You don’t have to be a regular viewer of “Hell’s Kitchen” to know what to expect: executive producer Gordon Ramsay (who is also the show’s head chef and chief judge) yelling a lot at the contestants, most of whom will have emotional meltdowns at some point on the show. On March 12, 2013, the 11th season of “Hell’s Kitchen” premiered on Fox. In this season, the grand prize is a job as head chef at Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
For the first time in ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ history, the contestants presented their signature dishes before a live audience. And the show’s 11th season marks the return of maître d Jean-Philippe Susilovic (who was on the first seven season of “Hell’s Kitchen”) and the introduction of the show’s new sous chef James Avery. In a telephone conference call with journalists, Ramsay talked about what people can expect from Season 11 of “Hell’s Kitchen.”
So this year it looks like there’s more inter-staff drama, including an unofficial contestant: Chef Alfredo Al Dente. When a new competition begins, how much do you already know about these contestants, and are you aware of any of that craziness that is happening in the dorms?
I based only and purposely took a decision eight years ago not to get engaged with what happens off set. I run a restaurant, and Fox runs a show, so it’d be very unprofessional of me to start delving into what goes on in terms of the characters and the personalities. I judge everyone from an equal playing field.
It’s too easy to get obsessed with what goes on in the dorm, but that doesn’t interest me because that doesn’t sort of make any difference to me. When I open that restaurant, when we do the challenges, when we set the menu, which I’m totally involved in far much more this year than ever before, it’s always done as a professional chef basis, so I don’t want to look like I’m two-faced. I’m sneaking sort of behind the scenes to find out what I like, so I can have a different view of them when they walk back into the kitchen, so no.
All I do know is that we have some phenomenal chefs, and Season 11 was quite scary for me because 11 seasons, I mean, extraordinary! So it’s just 11 times I’ve opened that amazing Hell’s Kitchen, because I’m in love with it now. I’m love with the restaurant. I’m in love with the competitive edge, so it’s like launching a brand new restaurant every time, so yes, a lucky number 11.
How do you continue to keep the show fresh and interesting after such a long time?
We’ve been so much more adventurous, not with our sous chefs, but their challenges as well. We try to make it relevant in terms of the multicultural world from phenomenal dinners from Spanish cuisine with a heavy influence of Mexico. We’ve gone out on some extraordinary field trips. We’ve done some amazing charity events that have put the pressure on unlike never before.
And then I introduce the chef tables quite early on, because that puts them under scrutiny. Try to find out who their sort of mentors were and their heroes and try to incorporate those guests, so they weren’t just sort of cooking on a show. All of a sudden they’re now cooking for some big mentors and I suppose they really got to terms with that early on in a way that they could handle that pressure. As far as they’re concerned, they’re competitive and really ready to win this thing.
Here’s a question about your support staff this year. We lost Scott Leibfried, but we’ve got Jean-Philippe Susilovic back. Can you kind of clue us in about those two changes?
I’ve always said that I think females make the best chefs anywhere in the world. They’re a lot more composed and a lot calmer and they don’t need telling three or four times, so coupled with James, an American-Irish talented boy, a young dynamic and first started working with me on “Kitchen Nightmares” literally four years ago. Scott has gone on and opened up his own restaurant up in Santa Barbara, and obviously I can understand why he wants to have focus on that.
And secondly, he and I quite liked upping the ante because we move forward with the pressure with these individuals. It was so important equally behind the scenes that I had that kind of support from a fresh outlook with my sous chef, but you’ll see and not just tomorrow, but it is seriously different in a way that we’ve become so much more energized with the relevant things happening in food, whether it’s the food science, latest trends. And I just mentioned, we really have kept it sort of multicultural, so all that ethnicity you really get to draw out, whether it’s an Indian background and Mexican or Portuguese cuisine, we even did some challenges with a sort of Vietnamese aspect as well, so really educational beyond belief.
We see the chefs getting stressed-out or upset a lot, but how stressful is it for you personally filming an entire season of this show?
I love pressure. And like I said, I always open those doors and when I say we’re going live, it literally is live, so it’s like a game of football. There’s first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter and that goes across three hours, so I feel so much more relaxed that we can deliver that level of service this year better than ever before, because we have Jean-Philippe back.
He opened up his amazing restaurant back in Belgium two years ago. And I said to him, “Look, I don’t mind helping you out if you want to do an undercover ‘Kitchen Nightmares.’” So he got upset, he said, “Whoa, you can’t do ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ without me, and I want to come back.” So he’s back this year, and that has just lifted the team’s spirits and the dining room beyond belief.
How do you manage to still go through the initial signature dish and not be surprised that they haven’t learned from previous seasons?
That’s the same question I ask myself. This year, we did something completely different where I said, “Look, just respond to cooking live better than ever before and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be a chef, because forget the cameras. Forget the show.”
Behind the scenes when you’re in a restaurant, you are live and when you kick off, you can’t just stop and say, “I’m not quite ready.” You go. So this year we brought them out in front of a huge audience in Vegas where they thought they were going to watch a show, and literally they had no idea. They thought they were going in to watch an animated new release from Disney.
Anyway, it’s pitch black. The cart came up from underground and all of a sudden there was pure silence. The curtains dropped and they had to introduce themselves and then cook live in front of 2,500 guests. And I’ve done a motivational speech in front of 3,000 athletes once and that was pretty terrifying. The subject was passion.
So I wanted these individuals to understand, look, let me tell you the seriousness of this. Introduce yourself, show some character on the plate and then go and cook your live signature dish. So I thought, to be perfectly honest, these dishes would actually be better because once they introduced themselves on the stage, the whole back stage dropped and there was a live kitchen there, so it really was putting them on edge.
And unfortunately, it didn’t create the best signature dishes. However, there were some shining stars, but they were few and far between because I don’t think they were prepared for that. And I think in today’s role and the pressure of a chef today, I’m sorry, but you have to be prepared for everything — anything and everything at any time.
Ray Alongi is one of the oldest contestants. How do you feel about like do you think that he might have a better chance because he’s more seasoned?
Actually, you know bringing that level of maturity into the mix was nice, because not just a father figure, but the guy is well-traveled. He’s got integrity. He turns out as an absolute diamond and I could level with him and so I was almost showing him more my frustrations than the youngsters, because it just wasn’t making sense at time, so God bless him.
I mean, what an amazing guy. It was a rollercoaster for him, but he brought a level of maturity to the younger cooks and sort of almost coaxed them through it because of his experience in life in general. So I thought he was going to fall flat on his face within 24 hours, but the guy has a heart of gold and is a true, true passionate chef, so he did phenomenally well. You are not going to be disappointed with Granddad Ray.
You have a lot of chefs who aren’t quite ready for this opportunity. You’ve got a lot of chefs who make really simple and sometimes stupid mistakes. How do you deal with them day in and day out and not just completely lose it?
Yes, that’s a very good question. Well, first of all, I insisted this year that we have a little bit more mentoring, and you’ll see sort of week six or seven when we sort of start focusing on the real talent. You’ll see how we almost took a leaf out of “Idol’s” book and “X Factor.”
I really wanted to get these guys good, because the better they look, the better we look. Yes, I’m always sort of defensive when they get criticized they’re not real chefs. They are real chefs. They just want an amazing break.
So I think back to when I first started out, and I had to take two jobs to continue training. This is an amazing opportunity. And I just look at what Christina [Machamer, Season 4 winner] has done in Vegas and how she’s handled the pressure of running the kitchen and still there this length of time after that program and the success of that, but it’s the success of the business in the real world.
So I introduced Christina early on in the competition to say to these guys, “Look, this is not a fly-by-night 24 hour success. This is the real deal and you know the stakes are high this year with the Pub & Grill at Caesars Palace, so we are lifting the bar even higher.” But we sort of collaborated with last year’s winner more and then had that mentoring aspect that went on more than ever before, cooking classes in downtime, little insights.
I’m far more involved this year cooking, because that’s what I miss. I missed that buzz. I suppose the little things of “The Voice” over the last 18 months, where the actual judges physically get off their chairs and stand up on the stage and perform in front of their contestants. And that’s exactly what I started doing in “Hell’s Kitchen” the way that I thought, “Look, you just see me now as this guy that is fronting a program, but you’ve got no idea. I’ve made more mistakes than all of you put together.”
I continue pushing myself to the full extent, and more importantly I can cook and here’s why. So I like that vulnerability and I think you’ll see that after sort of maybe week six or seven when you start honing in this talent to how good they are.
How are you doing, in terms of your health?
Very well indeed, thank you. I was up 4:45 this morning. I’ve got my place in Kona Iron Man, so Oct. 12  is a big day for me, so I always said that the pressure of a chef today is far bigger than ever before and having run marathons and ultra marathons and sprints, I need to continue pushing myself. And that’s why I think I’m in the for best season yet on “Hell’s Kitchen,” because I’m the fittest I’ve ever been and yet I got really focused on this one and had to elevate it, because it’s scary.
Everyone says congratulations, Season 3, Season 4. Season 11, so very few shows go past five let alone 10, so we’re just short, I think maybe one more season perhaps of a 200th episode. And then the competition, of course, the country’s launching its big baking competition this year on CBS. The success of “The Taste” this year, I haven’t actually seen that yet, but I was so pleased for Nigella [Lawson] to get that gig and what a sweetheart. So yes, I think the more shows that come out, the better we become.
Would you consider taking some of the “Hell’s Kitchen” all-stars and doing a tour around the country helping people that go to culinary schools?
I’m looking at a potential live tour in the summer of 2014 where I’ll actually go around sort of 25, 30 cities and actually do a sort of Gordon Ramsay Live. My problem is the time. We have an amazing academy back in the U.K. called Tante Marie, and we focus on scholarships to provide the ones that didn’t have that kind of break, that didn’t have that financial clout from their parents, because I was one of them. My parents couldn’t afford to dress me in chef whites and buy me my first set of knives, let alone send me to college.
But then I see the debt, the sort of the pressure that these young students get themselves in on the back of their training. They come out after two or three years of college and they’re $45,000, $50,000 in debt, so they got to work, perhaps not in the most prestigious jobs within the first three years of their career, just to get that debt down.
Something has to change there, because it’s not the right kind of pressure to take a job for financial basis when you should be taking a job for learning. So maybe that could be a twist with the live show, actually becoming more educational. I like that idea.
Since more people over the years have started cooking because of “Hell’s Kitchen,” how are the chefs different now than what you saw in the first season?
I think the chefs are generally better. I think any job offering $125,000 as a salary is huge, so you can imagine the excitement when they’ve got a potential salary per year of $250,000. That’s a life changer, so I see them more focused. I also think they’re more well-rounded and there’s a level of humbleness this year that I haven’t seen in two or three years because of the, I suppose, the economic downturn.
We have some amazing challenges this year, with waste highlighted from day one. This is despicable. You cannot do that to food.
And secondly, if you were running your own business you would have shut down within the first few weeks if you did that. So we always get complaints sometimes about, “Hey, what happened to this food? Hey, how can you throw so many Wellingtons away?”
Well, we don’t. We have to sort of become a little bit more creative, so the chefs have changed because of the climate change and the economic downturn. But I think they’ve become hungrier, because there are less opportunities out there, so I think that’s why the continued success of “Hell’s Kitchen” is so apparent, because of that level of determination, because it is life changing.
And like I said, I look at the previous winners and again, this year we have them all back and then the highlight for me was Christina in Vegas because she is a phenomenon. When you discover a talent like that, it makes it all the worthwhile.
Why did you decide to film the Season 11 premiere in Las Vegas?
First of all, I need to sort of throw them a curveball and take them off the scent, because everyone thinks that, “Hey, we’re in LA and it’s glamorous.” And sometimes they come in with a sort of head up their backside, because they think they’re in Hollywood and they all start going a little bit la-la.
So I took them to Vegas and told them when they arrived at LAX, this isn’t your final destination, meet me in Vegas, to incorporate some fun really, because I like given in terms of if I’m going to show that level of fun, then I want it back twice as much. So the big reason, of course, was to put them under immense pressure and to show them what it was like to walk out in front of 2,500 “Hell’s Kitchen” fans and to understand that this is no joke
You are here on an amazing platform and, quite frankly, one of the biggest culinary competitions anywhere in the world. You have to cook live. You have to get your act together.
You have to cook live and this is not about TV now. This is about you on a plate and cooking your heart out and you got an hour to prove not just to me, but 2,500 fans watching how good you are and why you deserve the be in this competition.
For more info: "Hell's Kitchen" website