“You’re a little bit scared”: TikTok chef Nick DiGiovanni found an unlikely friend in Gordon Ramsay

“You’re a little bit scared”: TikTok chef Nick DiGiovanni found an unlikely friend in Gordon Ramsay

Nick DiGiovanni isn’t here to teach you how to weigh your flour and stir up a pot of soup. What the “MasterChef” veteran, Guiness World record holder and social media star — with over 25 million followers all of his platforms — wants to offer instead is the encouragement and enthusiasm to help you teach yourself to cook the things you like to eat, the way you like to make them. And his own personal way doesn’t involve scales or soups.

In his debut cookbook  “Knife Drop: Creative Recipes Anyone Can Cook,” DiGiovanni offers techniques and recipes for becoming a more confident, intuitive home cook, whether you’re making browned butter, compost cookies or a “yolky gnocchi” that’s as luxurious as it sounds. As he explained to me, “I’m all about fearlessness. I want people to cook for fun and without having to think too much,” which is why he encourages tasting everything and stressing less about measuring. 

Watch Nick DiGiovanni’s “Salon Talks” episode here to hear the 27 year-old Rhode Island native talk about what he’s learned from his mentor Gordon Ramsey, why he likes collaborating with non-chefs like Tom Brady and the Jonas Brothers, and how you can overcome anxiety about messing up in the kitchen.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Let’s go back to the place that got you here, which is “MasterChef.” You were in school and near the end. You took time off to compete on this TV show. What was it about that moment in your life, that you said, “This is the time, this is the place”?

I was finishing up college. I always like to talk about the concept of fearlessness, and I think it’s true that it often is easier to be fearless the younger you are. It was a point in my life where I wanted to chase cooking in every possible way. I just saw “MasterChef” as an opportunity where it might amount to nothing, or it might amount to a career-changing opportunity that I could run with in a way that I just, at the time, didn’t know, of course. I figured, why not take it?

You pursued a culinary career in a really different way. You studied it from a much more academic and business-oriented perspective and took into account big ideas like climate change and sustainability. Why didn’t you want to go to the Culinary Institute of America or apprentice at a restaurant right away?

“I’m all about fearlessness. I’m all about going into the kitchen and not really wanting to rely too heavily on a reference.”

It’s true. I took a unique approach to food in that sense, where I came at it with a bit more of a traditional education background and found my path that way, which  is very unconventional. For me, it allowed me to explore food in different ways. I liked exploring it through the lens of climate change and the environment because it ties in very closely. 

In college, that was a nice way to still be doing the classic academic route while doing something that I loved. I was studying food and learning a lot from it.  I still carry that whole side of food with me today, where we try to do a lot with teaching people about how it ties to the environment, so I haven’t forgotten that educational side of it as things have moved forward.

It’s clear that being on “MasterChef” was life changing for you, which of course, brings me to Gordon Ramsay. I heard that you kept a journal while you were doing it because you wanted to write down some of the things that he said.


What was your expectation of Ramsay and what did you learn about him?

He’s a fantastic mentor. When I went into “MasterChef,” all I knew of course was the really intense — the yelling, the screaming. You’re a little bit scared. I remember, even just a few days in, I was still a little bit on edge around him, as I think everybody was. But when you meet someone, you can pretty quickly tell who they are in many ways, and I pretty rapidly realized that he was also just this caring, passionate guy. When I started to see through some of those layers, that’s when I really felt comfortable and realized that this could be someone that not only would I really look up to, but learn a lot from, and I had a newfound respect for who he is as a person.

Now you’re in this place where you are a well-known figure as well. You are navigating having followers listen to you, take your advice and critique your recipes. What were some things that Gordon Ramsay told you early on that stuck with you about managing that persona as an authority on food?

The number one and very simple thing that I’ve taken from him and learned from him on that front is just being good to the people around you. It’s such a simple thing. If you’re friendly with people, and if you just be yourself, and if you’re good to them, it makes everything easier. That’s the number one most important thing. 

That was easy for me to see with Gordon and his team, that he treated everyone just like they were his brother or his sister or his friend or whatever. He treated everyone like a person, he treated everyone like you should treat them. That’s very easy to see, by the way, when you’re around him. I also think it’s very easy to see if someone is not that way. That was the biggest takeaway that I had, without a question, was just the fact that he’s very good to the people around him. I genuinely have tried to take that same teaching away, and for me, it’s made things a lot easier too.

You collaborate with other creators all the time on your social media, but you also collaborate with celebrities and public figures who are not necessarily known as cooks. Whether it’s the Jonas Brothers or Tom Brady or Brian Baumgartner from “The Office” making a Frito Pie together. Why do you seek out these kinds of collaborations?

It’s a fair point that it’s a unique combination, at times, to be with someone who is a superstar on a football field, but you don’t know anything about what they’re like in the kitchen. The way I look at it is actually quite simple. It’s that every single person out there has a totally different food journey. You might have grown up with a special dish that you remember your mom cooking for you, or you might have been on a trip somewhere where you tried this food that most people have never heard of — and you can share that story, or that experience, with people, when you talk about food. 

@nick.digiovanni World’s Smallest Burger! . . . We used @ShaqDieselONeal sized 1/2 lb 100% Angus beef patties from @Meat District to create the perfect burger. Available at select @Walmart ♬ original sound – nick.digiovanni

Every single opportunity that I’ve had like that, I go into it knowing that if we spent some time together and talked about what are your favorite food memories, I would probably learn so many things about it. Everyone has a different food journey, and you can learn something from anyone out there about food that you never would’ve thought.

Let’s talk about your food journey. You take a lot of influence from your family, grandparents and background. I see a lot of New England in the dishes that you make. In the past several years, you’ve been traveling all over the world.

I think about this almost in the way that I’ve structured my book, where there’s some foundational recipes and instruction up front to give you those basics if you want them. If you already have them, then I don’t want to force anyone into learning how to make brown butter or caramelized onions. But I learned those foundations from my grandparents and from my family. Once I learned those things as a kid, I feel like I can now take them and go anywhere in the world. Any dining experience that I have, I remember those foundations and those basic things that I learned way back when, and I carry them with me everywhere.

I want to ask you about some things that are not in the book. What have you got against soup?

I knew I was going to get a hard time about that. The cookbook does have a section in there, of course, as you’re alluding to. The soup section is not there. It says, “Error not found.” I don’t have anything against soup. I just feel as if soup is a recipe and a concept in general where you may spend so much time on it, and then, at the end of the day, it’s all going to be blended into one little pile of mush, and there’s no texture, there’s no excitement, most of the time with soup.

“If you can find simple, basic things to practice on, then suddenly, when you have a nice rib eye or lamb chops, you won’t be so scared to go and give it a shot.”

Food, it’s a labor of love, you put so much into it, and I like for that to show on the plate. That’s one reason. I think there are multiple reasons, but that’s one big reason for me, is just I feel as if there is food that is much more exciting than soup, and I couldn’t justify putting soup in my first book.

I’m going to ask you about something else that’s not in the book. When I saw your list of equipment that you recommend home chefs have, I read that list twice. Then I showed it to somebody else in my family, and I said, “Am I not seeing a scale on this list?”

No scale. I consider myself more of a savory cook than a pastry chef. Baking and pastry is where, if I were going to go start way back from the basics and learn a bunch, I would dedicate more time to learning there. Moving forward, I want to learn more there. If this was a book focused on pastry and baking and that kind of thing, it would, without a question, have a digital scale. That would be the first thing on the list. But with cooking, I’m all about tying back to that word, fearless. 

I’m all about fearlessness. I’m all about going into the kitchen and not really wanting to rely too heavily on a reference. I don’t like to cook with amounts. I know I have to put amounts here because it’s a cookbook, but it is my hope that with this book, and in general, people will be able to go into the kitchen, confident enough to cook without numbers, cook without stopping everything and measuring things out. That was the simple reason that I didn’t have a scale. I want people to cook for fun and without having to think too much.

You talk in the introduction about fearlessness. Yet, a lot of us have fear, especially because food is so expensive. Ingredients are so expensive. It feels like the stakes are really high. It’s our time, it’s our money, and if something goes wrong, it’s cost us both of those things.

Very true.

How do we get over that and get into the kitchen and feel comfortable?

It’s scary sometimes. There are mind-boggling prices when you walk into the grocery store now. I haven’t had lamb chops for months and months and months. I can’t remember the last time I had them because when you go into the grocery store, I just can’t justify paying some of those prices anymore.

I did an hour-long masterclass video on YouTube not that long ago that I love. It’s one of my favorite videos that we’ve ever made. In there, pretty early on, I’m teaching fundamentals, basics. I’m showing people how to get a nice golden brown crust on something. Very simply, we took potatoes, and you can buy a bag of potatoes for very cheap, and we took little rings of them, potato fondant type, and I just say, “Use a potato, use whatever you want, but in this case, potato is a great way because you’re not going to worry about wasting. You can still eat them [no matter what], but you’re not going to worry about going through, if you burn one, you’re not going to worry about wasting a tiny bit of potato here and there.” It’s a much better thing to learn on than really anything else.

It’s all about practice. Just like anything in life, it’s all about experimentation and practice and just doing it. So if you can find simple, basic things like that to practice on, then suddenly, when you have a nice rib eye or lamb chops, you won’t be so scared to go and give it a shot.

There’s so many great recipes in you book. Was there a recipe that you struggled with the most? 

The front cover says, “creative recipes anyone can cook,” and I really wanted to stick to that. Certain recipes, such as the pork belly khao soi, it’s this dish that I have at a Thai restaurant up the road from my place, and I love it so much that I had to make my own version. But there are multiple components. You’ve got to get that pork belly nice and crispy, and it’s got to be perfect. And you’ve got to make that incredible broth that’s not overly complicated, but it’s got to be robust and it’s the star of the dish.

You have to make sure that’s flavorful and that you nail that. There’s multiple steps and components to it, to the point that it was hard to put it into words in such a way that I could justify being a recipe that anyone can cook. So that was the challenge, here and there. The more complicated recipes became difficult to get perfectly worded.

For someone who is approaching this book and does feel a sense of intimidation about cooking and wants it to be approachable, what’s a recipe that you would say, “Here’s where you should start”?

“Give me a glass of brown butter and I’ll drink a cup of it.”

I’m comfortable with anyone out there going into the fundamental section and nailing one of those. Caramelized onions, for instance. I mentioned it earlier, it sounds so basic and so simple, but if you’ve never tasted deeply rich caramelized onions, you have to. It’s a great way to practice cooking, and suddenly it tastes like candy, once you’ve put in that love and that time to make it and really cook the onions down. Something like that is so simple, but you can then turn around and use it for so many amazing things. You can make caramelized onion dip, you can make a patty melt with it, you can make whatever you want. A french onion soup, I’m sorry, soup section, but french onion soup.

I would really say, you can open up that fundamental section and pick something that excites you. Brown butter is what I would pick, personally. It’s my favorite thing. Give me a glass of brown butter and I’ll drink a cup of it.

And then, spoon that stuff from the bottom.

Get all the nice, beautiful golden milk solids and all the flavor. Any of those fundamentals, anyone can do it.

Nick, I’m really excited to make your yolky gnocchi with the brown butter.

Favorite recipe in the book.

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