I first met Serena Palumbo in April, at the NYU panel discussion, "Feeding Your Passion: Celebrating NYU Women in the Culinary Arts." A contestant in the upcoming season of The Next Food Network Star, which debuts June 7, this native Italian, former ballerina, and New York corporate attorney got her start hosting an online instructional cooking show, "Cooking in Manhattan," on YouTube to teach friends how to cook. You'll have to watch the show to see how the season ends, but read on to learn her essential ingredients, favorite New York spots, and no-fail recipe.
Louise McCready: In your introduction on the show, you say you wanted to be a ballerina, so you became one, and then, you wanted to become a lawyer, and you did. What drives your determination?
Serena Palumbo: I got that from my very hardworking parents, a doctor and a professor. They would wake up early every morning and work very hard. This kind of example leads to being determined from a very early age. In a way, I am a self-made girl because I moved to the US from Italy and started from scratch--not an easy task. Without determination and drive, I would have gone back to Italy many years ago. For a person that had no connections, family, or friends in New York and came here with a suitcase of (Italian) clothes and a lot of dreams, I cannot complain. Opportunities are so hard to come across in such a competitive market that I want to make the best of everything I have to offer. I can hear my nonna (grandmother) tell me "Aiutati che il cielo ti aiuta" (help yourself and heavens will help you). This is what I live by--I don't do "helpless."
LM: What are your favorite cookbooks?
SP: My favorite cookbooks are The Silver Spoon because my mom and grandmother have cooked out of that for decades and it's now available also in the US; One Pot Spanish by Penelope Casas, (I discovered her cookbooks in Barcelona approximately 10 years ago and I have been cooking tapas ever since); The New Best Recipe because this book has the best recipe for everything to which I then give my own twist; and The Art of Simple Food by Alice Walters because her recipes are really a delicious food revolution.
LM: What are five essential ingredients you use in the kitchen?
SP: Extra virgin olive oil is one of my favorite ingredients--I cannot cook without it and also use it for baking. I love the creaminess of Greek yogurt and use it for quick breakfast shakes or to add a touch to soups and stews. I always have some agave nectar handy--my friend Matthew Kenney, a great chef who prepares some delicious vegan food, introduced me to it years ago during a cooking class. I started using it as a sweetener and never went back. Also in my kitchen I always have pine nuts and shallots; they are tiny but packed with flavor.
LM: What is your one no-fail recipe?
SP: It really depends on how much time I have. During the week when I get home at night after a workday, I usually prepare something simple such as scaloppini, frittata, maybe a vegetable sauté with couscous. During the weekend I try to be a little more creative so usually I go to the farmers' market and get fresh ingredients. I often prepare eggplant parmigiana and zucchini escabeche. I love to roast a nice organic chicken with very crispy skin and juicy meat or some fresh seafood en papillote.
LM: What are your favorite restaurants in NY?
SP: As much as I try to cook at home, New York is too much of a temptation for a foodie. For Italian food I usually go to Bottega del Vino and Morandi. I have started to see the very Italian tradition of "salumeria con cucina" (a specialty store that serves food at night) developing in New York. The one in the Upper West Side called Salumeria Rosi, by Cesare Casella, is fantastic. When I look for authentic Neapolitan pizza, I go to Keste Pizzeria & Vino in the West Village. And what would life be without some olive oil gelato from Otto?
But I also eat food that is not Italian! I love Bar Masa for sushi, Chinatown Brasserie, for Boqueria and Casa Mono for tapas, and Bar Paya for a taste of South America--try the unbelievably good "causas."
LM: What chef do you find most inspiring?
SP: I am very inspired by the cooks in my family. My mom and my aunt Luisa have been my real teachers as I watched them preparing Sunday lunch over the years. On TV, I love watching Alton Brown because Good Eats brings out the nerd in me; when I want to feel cool I watch Bobby Flay, who exudes coolness even when he is grilling. I watch Gordon Ramsay for pure entertainment because he gets mad all the time, and rightfully so, but the expression on his face is priceless. Last but not least, I watch Giada De Laurentiis all the time because she is so graceful and classy on camera.
LM: On the show, a comparison was made between you and the other "Italian minx," Giada de Laurentiis. Is there a specific food network star you hope to emulate?
SP: I love Giada-- she is the "Grace Kelly" of Italian food. I am more of a nerd. I can only hope to look as graceful as she does on camera. I would love to mix a little Giada with a little Alton Brown and a little Guy Fieri for the rock and roll aspect.
LM: Did you have any hesitations about signing up to participate in a reality TV show?
SP: No hesitation whatsoever. This is a reality show about skills, not just about the interactions within a group of people. All the finalists are evaluated on the basis of their skills and capabilities; I would have not participated otherwise. I have been a fan of Food Network since I got to the US in 2004 and of the show. I would have not signed up for it if I did not know the channel and trusted that the show.
LM: Unlike some of the original food network stars who proved their mettle by owning restaurants or producing cookbooks, today's stars are chosen as much for their star power as their skills in the kitchen and the only people who ever taste their food are the judges. Do you think the importance of being a talented and experienced cook has been eclipsed by the ability to act?
SP: You are talking about three judges that have quite a refined palate! The Next Food Network Star is not a show about looking good on camera--that would be the one about the top models. The selection committee consists of a programming expert, a marketing expert and a food expert who all cook. It is hard to produce a dish and have the selection committee taste it, but it is also a growth opportunity. I took the opportunity to participate as a way to improve myself as a cook and as a person. Without good food there is no brand, no TV show, and no credibility with the public; it all starts with the food. And good food can come from a chef as much as from a home cook--maybe this time it is coming from me!