Nicole Marchetti is professional chef and a winner of Food Network's Chopped who also happens to have celiac disease
In 2013, Nicole Marchetti became a Food Network's Chopped champion. She's a professional chef who these days is spending her time as a culinary instructor at YTI Career Institute in Lancaster. All of these is impressive in its own right, especially for someone who's only turned 30, but what makes Nicole even more remarkable is that she's launched this successful culinary career all while dealing with celiac disease for the last decade--a serious autoimmune disease that means even a crumb of gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye) can cause serious harm.
We recently chatted with Nicole to learn more about how her life, which revolves around food, is affected by celiac disease:
When did you first get into cooking?
I got into cooking at a young age. I used to make the toast on Saturday and Sunday mornings at a café my Mom worked at. At home my Dad would make his famous steak and potatoes and I would always look forward to that night. To this day, I still can’t make that dinner as good as he can. As a teenager I worked in various restaurants as a busser, server, pantry cook and food runner. It was not until I found out I was a celiac disease that I really got into professional cooking. My diagnosis is what really inspired me to pursue becoming a chef. I also love to bring people together and food was always that one thing that can do that. I come from a large family so meal time is very important to me.
When were you first diagnosed with celiac disease?
I was diagnosed in 2008 when I was 20 years old. About a year before I started culinary school at The Culinary Institute of America.
What was your diagnosis journey like?
For a few years before I was diagnosed I could not have dairy. So I avoided it, but even when I avoided dairy I would still have some issues. I didn’t really eat processed foods/pre-packaged foods or a lot of breads, so I just figured since I wasn’t eating those foods that when I did it was my body telling me that was a no-no. I started to lose weight and just felt terrible every day. I remember talking to my dad and he told me to talk to my uncle who has celiac disease. After speaking with my uncle I made a doctor’s appointment and here we are! Even before going to the doctor’s office I did countless hours of research on the web trying to find out as much information as I could about the disease as well as talking to family. Websites like Beyond Celiac really helped me.
Did you have complications from celiac disease prior to your diagnosis?
My right hip I had checked out on multiple occasions and being a chef and on my feet all day bothers it. My joint there just gets very sore if I stand or sit/lay down for too long or if I am glutened. When I am glutened it’s worse.
How did your diagnosis impact your career goals?
My diagnosis inspired my goals to becoming a chef. It was that final push that got me to go to school for culinary arts. I wanted to find a way to make those family dinners work for me and for other people who have the disease.
How has having celiac disease affected you as a chef?
Celiac disease has definitely thrown a wrench in cooking at times. I have to make dishes that I am not able to try and then I have to find people to be my guinea pigs. My 8 year old niece is also a celiac, diagnosed at a very young age. So when I do make anything that is gluten-free for family events I have to make sure she likes it too. She’s a tougher critic than the Chopped judges…
Speaking of "Chopped," how did you get on the show? Did having celiac disease affect your cooking on the show?
I got onto Chopped by filling out an application online not thinking that they would even consider me! I would say maybe 2-3 weeks after I filled out the application I got a call from Scripts Network and they asked if I would be able to do an on camera interview with them in NYC. After the on camera interview, I received a call I think about a week later with a tentative date for filming! I was originally supposed to film in January of 2013 but I got a call from them mid December of 2012 asking if I could be in New York in 2 days to film! Needless to say I got coverage at the restaurant I was working at, booked a hotel room and got into NYC. The actual filming of the episode happens all in one day. The first round I didn’t get any suspicious ingredients but the second round I got Toban Djan, which is an Asian bean paste that contains soy sauce. In my head all I could think of was “of course they put this in the basket.” I ended up cooking lentils and adding the Toban Djan at the very end hoping that it was enough/worked with the dish. The dessert round I didn’t try the cookies I made. I had made that cookie before in the restaurants I worked in so I knew they were good.
What are you up to now? What are your plans for the future?
So right now I am teaching at YTI Career Institute. I have a chef's dinner that is going to be auctioned off at a charity benefit so I am working with the man who is supplying the wines on a menu.
How does having celiac disease affect your teaching of future chefs?
Having celiac disease has affected my teaching ability because I am not able to taste everything the students may make on a daily basis. With that being said I have learned to use my other senses to determine and properly evaluate the food the students make. Sight, is it fully cooked, over cooked or under cooked. Smell, is it over salted, burnt or was an ingredient left out.
What is your favorite gluten-free dish?
My dad makes a prosciutto, mushroom and cream toast that he always makes for the holidays or any family dinner. Since my diagnosis we now always get gluten-free bread or baguette or crackers so my niece and I can have it.
Do you have a favorite restaurant that serves gluten-free foods?
There are a few restaurants that I just absolutely love that serve gluten-free food. Unfortunately two of them now are not open or went to strictly catering. One was Good Eats in West Reading. I actually worked there prior to going to culinary school. I loved it there and the gluten-free banana bread was amazing! The owner Rick, has since passed but I’ll never forget my time there, it was celiac heaven. Another one is Leigh Anns Coffee House in Key Colony Beach, FL. Since hurricane Irma the coffee house has turned into Clouds in My Coffee Catering. I worked in Philadelphia for some time and had the opportunity to eat at some amazing restaurants. Marcie Turney’s Lolita restaurant has the best Tres Leches Cake in town. Vetri lays out the red carpet and modifies gluten-free food to perfection. Amada and Distrito, two Jose Garces restaurants, are also on the top of my list.
What would you say to other aspiring chefs with celiac disease, food allergies or intolerances?
My advice to aspiring chefs who have to deal with celiac disease, food allergies or intolerances would be to not let your food restriction hinder your work ethic. There is plenty of opportunities for advancement in the industry, you just have to teach yourself to work around it.