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MASTERCHEF: MEET NICCOMASTERCHEF
MEET NICCO
By Sammi Turano


Tell me about yourself.

Loud and unfiltered come to mind immediately. But let’s start from the beginning. I was raised in a small town called Newberry, in the middle of South Carolina. While it wasn’t my favorite place in the world to grow up, living in the south did give me an incredible foundation for the kitchen. What restaurants today call farm to table, we called Tuesday night dinner. Someone was always “visiting,” as we call it in the south, and we would share our fresh produce – Tomatoes, squash, watermelon, corn, peanuts, beans, etc. These are the fresh ingredients chef’s lust after, and I was fortunate enough to be making sandwiches out of them.

It was in Newberry that I got my first restaurant job, washing dishes, and my first taste of a professional kitchen. Needless to say, I fell in love. I worked in restaurants for the next nine years as a server assistant, waiter, and bartender. After spending hundreds of hours polishing silverware, watching incredible chef’s cook and plate food, I knew I could do it myself, so I did. That was more or less the start of my MasterChef journey.


 What made you decide to audition for MasterChef?

MasterChef has always been one of my favorite shows. I would watch it religiously, and every episode I would mumble to myself, “I can do that.” So I put my money where my mouth is and tried out…in NYC for Season 7. I fell flat on my face, and didn’t make it past the second round of auditions. After that failed audition, I was through with it all. I mean the odds of being 1 in 35,000 is pretty slim. The following year MasterChef auditions were coming to Boston, where I currently live, and I had found out about them 2 days prior. I made the decision to try out one more time.

 

What was the experience like? 

Incredibly unique. The first part is so great. It’s like getting a gold ticket. When you finally get the email that say’s you’re going to L.A., I can’t explain how exciting it is. Then the anxiety sets in. How do you learn to cook everything in a short amount of time? You don’t, but I tried. Once I made it on the show, it was a very day to day type of experience. When entering into “TV Land” as we liked to call it, it’s a different reality. The outside world starts to fade, your life turns into cooking and very little else. Having the chance to focus solely on one thing is quite rare in itself. To be focused on a personal passion, surrounded by peers and culinary giants is surreal. 




What are some highlights from the experience?

Walking into the MasterChef kitchen for the first time. Gordon handing me a white apron. Making new life-long friends, and joining the exclusive MasterChef family.

 

What were some of your biggest challenges? 

I grappled with a lot of anxiety while I was on show. It’s extremely daunting having to cook new challenges day after day. It was also very hard to watch my new close friends get critiqued or make mistakes. Even though it’s a competition, all of the contestants become close very quickly. So while Heather got critiqued for adding too much pepper to her eggs, it’s just a slip of the finger away and you’re in the same boat with her. I think the challenge of cooking under pressure like that comes to fruition in different ways for different people. For me it was paralyzing anxiety.

 

What is your signature dish?

I really liked the dish I served the judges to win my white apron. A Turkish spiced lamb ravioli with a shitake mushrooms and a red wine sauce. It was sexy. I also love love love scallops, so I keep 8 or 10 great plates in my back pocket for that protein as well.

 

What is one dish you want to learn how to make?

So many. Sour Dough bread being at the top of my list lately. I think it’s beautiful. But it’s far less about learning a dish as a whole, and more about learning the component techniques. Memorizing recipes won’t get you very far in the MasterChef kitchen. Either way, I am intrigued by new food every day and I only know how to cook a very small amount of it. I’ve got a lot to learn.

 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I started a successful food app in 2015 called Tender Social Food. It was a play on Tinder, and a lot of fun. We went viral for a short time and gained an incredible amount of traction for being three guys in a living room.

 

What are you watching on TV these days?

You had to ask. A lot of Star Trek (Next Gen/DS9), Murdoch Mysteries, Anthony Bourdain, Silicon Valley. I am also a ravenous reader of fiction and most recently food history books. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a super nerd.

 

Anything else you want to tell America?

Have fun, make memories, and don’t let anyone stand in the way of what you want to do with your life. It doesn’t always work out the first time, but use that experience to kill it the second time around. And cook with fresh ingredients, it’s better in every way.

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