting on blogs across the Online have stated that they don’t really see anyone in this year’s cast that they think they could watch.  In fact that seems to be the prevailing thought with most fans of the show.  True there may not be another Guy Fieri in this group but for sure none of the final three are Aaron McCargo Jr or Amy Finley either.  And let’s be honest, other than Guy, no one really watches the shows of NFNS winners.

Here are my thoughts on the final three contestants:

Aarti Sequeira on WannabeTVchef.comAarti Sequeira – She has the most star potential.  She brings something to Food Network that they have never had, an Indian chef.  That is important because Bob Tuschman really wants an Indian show on the “big network.”  But more than that Aarti has proven she has range.  Throughout the competition she not only showed the flexibility of Indian cuisine but she also proved proficient in others having won challenges with Mediterranean, Spanish and Mexican dishes.  Just think, Food Network hasn’t had a chef who’s specialty was an Asian cuisine since Ming Tsai.  That was over a decade ago.

Herb Mesa on WannabeTVchef.comHerb Mesa – He is an immensely passionate person.  His love for his family is something that I think everyone will take away from this season.  In a country were many parents only go through the motions of parenthood, Herb attacks it with zeal.  He is also a talented chef but unfortunately I think that the direction he wants to go, healthy food, is one that the Network has tried on many occasions with little success (see Kathleen Dahlman, Ellie Krieger and Juan-Carlos Cruz before he became a murder suspect).  However, I think Herb’s point of view would make a highly successful show on the right network.  I believe he is tailor made for Planet Green.

Tom Pizzica on WannabeTVchef.comTom Pizzica –What a fricking wild card!  When Tom is on he is another Guy Fieri – humorous, stocky, funky hair and bold food.  When he is off he just flat out sucks.  Aarti I’d like to meet at a food bloggers conference, Herb I’d love to cook with but Tom . . .  Tom I want to grab a beer with.  He seems like the guy who’d sit through a marathon of South Park and then put in the movie.  One thing is for sure, in his best challenge he made a potential employer out of both Bobby Flay and Todd English.  I’d say he is already a winner.

Who do I think should win?  After what we’ve seen this season I would have to say that Aarti has earned the win but not by much.

Who do I think will win?  Again it is hard to go wrong with Aarti.  Herb and Tom, though entertaining, do not bring anything new to the Network where as Aarti brings something they’ve never had and desperately want.  Remember last year the race between Jeffrey Saad and Melissa D’Arabian was very close so ultimately, in my opinion, demographics decided the winner.

Thanks for playing:
Alexis Hernandez – went home week 1.
Doreen Fang – went home week 2.
Dzintra Dzenis – went home week 3.
Darrell “DAS” Smith – went home week 4.
Paul Young – went home week 5.
Brianna Jenkins – went home week 6.
Serena Palumbo – went home week 7.
Brad Sorenson – went home week 8.
Aria Kagan – went home week 9.

There was no real mystery in the final challenge; it’s how they always wrap things up.  Each contestant shoots a pilot for their show concept while some Food Network star acts as the director.  This year it was Rachael Ray.  I highly doubt that the final challenge has ever really determined a winner.  There’s the usual curtain call of former contestants and the seriously over played, mellow dramatic, extended pause before announcing the winner (seriously reality TV producers, that trick has gone stale).

So without further eloquence I would like to congratulate The Next Food Network Star . . .

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Aarti Sequeira
Aarti Sequeira on WannabeTVchef.com

Congratulations to Aarti. Hopefully for season 7 I’ll be in her shoes or at least some that are similar to hers only in a size 13 extra wide. Until next year NFNS’ers!

Past NFNS Finale Foul-ups

This Sunday night is the final of season six of the Next Food Network Star.  The finalist are Aarti, Herb and Tom but I’m guessing you already knew that.  The fact that the show has only produced one legitimate star in it’s first five tries has not stopped viewers from tuning in each week to follow the ups and downs of the contestants vying for the chance to be the second.  NFNS remains the number one rated show on the Food Network.

That is strange because of the history of, let’s say, questionable endings to some of the past seasons.  The first two seasons went OK, not much controversy but in season three the fireworks started.  Set the way back machine:

Season one was historical in a couple of ways.  It was the first such contest of it’s kind.  Second, the winners were a gay couple which, too, made it ground breaking.  Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh are bright and talented caterers from Chicago.  Their winning show, Party Line with the Hearty Boys, was not very entertaining but that wasn’t as important as the standards set by that first season.

Season two yielded the only Next Food Network Star winner to ever actually become a Food Network star, Guy Fieri.  And a star he has become.  Those TGIFriday’s commercials speak to the California culinarians mass appeal.  He has hosted Guy’s Big Bite, Guy Off the Hook, Ultimate Recipe Showdown and another show you may have heard of, Diner’s Drive-ins and Dives.

JAGSeason three is where things started getting – what’s the word? -oh, yeah, suspicious.  JAG would have won, should have won, but for the last minute revelation that he had exaggerated his resumé.  This resulted in an 11th hour return of recently booted Amy Finley who, given a second chance, ended up winning the contest (just like in a Hollywood script).

Why is this suspicious?  Having been through the NFNS process I know how thorough their background checks are.  Honestly, it’s easier to slip something past the FBI than it is The Food Network.  With that in mind the idea that FN hadn’t bothered to check the accuracy of resumés just doesn’t wash.  I do know this, the inncident was huge for the ratings.

Season four the shinannigans were even more outlandish.  A stand-up comedian who was so unfunny it was actually painful, a boorish elitest who described anyone who has ever eaten boxed macaroni and cheese as “white trash” and a chef who was scared of fish and stayed weeks too long because she was pretty and satisfied a missing demographic at TFN, Indian cuisine.

Next Food Network StarThere were two contestants who blew away the competition every single week.  Shane Lyons and Kelsey Nixon were both perfect packages, however the judges (Bob Tuschman in particular) kept harping on their youth.  It didn’t matter how well they performed, they were too young to take seriously.  That of course begs the question, why let them into the contest at all?  Nixon, by the way, won TFN’s fan poll on their own web site in a land slide and is to this day one of the most popular talents in the Food Network stables.

After eliminating the two best contestants, in successive weeks no less, we were left with the trio of Liza Garza, Aaron McCargo Jr. and Adam Gertler.  Garza arrived as a foppish diva with serious cooking chops who, more than anyone else on the show, listened to the judges and turned herself into exactly what they said they were looking for.  Gertler was good on camera but had limited culinary skills.  McCargo was a passable cook but was terrible on camera; still is.

In an episode designed to whittle it down to two contestants McCargo, who had been a model of mediocrity, bombed.  He bombed hard.  In fact, it was without a doubt the single worst performance in the history of the show.  Adam was okay and Garza blew the doors off the studio.  Easy choice right?  Boot the guy who bombed, right?  Nope, the judges decided to change the rules and bring all three back for the finale.  Aaron should have been gone but given a second chance brought home victory (just like in a Hollywood script).

Speaking of Lisa Garza she recently announced that she has signed a contract for her own cooking show.

Then there was the slip on the web site.  Apparently, some web geek accidentally revealed the outcome of the show days before the final episode was to premiere.  The web fiasco turned into a boon as fans who had tuned out because of the questionable antics (the elimination of Kelsey Nixon, especially) tuned back in to see if the web screw-up was a publicity stunt.

Season five was a little more tame with the exception of contestant Debbie Lee.  Considered by many to be the most vile and despicable person in the history of reality cooking shows, Lee cheated, back-stabbed and sabotaged herself all the way to the next-to-last episode. At least that’s how it appeared after a few days in the editing room anyway.  Melissa D’Arabian won and as her reward was given a TV show called $10 Dinners.  Which oddly enough was not the show concept that won her the NFNS title.  Coincidentally there was a national casting call back in 2008 for a cooking show called $10 Dinners that was surprisingly similar to the show D’Arabian now hosts.

So that brings us to season six and who knows what stunts, if any, Food Network has up it’s metaphorical sleeve.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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