The reality behind Reality TV: Hell’s Kitchen Edition
For those of you who like Reality TV shows like Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen, realize there is even more reality than what you see on the tube. For example, in the first two seasons of Hell’s Kitchen, the winners didn’t actually win what the show promised during the seasons. The first season winner, Michael Wray, was to win his own restaurant, but the show didn’t deliver on that award. Instead, he was awarded kitchen equipment and a trip to the UK to study under Ramsay. He first accepted and then later declined the trip. The second season winner, Heather West, was promised a newly built restaurant in Las Vegas in which she would have an investment stake and help design it. This prize also never materialized. Instead, she signed a one year contract to be Senior Chef at Terra Rossa (an existing restaurant) in Las Vegas. After her contract terminated, she left and became Sous Chef on Hell’s Kitchen during Season 6. Still, not the prize she had won.
It wasn’t until the third season that Hell’s Kitchen actually awarded the prize to Rock Harper that it had announced all season. He became Head Chef of Green Valley Ranch’s Terra Verde. Of course, the question remains, was it just a limited stint for Rock like it was for Heather? Only time will tell. Fast Forward… The award for Season 6 was to be ‘Head Chef’ at the Araxi in British Columbia. Unfortunately, the restaurant began to get cold feet at the start of Season 6 after seeing the contestants. So, Ramsay apparently had to talk with the owner to quell any fears that there would be a competent winner. Unfortunately, Araxi had already made up its mind. The winner of Season 6 (Dave) will simply become an ‘employee’ and not ‘Head Chef’. So, once again, Hell’s Kitchen has not delivered on its announced award.
I also have to wonder about those other award winners (see updates below). Did they only somewhat win or slightly win? At least Hell’s Kitchen should award cash and tangible prizes. As long as the sponsorship remains, the prizes will be there. Top Chef got that one right at least.
Winners List Seasons 1 through 4
Season 1 winner
Prize: Tatou in Los Angeles
Status: Not Awarded
Alternate: Study under Ramsay in London + Kitchen Equipment
Season 2 winner
Prize: Her own custom designed restaurant in Las Vegas.
Status: Not Awarded
Alternate: Terra Rossa at Red Rock Resort Spa and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada
Season 3 winner
Rahman “Rock” Harper
Prize: Terra Verde at Green Valley Ranch in Henderson, Nevada
Status: Prize Awarded
Season 4 winner
Prize: London West Hollywood in Los Angeles (Chef Ramsay owned) + $250k yearly salary
Status: Prize Awarded
Kitchen Nightmares , on the other hand, is its own nightmare. Of course, it doesn’t help that Ramsay attempts to save restaurants on the brink of collapse. Needless to say, in the first 2 US seasons of this show and of the 13 he’s tried saving in New York, only 5 are still in business. Sebastian’s in LA has also closed. Most of the failed restaurant owners blame Ramsay and Ramsay blames the owners for not following his advice. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle combined with the economy. The downturn has taken its toll on lots of places, including restaurants. Fine dining is quite expensive. So, people are cutting back and eating more frugally. It doesn’t help that most of these ailing turned failing restaurants really had no regulars anyway. So, giving it a coat of paint and a new menu is probably not enough. Their reputation was already tarnished.
Of course, Kitchen Nightmares also pays to have people dine at the restaurant so that it appears as though it might succeed. The reality, of course, is far different. This is all Hollywood smoke and mirrors. After the cameras stop rolling and the production is no longer paying diners, the restaurant goes back to its old dismal self (bad sales and all). Basically, polishing poop doesn’t make it better. Kitchen Nightmares is now moving into its fifth season and counting.
Update for Kitchen Nightmares – 2010 Edition
Joseph Cerniglia found dead in Hudson River. According to witnesses, they saw someone jump from a bridge. Joseph was the owner of Campania restaurant that was featured on Kitchen Nightmares. At the time when Ramsay stepped in, Joseph’s restaurant was in debt by more than $80,000 to his suppliers. Ramsay tried to get Campania back on track, but we know how this works. After the cameras stop rolling and the paid diners stop, as stated above, the restaurant goes back to is old dismal money-losing self and falls back into the death spiral. Whether or not KN is responsible, in any way, for his apparent suicide has yet to be determined, but this is definitely a shocker.
Campania Episode on Hulu [Defunct Link: Here for historical purposes only]
Warning: Contains explicit language
Update for Kitchen Nightmares — June 2014
As of June 2014, Daily Mail UK reports that the Kitchen Nightmares series has officially ended. I’d say, it’s really about time. In it’s run, KN has tried to help many restaurants survive, recover and prosper. KN was primarily smoke and mirrors, TV cameras and paid diners. The truth is, more than 60% (and counting) of the restaurants Kitchen Nightmares has tried to save have folded. That’s not a particularly spectacular track record and just points to the fact that not all is a perfect shade of deep fried golden brown in Gordon Ramsay’s world.
Makes You Wonder
I have to wonder just how many more reality game or fix-it shows really work after the dust settles and the cameras are gone. With shows like Trading Spaces and Bridezilla, is it only about the cameras and drama? Does the ‘reality’ really mean anything. After the cameras stop, it’s really not that exciting. In fact, when the cameras are rolling, it’s not that exciting. That’s why they hire excellent editors to take random shots and intercut them together. For that reason alone, that’s how Tek, who was eliminated much earlier in Hell’s Kitchen, can reappear in an episode where she shouldn’t have been.
Smoke and Mirrors
Remember, Hollywood is all about appearances. Appearance is the only thing that matters. As long as its glitzy and offers some drama, Hollywood assumes people will watch. To some degree, I guess that thinking is valid. But, once you realize that it’s only smoke and mirrors, then it becomes just fluff. For me, that’s not really enough to keep watching.
Hell’s Kitchen Updates
Update for Season 5
Winner: Danny Veltri
Prize: Head Chef at Borgata’s Fornalletto in Atlantic City
Status: Not Awarded
Offered: Sous Chef position
Danny Veltri was to have won the head chef position at the Borgata’s Fornelletto restaurant in Atlantic City and, unfortunately, ended up as sous chef at the restaurant under head chef Stephen Kalt. Danny didn’t immediately appear disappointed in the change according to this NY Daily News story and wanted to learn from Kalt. Apparently, Danny stayed for only several months and then, after frustration set in, departed back to Florida to work at Flip Flops, his own and previously operating restaurant. So, once again, HK didn’t deliver its announced prize fully as described.
Update for Season 6
Winner: Dave Levey
Prize: Araxi in Whistler BC for the Olympics
Status: Not Awarded
Offered: Line Cook
Dave Levey didn’t stay long at the Araxi in Whistler, BC. After not receiving the head chef position that he was promised, he apparently only stayed just long enough to help with the 2010 Olympics.
After that, Dave packed up and has returned to his native New Jersey to work at the Il Giardino restaurant where he had been previously employed prior to HK.
[Update] Dave has since left Il Giardino and has moved to The Publick House as Executive Chef which is located in Chester, New Jersey or visit their direct web page at The Publick House Tavern and Inn. Apparently, both Il Giardino and The Publick House Tavern and Inn are owned by the Lubrano family according to this 2009 nj.com article. Apparently, this family also owns a third restaurant named Provesi in Morristown. Effectively, Dave is still working for the same restaurant family.
Update for Season 7
Winner: Holli Ugalde
Prize: Savoy Grill in London
Status: Not Awarded
Offered: Undisclosed sum of money
[Updated: 11/30/2013] Reader Morten writes in saying that, according to this Daily Mail UK article, Holli was not awarded the Savoy Grill position and apparently she’s ‘fuming’ and feeling ‘betrayed’ by Ramsay. Not sure what’s going on between these two, but whatever it is doesn’t seem appetizing.
The finals came down to Holli and Jay. Drum roll please… Holli Ugalde wins. This time the prize is likely something that can actually be awarded as this is a restaurant owned by Ramsay himself. Hell’s Kitchen always seemed to get in trouble when awarding jobs to contestants where Ramsay had no ownership stake in the restaurant. This season, the prize is a head chef position at Ramsay’s newly opened (reoponed?) Savoy Grill restaurant in London. Because Ramsay will own and operate this restaurant, HK will likely be able to actually award the prize fully.
Of course, that depends on the Savoy’s successful reopening launch to work. We’ll have to see, though, if that promise holds true for Holli. Of course, Ramsay may end up hiring both Holli and Jay should the Australian trip turn out better than expected. I’m quite sure Ramsay considered this in his decision when not only picking the winner, but also when he picked the two finalists this season. Pulling Holli and Jay together through an Australian trip may mean Ramsay will get 2 chefs for the price of one if the relationship holds and they both move to London together. It’s a long shot for Ramsay, but if it works, it will work out great. If it doesn’t work out, he still gets Holli.
But wait, there is now speculation that Holli is a lesbian. I’m not specifically seeing it in the photos from this web site. But, you can visit and be the judge. Is she or isn’t she? If so, then the Jay and Holli romance thing was all a sham as Ramsay (and HK) would likely have known this fact. You might also want check out Holli’s MySpace page which may have more details about this.
Oh, and if you didn’t watch the final episode closely, you might want to watch it again. Dave Levey makes a cameo complete with chef’s outfit, knit cap and arm cast. Although, if his arm hasn’t healed in 12 months, he needs to see a specialist.
Update for Season 8
Winner: Nona Sivley
Prize: Head Chef at L.A. Market
Season 8 has now been over for quite some time, but I’ve been lax on updating this article. The winner is… drum ro.. nevermind, this season is not worth getting excited over. Between Russell and Nona, Nona wins, for whatever that’s worth. This season was an unmitigated disaster. The professionalism of this show dropped tremendously. The drama went way up and the fighting was at a boiling point nearly every episode. Yet, there was little actually boiling in the kitchen, other than Ramsay. Anyway, I guess Nona gets the position at L.A. Market, even though there’s was no clear executive chef material in any of the contestants. Good luck Nona, you’re gonna need it. With that said, between Jillian, Russell and Nona, Jillian was the most consistent cook of the bunch. Russell had a big mouth and liked to run it, but when it came down to meals, he just couldn’t cut it (or, in this case, cook it). We’ll see if Nona hangs around long at L.A. Market. My guess is that, like past HK winners, she’ll do a couple months there as a token prize and then be off back home. Note that Nona apparently started work at the L.A. Market on
January 1, 2011 January 25th, 2011. So, Nona should now be working there as of this [latest] update.
Update for Season 9
Winner: Paul Niedermann
Prize: Head Chef at BLT Steak in Manhattan
Season 9 has now concluded. The winner turns out to be Paul Niedermann who began his career flame broiling burgers at Burger King. He has won the spot as Head Chef at the BLT Steak located in Manhattan. According to this ‘About Us‘ web page for BLT Steak, it does actually appear that Paul Niedermann did get the gig at BLT Steak. Mind you, this particular restaurant doesn’t appear to be any kind of super upscale establishment, but it at least appears to offer reasonable quality food. Definitely a step up from Burger King, but perhaps not by that much. Yelp gives NY BLT Steak 3.5 stars.
Yelp consensus for BLT Steak NY — overpriced for the quality.
A quote from the BLT Steak’s About Us page:
Head Chef, BLT Steak New York
As the Season 9 winner of Fox’s hit reality show, Hell’s Kitchen, Paul Niedermann recently traded Florida sunshine for the glittering lights of New York City. As Head Chef of BLT Steak New York, Paul brings Italian and Mediterranean influences to the kitchen, his culinary palette pairing light fresh food together with citrus and other influences from his time spent in southern Florida. He also brings, of course, a killer competitive edge.
Watch Paul talk about his experience in New York City and working at BLT Steak. [Below]
With that said, the runners up were Will Lustberg and Elise Wims. While I would like to discuss this specific show’s qualities, it has gone way too far down in recent years to really get excited by it anymore. So, for sheer informational purposes, here is the winner information.
Update for Season 10
Winner: Christina Wilson
Prize: Head Chef at Paris, Las Vegas
Season 10 is now over and the winner is …. Christina Wilson. She takes her place among the other Hell’s Kitchen winners. The runner up, Justin Antiorio. You can find out more details about this season at this Los Angeles Times article. Basically, it as a play between palette and passion. I’m guessing that Ramsay is more a fan of passion than palette, but that’s a bit unusual considering that taste in food is everything. Passion is great, but if you can’t make creative foods that taste great, then you’re not likely to do that well as a successful chef. I guess Ramsay will have to deal with that now since Christina Wilson wins her spot at Gordon Ramsay Steak in the Las Vegas Paris hotel.
Yelp’s rating for Gordon Ramsay Steak Las Vegas is a solid 4 stars. A large number of the most recent reviews (as of 9/25/2012) are 5 stars with many people saying the steak is outstanding. Of course, in the restaurant biz, quality can change on a dime. That’s why there are sites like Yelp. So, there you have it. If you like steak, this is probably a great place to try. Albeit, it’s a bit pricey with the average price per guest around $85.
Update for Season 11
Winner: Ja’Nel Witt
Prize: Head Chef position at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub and Grill in Las Vegas
Status: Not Awarded — failed required drug test
I know I’ve been lax in updating this page, but since there’s been some actual real-life drama (albeit, a few months old) involving the winner of HK season 11, I thought I’d go ahead and update this page. So, the winner is Ja’Nel Witt. I won’t really get into how she won HK (it doesn’t really matter at this point). Instead, let’s get into the real-life drama. Keep in mind that I’ve been waiting for a story like this to break for 10 seasons now.
According to TMZ, Ms. Witt failed her drug test that Caesar’s Palace required her to take upon assuming her winning position at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub and Grill in Las Vegas. After going through all of that hassle for an entire season (granted, it’s really just a couple of weeks time in real-life when they film the whole season), she was allegedly stupid enough to run some rails. Now she’s being run out of town on a rail. Yes, some things don’t stay in Vegas and it appears Ms. Witt won’t be one of those things. Yes, this also means Ms. Witt won’t be assuming the role at Ramsay’s restaurant.
Although, Ms. Witt won against Mary Poehnelt (the runner up). I’m hoping that Mary Poehnelt will end up taking the position and getting the money as it doesn’t bode well to give that to someone suspected of being a drug addict. Not the right role model to be endorsing here. Although, again according to TMZ, Gordon Ramsay still believes in Ja’Nel and he says his ‘door is always open’ once she ‘sorts out her personal issues’.
Maybe Gordon Ramsay has learned his own life lesson: even though it’s consumable, it’s not always about food. You’ve got to know that as cranky as Ramsay gets at raw scallops or an underdone Wellington, he’s got to be fuming over this. I think it’s time for HK to start doing drug tests all throughout the seasons to make sure the contestants aren’t coking while cooking.
Update for Previous Winners
As was requested by reader AJ Green, here is the update to locate where these people are today and what they have been doing. I will be updating this information over the course of the next few weeks as I locate the information on each of the previous winners. Stay Tuned and Enjoy.
Michael Wray (Season 1 winner)
We know that Michael didn’t win the prize that he was promised. Instead, he was invited to study with Ramsay in the UK. He opted out because he stated it would be hard on his family at the time. Since then, he has been head chef in two Los Angeles restaurants (Tatou and the Standard), but ultimately didn’t stay. He left the Standard after stating that it was a good job, but the duties kept him out of the kitchen more than he liked. After leaving those restaurants, he moved to Arizona to be close to his family and, later, in hopes of opening his own restaurant named the HK1. In 2009, after failing to secure the funding for his restaurant venture then to be named HK1, he has apparently joined the staff of an Arizona College to teach cooking. However, scouring colleges and cooking schools in Tuscon and Sierra Vista Arizona areas, I’ve been unable to turn up which school, if any, where he is teaching. If you’re a reader in Arizona and know where he’s working, please comment. After this, I have not been able to locate information on what he’s doing.
Heather West (Season 2 winner)
Heather was was to win her own restaurant in Vegas. She didn’t get this prize. Instead, she became Senior Chef at Terra Rossa at Red Rock Casino Resort Spa for one year. In 2009, she moved to Long Beach, New York where she became head chef of the Monterey Restaurant until September of 2010. From here, she’s moved around to various Executive Chef roles including at Jellyfish, Ciao Baby and R2 Events Corporation as a Corporate Executive Chef. She is now at Schafer’s in Port Jefferson, New York as Executive Chef where she’s been for 7 months.
Up Next – Rahman “Rock” Harper