serena-2Standing against the bright coral wall of her Manhattan kitchen, Serena Palumbo welcomes viewers to her latest cooking video, demonstrating the easiest way to transform potatoes into the Italian classic, gnocchi. The set up is simple; the petite brunette speaks with her light Italian accent into the video camera aimed by her husband. Between shots, she bustles through the kitchen, gathering supplies, peeling potatoes. Whether or not the camera is rolling, Serena is “on,” with a beaming smile, explaining her methods, sharing advice, and telling stories.

Serena’s natural ability to cook while explaining her methods is what made her shine on the sixth season of reality cooking competition “The Next Food Network Star” in 2010.

Without any professional cooking experience, the corporate lawyer more than held her own against contestants with careers in the food industry. During the sixth season of the Food Network show, “Serena’s Trattoria” made it to the seventh round of eliminations and she found the experience very rewarding.

“I don’t regret being on the show in the least bit,” she says. “Not only for my personal growth as a chef, but also because it taught me that if I want to do something and I put my head to it, I can get it,” she says.

Her cooking skills were honed in her own kitchen, while her camera presence came from her YouTube channel, where she demonstrates recipes and cooking tricks.

Serena’s interest in cooking started in her childhood along the Amalfi coast of Italy where food was a huge part of her and her family’s life for as long as she can remember. “I’ve always been cooking,” she says as she stands between paintings at a friend’s art gallery opening. “In Italy we are exposed to the culture of sharing and having food together all the time. It’s the tradition, it’s the culture.”

Serena focused on law for her career, attending the University of Naples before deciding to put her lifelong English skills to use by coming to the United States in 2004. After starting a job with a large law firm where she was encouraged to get an American law degree, and completed a master’s in law at New York University’s Law School.

Being immersed in the competitive world of corporate law made her appreciate cooking even more. “Cooking is the way to counterbalance all of this,” she says. “It’s the complete creativity and the complete freedom to do whatever you want to do. So to achieve some sort of balance in what I am and what I do–I cook.”

Her culinary reputation was well known among her corporate colleagues who continually asked for advice on menus for different occasions and various recipes. Eventually Serena realized that there was a tactile element to cooking that a recipe just couldn’t communicate.

It was one of these friendly requests that first drove her to YouTube in 2008. Her husband picked up their camera, filmed her step-by-step instructions for the rolled meat dish “saltimbocca alla romana,” and put the finished product online so her coworker could learn and try the recipe himself. When the video suddenly got over 300 views, Serena removed it, fearful that her bosses would not approve of it being public. But when she began receiving requests for the video, she asked her boss about it and with his approval, decided to make some more. The videos became her YouTube channel and blog, “Cooking in Manhattan.”

As her videos became increasingly popular, both friends and viewers began sending her the link on how to audition for “The Next Food Network Star.” Though doubtful that she would be successful, she decided to go to the New York City audition in the summer of 2009 and her confidence dwindled even more when she saw the line of 3,000 people.

“My first reaction was ‘not a chance in hell, it’s not gonna happen, nope,’” she says. “But I never back out of things. I’d rather have someone else tell me no than say no to myself, so I went through with it.”

After a short interview about her background with the casting director, Serena was shocked to hear that she had received a callback. Looking back, she thinks they might have been interested in her for a few different reasons. One is that The New York Times had recently published an article claiming that the Mediterranean diet was one of the healthiest, popularizing Serena’s preferred cooking style. She also believes they may have been interested in the “nerdy” aspect of her cooking, her emphasis on the history and geography of food.

The next step in the audition process was to prepare a dish on camera while explaining the process. Choosing a favorite simpler recipe, salmon cooked in parchment paper, Serena returned and was able to put the skills she had learned from YouTube experience to work. She was called and asked to join the show.

The timing was convenient, as Serena had been considering leaving corporate law to work as an in-house counsel, seeking a less demanding schedule. She gave notice to her original job, and made the start date for her new position with an Italian bank after filming was done. With work settled, she was off to Los Angeles for the first time, for six weeks of filming.

Joining the show, Serena felt that her lack of professional experience actually gave her an advantage. “I didn’t have anything to lose, because my basic income comes from not being a cook. So my approach was very whimsical, I just went there to have fun,” she says.

She found that her experience as a lawyer with demanding hours gave her an additional advantage when it came to the intense filming schedule. “There is a lot of waking up at all hours because you have a conference call with China, or you have to get up and get rolling because you have stuff to do,” she says of her law career. After years of such a schedule, nothing during “The Next Food Network Star” caught her off guard, from the stop-and-go shooting to 16-hour days.

Contestants were given a theme to base their TV persona around, which if they were to win, would became the basis for their Food Network series. Hers became “Serena’s Trattoria,” after being shaped by judge Bobby Flay, who would become a mentor. Originally, she had intended to focus on cooking in a small kitchen, but Flay believed the trattoria theme would “widen her net.”

Although she is proud of the way she conducted herself during the show, not allowing producers to manipulate her, Serena did learn how editing can skew events. During her first episode, chef Wolfgang Puck asked if the Food Network was ready for two Italian princesses, referring to Serena and Food Network veteran Giada De Laurentiis. Serena recalls how De Laurentiis responded nicely with a simple, “Sure, why not?” But upon watching the episode, the scene is edited so De Laurentiis appears uncomfortable.

During the seventh episode, Serena was eliminated after a team challenge when she was tasked with making pasta, a common occurrence during her time on the show because of her Italian background. “I actually felt betrayed. It was basically like [they were] pigeonholing me,” she says.

Since appearing on the show, Serena has continued to work as a lawyer, and still maintains her blog and video series. She’s also begun teaching cooking classes.

“I’m trying to explore the balance, explore whether I can do both things at the same time and have it all,” she says of her personal and professional life. “I want to prove to myself and prove to others that you can balance all of these things, that these things can be done.”

Watching Serena cook is plenty of proof in itself. As she shoots a video, it isn’t hard to believe that she found success on “The Next Food Network Star.” In a simple striped sweater with her hair half pulled back, she is able to laugh, teach about gluten, and make a delicious dish all at once—on or off camera. She makes sure that everything she uses when cooking for the show is multipurpose, something the home chef could use frequently and with ease.

To see Serena in her bright kitchen, with its white cabinets and counter full of cooking accessories, is to see someone truly in her element. Her gracious nature makes it clear that she truly enjoys teaching others how to cook, and if she isn’t doing it on the Food Network, she’ll do it from her own kitchen.