Harvard student manages to compete in ‘MasterChef’ cooking show and graduate, all in one very surreal spring
Nick DiGiovanni sweated through the “MasterChef” audition episode. He was dealing with the usual heat of the kitchen, the pressure to impress the panel of judges. But he also had the flu. And was wearing a Harvard sweat shirt under his apron.
“MasterChef,” like many reality television programs, tends to silo its participants into recognizable types. This season, there’s Sarah Faherty, the no-nonsense woman who was in the military. There’s Evan Tesiny, the confident guy from Brooklyn. And DiGiovanni is the Harvard kid.
At least, he was at the time of filming: In early 2019 DiGiovanni left school for a few weeks — he can’t say how many, because that would give away his fate on the show — to compete on the 10th season of Fox’s “MasterChef.”
“I’ve taken time off my senior year at school and I’ve put everything on the line here because I can’t get the idea of being a chef out of my head,” he said in the interview that aired with his audition. (Yes, he was wearing Harvard gear then, too.)
DiGiovanni, 23, graduated with a degree in food and climate studies — a concentration he invented — the same week the first episode aired. Sudie DiGiovanni, who appears in the first episode, cheering on her flu-ridden son, describes that week as “a happy blur.”
He has been an unobtrusive presence on the show so far, remaining even-keeled and diligent. For the audition, he cooked handmade lamb ravioli with creme fraiche and mint oil, a nod to his Persian and Italian ancestry. The dish earned him a spot on the show and a half-compliment from judge Joe Bastianich, who said he expected not to like the dish but was pleasantly surprised.
DiGiovanni’s breakout moment came from a surprise twist challenge, six episodes into the season. Halfway through a one-hour Brazil-inspired cooking challenge, Gordon Ramsay announced that contestants would have to make a plate of ceviche in addition to their other dishes. DiGiovanni was mostly unfazed. He was thrown slightly off-kilter by guest host Alessandra Ambrosio — “It’s hard to focus on a radish when there’s a supermodel standing there,” he said sheepishly — but the seafood part was easy. In addition to Brazilian cheese bread tacos with skirt steak and a charred corn salsa, he whirled together a red snapper ceviche with lime, mango, shaved radish, passionfruit, and Scotch bonnet pepper. The seafood ensemble was studded with tiny decorative flowers. Judge Aarón Sanchez praised his “high thinking,” but the task was intuitive to DiGiovanni, who grew up catching his own fish.
DiGiovanni’s passion for cooking is a product of his New England upbringing, which included lots of time by the water. Fishing is one of his favorite activities. (He also surfs and sails.) “That was always my favorite way to eat, to catch my own food,” DiGiovanni said. “We have lobster traps; I’ve caught things like uni, mussels, clams, oysters, so many types of fish, crabs, everything.” DiGiovanni’s palate and fishing prowess developed with regular visits to relatives around the East Coast: In upstate New York, where his great-grandmother lived, he caught fish; in Connecticut, where his paternal grandparents lived, he caught blue crab; and on the South Shore, where his maternal grandparents lived, he caught lobster.
The “MasterChef” contestant said his biggest cooking influence was his paternal grandmother, Helga, who assembled massive holiday feasts for family gatherings, and seemed to do so effortlessly. His mother recalls that “it was not uncommon to see a stool or chair pulled over to the counter” for Nick to sit and observe the family cooks. DiGiovanni’s three younger brothers have been important collaborators in his home cooking, catching fish and supplying ingredients. (Peter, the third brother, is an avid gardener who eagerly trades his yield for home-cooked meals like stuffed zucchini flower and fried green tomatoes.) Sudie DiGiovanni fondly recalls when Nick, around age 12, enlisted his younger siblings as sous chefs and servers to deliver an “incredible” meal for the family. At one point, she said, one of the waiters “came to get us because the grill caught fire.”
The family was based in Barrington, R.I., until DiGiovanni’s junior year at Milton Academy, when his parents and siblings relocated to the town where he was attending boarding school. In the fall of 2015, DiGiovanni started at Harvard, where he would go on to join the sailing team and study under food writer Michael Pollan. After class, he worked the saute station at Waypoint, Michael Scelfo’s stylish, vaguely nautical-themed restaurant that serves “coastally-inspired fare” in Cambridge. “It’s a tough job, and they’re all working super hard,” he said of his co-workers in the kitchen. “I was there more for the experience, and for fun. So that was interesting, but at the same time, we were all there to make it happen, and there was a rush that came from that.”
In September of his senior year at Harvard, DiGiovanni found himself at a “MasterChef” open casting call at the Marriott Long Wharf. (His mother remembers him speaking vaguely about preparing for a cooking contest. She wondered if he really had time to be doing that when he had schoolwork and job interviews.) DiGiovanni knew that if the audition went well, he would need to uproot and relocate to Los Angeles for a stretch in the spring. But DiGiovanni decided it was worth a shot. “I figured if this worked out, it would be a great problem to have.”
And a great problem it was. When it came time to film the show in February, it was unclear how long DiGiovanni would be gone. He could have been eliminated from the show after the first week, or he could have made it to the very end of the season. On top of that, he had to be secretive about where he was going. This made leaving Harvard tricky. Since he was ahead on credits, he dropped the classes he wouldn’t need to graduate. He told his family and a few friends about his departure. He completed most of the research for his thesis — a study of carbon neutrality in the restaurant industry — before leaving and submitted the project in absentia. He figured it would all work out somehow.
So for a number of weeks he can’t disclose, DiGiovanni worked long days on the show, starting as early as 4 a.m. and ending as late as 10 p.m. He lived with the other competitors in a hotel. “They transport you to and from the places; you’re pretty much stuck in the hotel except for little outings once in a while,” he said. “I didn’t mind it. You can have a couple cookbooks to study in there.”
During those long days, the cast became like a family. He’s still in touch with some of the other contestants and recently spent time with them in New York City, going to farmer’s markets and restaurants together. The “MasterChef” group is an eclectic one: Among DiGiovanni’s companions in New York were Noah Sims, a septic systems technician from Georgia; Subha Ramiah, a research and development director from West Nyack, N.Y.; Tesiny, the Brooklynite who works in sales; and Sam Haaz, an attorney from Philadelphia. DiGiovanni said he was surprised by how “real” the reality show was. “It was a real kitchen and real fire and real food and real people, not actors and actresses, just real people who love to cook at home,” he said.
DiGiovanni wasn’t the only Boston-area contestant. Kenny Palazzolo, 46, a carpenter from the North End deemed “The Italian Stallion,” was also a top 20 finalist, but he was eliminated in the episode that aired June 12, when a judge was disappointed in the presentation — but not the taste — of his pan-seared scallops.
DiGiovanni’s Harvard roommate, Mark Czeisler, said DiGiovanni’s absence made for “kind of an interesting semester.” “I always thought I’d come home and he’d be sitting on the couch,” Czeisler said. Then at some point in the semester, DiGiovanni returned to Cambridge, “caught up on stuff, and pretended like nothing had ever happened.”
DiGiovanni already knows, of course, how the season unfolds, but he’s watching the edited footage on the same schedule as everyone else. It’s a little weird to see himself on TV, he said, but “they’ve been nice to me. I feel pretty good about the edit they’ve given me so far.”
For Czeisler, watching has been surreal.
“For so much of college we were just sitting next to each other and talking about all these what-ifs, and now he’s actually talking to Gordon Ramsay,” Czeisler said. But the figure on the screen is unmistakably the person he knows. “The thing I’ve taken away in watching the show is that he’s really being totally authentic.”
The most uncharacteristic part, according to his mother, is the “Harvard” emblazoned across his chest. “It’s definitely something he would downplay as opposed to flaunting,” Sudie DiGiovanni said. “That part is not him.”