Before we jump in, join Chef Nikki’s Watch Party for “The Case of the Awful Waffles” episode at the RedEye Coffee location in Midtown on Thursday, May 26 from 8PM – 10PM! Eat! Drink! And come celebrate Chef Nikki! Can’t join the party? Catch the episode at home, this Thursday, May 26th at 9PM on TBS.
If we’re being perfectly honest, everyone has to admit that they love a good reality show—especially when it includes a healthy dose of competition. And over the years, an increasing audience of budding foodies have tuned into reality competitions based in the kitchen or around food. We love to see what happens when a chef is put under pressure, the ways they have to think on their feet, and we invest ourselves in the drama of the kitchen. When the knives come out—both figuratively and literally—we love to see what unfolds.
With the recently launched TV series Rat in the Kitchen on TBS, celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre is joined by comedian Natasha Leggero in hosting a game of high stakes “cat and mouse” that involves a mix of professional chefs and passionate home cooks competing in a series of creative cooking challenges, earning cash in their bank for every dish that impresses Chef Ludo’s impeccable palate. All the while, the cooks must attempt to expose an undercover mole whose intent is to sabotage the dishes undermine their chances at winning. Each episode concludes with uncovering the saboteur, and if the cooks guess correctly, they win their bank. If not, then the rat walks away with the money.
It’s an exciting thing to watch—and even more so to be part of. Just ask Chef Nikki Pettineo. For the Tallahassee-based chef, finding out that the show wanted her to be a contestant was a complete surprise… and somewhat unbelievable. “I received a message on Instagram asking me if I would like to audition, and I thought it wasn’t real at first,” she recalls. “They had seen my social media page and YouTube Channel, ‘Nikki Talks Food,’ so they thought I’d make a great fit. I went through the whole audition process, and it turned out to be the real deal!”
The real deal, indeed—as was the level of competition. And despite the fact that Pettineo has never had experience with network production before, she brought her own expertise and unique skill set to bear. In other words, Chef brought her knives, and she didn’t come to play. “I have certainly worked in many kitchens in my career where high stakes and high rollers were involved, so I applied the same focus I would in those situations and tried to ignore the cameras as much as possible,” says Pettineo, who admits to stress-eating a lot of peanut butter cookies during her time in production.
“Everyone’s biggest challenge on Rat in the Kitchen was trying to focus on the food while keeping our eyes and ears open for potential sabotage. For me, though, I’d say my biggest advantage is having worked in many different kitchens with many different people and being able to adapt to my surroundings very quickly. For instance, when I was a chef at Florida State University, we had so many logistical situations getting the food to the stadium hot and on time. Then we would plate the food in a tiny room on folding tables to feed hundreds of guests! As a chef, you must learn to think ahead and have contingency plans if something is not working out.”
Meeting a celebrity chef, of course, was its own excitement. And though Pettineo couldn’t exactly lose focus and fan-girl, she did greatly enjoy getting to interact with such a known name in the culinary world. Fortunately, meeting an icon did not disappoint. “Chef Ludo is so welcoming and funny,” she says. “I had a great time working with him on the show. He loves good banter, and he especially loves a well-seasoned dish.”
As the owner of her own seasoning line, Pettineo certainly knows what a well-seasoned dish is. A high quality, small batch, professional grade line of spices and seasoning blends, Pro Seasoning is a Tallahassee-based, women-owned small business whose products are sold online and in partnership with local businesses in town. “The spices are made by a pro, so you can cook like a pro,” says Pettineo, who has a YouTube Channel called “Nikki Talks Food,” where she teaches home cooks how to cook like a professional chef.
“I am deeply inspired by bringing professional techniques and ingredients to people who aren’t culinary trained. That’s why I started Pro Seasoning. I decided to jar my flagship spice because it is an all-purpose seasoning recipe that I have used throughout my entire culinary career. My parents even knew the recipe and were making it for their neighbors, so one day, I said, ‘Okay, nobody make any more of my seasoning—we’re going into business!’ Now we have an entire line of spices, including our Pro Java BBQ Rub that is absolutely phenomenal on ribs, pork butt, and chicken. Pro Seasoning and Pro Java BBQ Rub are sold in several retail locations around Tallahassee including Redeye Coffee, Community Co-Op, Browns Kitchen Center, Healthy Solutions Day Spa, Smashing Olive, Orchard Pond Farm Store, Black Fig, and the Prepared Table. They are also sold on my website along with the rest of my line at www.chefnikki.net.
A professional chef since graduating culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Miami in 2007, Pettineo launched her career with a stint as Miami Dolphins Defensive Back Renaldo Hill’s private chef. Having fallen in love with the hospitality field at a young age, she started started working in cafés as a busser at around age 15, later working in several restaurants as a server, bartender, and cook. Now, Pettineo works for Tallahassee Community College division of Workforce Development. “We have a contract with the Florida Department of Corrections and provide vocational training,” she explains. “I teach Culinary Arts at Quincy Annex Correctional. I have about 30 students I am classically training, and I am very proud of the program. I can’t wait to see the creativity that comes from the different personalities in the class!”
For Pettineo, learning isn’t just for her students. “I’m always learning something new, and then I can’t wait to share it with others,” she says. “If I learn about a certain cuisine from a book or I get inspired by watching a chef’s biopic movie, I definitely utilize that in my next dish. I suppose that is why I love my YouTube channel, because a lot of my content is learning about something or someone who is inspiring and making something amazing happen in the community. Some good examples are my features with Jarrett Maloy from Sneauxball Catering, Oyster Mom, and Chef Kay. The beginning of the pandemic was especially hard on the food and beverage industry. I changed jobs right before the COVID shutdown in March of 2020 and found myself laid off for the first time in my life. It turned out to be a great opportunity to partner with a small business and promote community during a really stressful time. I approached Redeye Coffee CEO Barby Moro, and we came up with the idea to put together meal kits and then live-stream a cook-along on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. It was so much fun and a great way to stay connected with folks. I also was very intentional in using local ingredients in the meal kits from businesses that were hurting, including places like Register Sausage, Crooked Row Farms, and Orchard Pond Organics. I still have people reaching out to me to let me know they learned how to cook by making our meals and that they enjoyed the camaraderie of making them together during the live-streams.”