Surrounded by knife-scarred chefs on the “Food Network Star” stage, Nikki Dinki had to admit that cooking wasn’t her strong suit.
During a 45-minute cooking challenge for the Food Network show’s first episode, which aired June 2, Dinki cut herself three times. Then she ran out of unbloodied knives and had to borrow one. She even made the classic rookie mistake of turning on a lidded blender full of hot liquid, sending soup spraying.
But the Clarence native had her own secret ingredient: three years’ experience shooting and editing her own cooking videos, hour after hour spent practicing acting natural as cameras rolled.
The “Food Network Star” competition, which rewards the winner with a Food Network show, is as much about camera presence as cooking savvy. Dinki smiled as she presented her dish – a cauliflower, potato and parsnip soup, with a potato and pancetta hash – to Bobby Flay, Giada Di Laurentiis and Alton Brown. A watchful audience turned up their instant-reaction dials as she talked, and none of the disaster showed.
Dinki had survived to cook another day.
There won’t be a winner until Aug. 11, when viewers get to vote for their favorite contestant.
The Clarence High Class of 2001 graduate moved to New York City to pursue her artistic ambitions, and sold drinks at the Bull’s Head Tavern at Third and 23rd to pay the bills. She ended up marrying a customer, lawyer Evan Siegert.
Dinki scored a “Sopranos” episode and did some commercials and voice-over work before the Food Network picked her for the Food Network Star Class of 2013.
Which was all part of the plan when she started shooting her own cooking videos and posting them to YouTube and her own site, nikkidinkicooking.com. A pretty face and affable manner, expressed in more than 60 videos and a regular spot on a WBAI radio show helped her gather about 7,000 followers.
“I feel thankful for every new fan,” Dinki said in an interview the day after the first episode aired. “Food Network would never have given me the time of day if I had some videos on and 100 followers.”
By the time you’re doing the cooking videos, each one is a piece of your audition to get on this show?
For sure. These are videos that I shoot myself, press record and then edit myself. I’ve gotten fancier throughout the years as far as my lighting and my miking. But yeah, putting all these videos out there and then having clips from my radio show, this is really what allowed the Food Network to look at me and see what I had to offer.
The show’s central challenge is thinking on your feet, then cooking on your feet, in a hurry.
Every time a challenge was revealed to us, that’s real time, and then we’d go in and have to start cooking. So it’s definitely about thinking on your feet really quickly, forming a plan for the cooking, and knowing your limitations when it comes to the show.
For the first episode I really liked the idea of doing a soup, because I knew I could do it in one pot, and I would have limited kitchen space.
Of course whenever you are in front of a group or making your promos, it’s about making smart choices about what you’re going to say about yourself in that 30 seconds, and of course making sure it comes off eloquently.
Every contestant has their bumper sticker phrase, their brand. Yours is “semi-vegetarian.” What does that mean?
It’s funny: It’s really just the way that I am, and the way I’ve developed with food and cooking. Then I kind of realized it’s the way a lot of people out there eat, and need to eat. Just this idea of the opposite of a big old steak and a side of steamed broccoli, the opposite of meat and potatoes. It’s about making that broccoli really special, and including maybe a small amount of meat.
It’s the idea of focusing on the vegetables and making them the star of the plate.
Before shooting started you must have watched every episode ever, and decided what recipe you would make in this situation or that situation.
We were told we were on the show and in a week or two we’re flying out to L.A. I’m somebody who likes to prep as much as they can. So I did.
My husband got me a Food Network Star book that he found online. I watched every season, and started taking notes about how long you usually got to cook, what the challenges were. I cook a lot of things that take longer than 30 or 45 minutes, and I knew those were things I wouldn’t be able to cook on the show.
I made lists of my favorite dishes and tried as much as I could prep. Not that there was much you could do except look at situations they were in in the past and come up with the best things I could do.
If you have a chance to be on that show, how can you not make a spreadsheet plotting out various ingredients and situations and how you’d respond to them?
I actually had flash cards, with go-to recipes, like a vinaigrette. With most of my dishes, I kind of have them in my head, I know about what’s in them. But there are some things, especially dessert-wise, that we weren’t allowed to bring any recipes. So I made flash cards to memorize my own cheesecake recipe, because I wanted to do that on the show.
You cook really quickly. But then you have to spend a day talking to the camera, six or eight hours, about the episode, about everything that you did and everything everyone else did. You spend a whole day for the elimination, doing that process. It’s definitely a very grueling process.
I was very wary going into the cooking challenge, because I didn’t know how well I could do. I didn’t know if I could handle the pressure. And as you can see in the first episode, my hands are shaky and I cut myself three times. Little cuts, but it’s an intense environment.
Some things they didn’t show. My husband told me, because we watch a lot of “Chopped,” “Don’t put hot liquids in a blender without letting the steam escape, ‘cause it’ll explode.” And I told him, “Why would I do that? I always use an immersion blender or a food processor. I’m not even going to go near a blender.”
And the very first episode, I put three battery-powered immersion blenders into my pot, and they’re all dead. Suddenly I’m pouring my soup into a blender, putting it on, not letting the steam escape, and it goes everywhere.
At one point I had a cut on each hand, and then I cut myself through my glove, so I put a second glove on. Every time I cut myself I threw away my knife because I knew it was contaminated, I didn’t even know where I could wash it.
So I ended up at the end of that 45-minute cooking challenge with no knife, and I had to borrow somebody else’s.
No wonder your hands are shaking. So the dish that came out of all of this was what?
The dish was a cauliflower, potato and parsnip soup, with a potato and pancetta hash. As I said to my sister-in-law last night, when she said. “That looks so good, is that one of your dishes you have on your site?” I’ve never made that dish before. She says, “What do you mean you never made that dish before?”
Well, they told me I had to make something from a potato. I wanted to include extra vegetables. So I just kind of started thinking of something that would probably be good. And it was good.