Keep your fingers crossed: At just 23 years old, Nick DiGiovanni is poised to become the youngest champion in the history of MasterChef. The Barrington, Rhode Island native and recent Harvard grad has advanced to the top-10 roster of contestants on the Fox network’s hugely popular competitive-cooking show, where he’s impressed chef-judges Gordon Ramsay, Aarón Sanchez, and Joe Bastianich with his remarkable leadership ability and culinary prowess beyond his years.
DiGiovanni started cooking when he was only about eight years old, learning to bake so he could satisfy his sweet tooth at an age when most kids are still begging for candy bars. Inspired by his grandmother and great-grandmother—both “fantastic chefs,” he says—DiGiovanni began working in restaurants in high school, and has since interned at Benu, a Michelin three-star restaurant in San Francisco, and spent time in the kitchen at Cambridge’s acclaimed Waypoint. He ultimately decided to forego culinary school for Harvard, where he wound up developing his own concentration: “Food & Climate.”
Ahead of this week’s episodes (which air at 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday, August 7 and Thursday, August 8) we spoke with DiGiovanni about his experiences on the show, launching his own line of pastas with a Harvard Medical School professor—and, of course, where he finds his favorite lobster roll.
Congrats on cracking the top-ten! How does it feel?
My initial goal with MasterChef was just to get an apron, so once I did that I was happy about it. But then I set my sights on the top ten, and when I made it, that’s when something flipped in my mind. I said, “Wow, I might actually have a shot at winning this, and going really, really far with this.” I became so much more serious about the competition after that. Before, it seemed like this fun little side-thing to do: I thought “Hey, I left school, this is fun, I’ll just run with it as long as I can.” But then I started treating it like a true competition where I thought I had a real shot at doing really well. The other cool part about getting to the top-ten was that it was really the first time I felt like I got to know the judges off camera. They congratulated us later that day and we got to chat with them a little bit about the experience in a casual setting, which was really, really nice. I’ll remember that forever.
If you win, you’d be the youngest champion in MasterChef history. How do you think your age has impacted your experience?
I love being one of the youngest on the show. I guess Micah [Yorach, aged 19] is the only one that’s younger than me. I think the whole group put us in the same category early on: “the two young kids.” I love it because I feel like you have that additional drive to learn more—being at school, I’m used to having to soak up all sorts of information. A lot of the people on the show know they’re already really talented cooks, but I think part of the point of MasterChef is to learn from Gordon [Ramsay] and the other judges. And a lot of people came in thinking that they kind of learned a lot of different skills, and they didn’t want to change that at this point in their lives. I was totally open to doing whatever, and I think that really helped a lot in getting from one episode to the next.
Have you always been fan of competitive-cooking shows like MasterChef?
Yeah, I would say I’m a fan of food shows so long as they’re actually about the food. I feel like it can get kind of muddy when some of those shows are not so much food-driven. All sorts of stuff can happen in the TV world, I guess. I like the ones that take more of a deep dive into food and seem more authentic. There’s a fine line between those more legitimate shows that are really about food, and the ones where food is there, but it’s not actually the focus.
Was cooking in front of the camera something that had a steep learning curve, or did you pick it up right away?
I think the key to that was to quickly try to pretend that nothing was there. It was a combination of pretending that nothing was there and also becoming really good friends with the main producer that I worked with. He would run out and ask questions while the camera was still on me. I think the fact that I was so close with him helped a lot, and I got used to it pretty quickly, which was nice. Some people were pretty freaked out by it, and they were pretty quickly out of there because it wasn’t for them. For others, it wasn’t so bad to adjust to.
What’s your relationship with the judges like? Are you attached to any one particular?
Yeah. I think from the very first audition episode I became really attached to Joe [Bastianich], actually. He seems like someone who doesn’t want to open up often to contestants.
Yeah, he’s an intimidating guy.
Yeah, Joe’s definitely intimidating. But I found him to be kind of like Gordon: super passionate about everything, and he was pretty straight forward about everything, which I liked, too. If he liked you he liked you—and if he didn’t, he made that known. We both come from Italian backgrounds, and I think that I have a pretty heavy interest in business, and he’s totally excelled in the business and food worlds. So I think pretty early on we really liked each other. I think most people had trouble getting through to Joe, but I enjoyed working with him a lot. All three of them are fantastic. I got along with all three judges so well. As long as you treated them all with respect as you would any chef in the kitchen, you got along with them.
Apart from the show, how would you describe your own style of cooking? What people or experiences have shaped your view of food?
I really, really like Italian. You can do so many things with pasta, so I love that. A big part of everything I cook and what I’ve learned over the years comes from the fact that my family catches a lot of its own food. I’ve caught all sorts of fish over the years: lobsters, crabs, and more obscure things like uni. I feel like the fact that we’ve caught so many of our own things makes it kind of different when you go to cook it, because you’re so much more connected to the whole process. You want to treat it really well because you caught it yourself. A lot of the stuff I cooked over the years is stuff that I literally caught maybe an hour before, and that changed the way I cooked.
You graduated from Harvard in May. Did you ever consider attending culinary school? Why did you ultimately decide against it?
Yeah, I did. For a while I thought I wanted to go to culinary school. I think I ultimately decided not to because I talked to so many chefs and they all said the same thing: that I was doing it the right way by going to restaurants at a young age and trying to learn that way. They said they learned so much more in their first month at restaurants where they were working than they did in all two years of culinary school.
At Harvard, you created your own concentration: “Food and Climate.” What was it about the intersection of those two subjects that interested you, and how do you think your studies will impact your future plans?
I realized I always had this passion for learning about the environment, and it’s pretty closely tied to the food system all across the globe. I thought, “why don’t I just combine these two and learn all of it at once?” In part, it really made me want to step in and play a role in figuring out how to align the global food system with our climate. I don’t know exactly what I’d be doing, but if I ever had the opportunity at some point in my career to try to step in and address that in any way, then I definitely want to. I realize how big of a problem it is and how important it is. Climate change is going to be a really difficult thing to solve, but I think that that’s a pretty cool way to tackle it.
You’ve developed a line of vegetable-based pastas for children with a professor from Harvard Medical School. How did that idea come about?
Since 2017 I’ve been working on this start-up called Voodles, and I’m going to be working on that full-time this year. Basically, my co-founder Daniel [Guss] realized that kids needed to eat more vegetables. He’s got four kids of his own, and he wanted to dry out zucchini noodles and reconstitute them with boiling water, but we found out that that was too expensive. So we essentially worked at this facility up in Vermont to develop a couple different products that are vegetable based and taste as close to regular pasta as possible. You can go into the store now and buy pasta that’s made with purely pea protein, but I tried some the other day and it has a really off-putting flavor. We’re trying to get it so that kids will actually treat this like regular pasta. I wouldn’t say you’re tricking them, as a parent, to feed it to them, but it’s like a nice, introductory way to give them vegetables.
When you were at Harvard, were there any favorite places nearby where you loved to eat? Or any other favorites around Boston?
Yeah! I’m a big fan of Alden and Harlow and Waypoint—I worked at Waypoint for a little bit. I love Little Donkey, and I’m trying to explore more around Boston. I definitely love Toro, and I like Eventide for that nice, fresh seafood. There’s a lot of good lobster rolls around Boston and New England, but I feel like the Eventide lobster roll is one of those menu items I’d take with me to a desert island.
Catch Nick on MasterChef on Wednesday, August 7 and Thursday, August 8, at 8 p.m. on FOX.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
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