After a two-year absence, Hell’s Kitchen is back (Fox, Thursdays at 8), and has moved its production outside of Los Angeles for the first time in its history.
While several reality TV productions moved to Las Vegas in 2020, including ABC’s Shark Tank and CBS’s Love Island, so their cast and crew could live and film in the same bubble, Hell’s Kitchen season 19 actually filmed in Vegas in 2018, two years before that became a necessity.
Both seasons 19 and 20 were filmed in 2018, and have been sitting on a shelf since—kind of like what happened to The Amazing Race season 32.
(Season 19 did already air in the UK last fall, on ITV2, so that’s why spoilers for season 19 are all over the Internet. And while Fox broadcast a season last summer, that was a rebroadcast of season 17.)
To find out more about the move to Las Vegas and other changes this season—and just how the show has evolved over its 20-season life—I talked to Hell’s Kitchen showrunner Kenny Rosen, who also produced ABC’s The Glass House (read my interview and behind-the-scenes story to relive that great show) and also worked on early seasons of CBS’s Big Brother.
Rosen has worked on Hell’s Kitchen since the beginning, showrunning every season since season 14, and also working on seasons one, three, five, seven, nine, and 12. “This is honestly my favorite season since season five,” he told me. Read on to find out why.
Why Hell’s Kitchen moved to Las Vegas
Hell’s Kitchen spent 18 seasons of filming in a Los Angeles soundstage, but moved for season 19. Why now?
“With Gordon having so many Caesars properties, Caesars was
interested in having us show off their properties in Vegas, and so they helped budgetarily get us there,” executive producer Kenny Rosen told me. They “were completely amenable to our using all of their facilities, restaurants, pools, exclusive areas for shooting so we could help promote their properties and Gordon’s restaurants at the same time.”
The change in venue offered a lot to the production. “Oh my god, it was so nice to get out of L.A. It feels like we’ve exhausted every reward and every possibility for a big finale in L.A., having done 18 seasons here,” Rosen said. “So it was really nice to get a fresh perspective and fresh locations, and as you know, Vegas really lends itself to all sorts of craziness and fun stuff that we wouldn’t have been able to do if we’d shot in L.A. again.”
Hell’s Kitchen’s new set
The Caesar’s Palace restaurant Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen opened in January 2018, before spring filming. Caesar’s said that it was “designed to be an experiential and immersive destination restaurant” where diners “will feel transported to the studio set of the globally popular FOX television show.” There’s even $49 beef Wellington.
But the show itself was filmed on an actual set, which was built at Caesar’s Entertainment Studios, located behind Paris Las Vegas and a block away from the strip and Caesar’s itself.
Since the Hell’s Kitchen set now had to compete with the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant that looks like the set, I asked Rosen if that affected the production design. “We tried to glitz and glam it up a little bit to make it feel more Vegas,” he said.
While a scene in the premiere was filmed in the restaurant, otherwise “shutting that place down for us to shoot wasn’t an option. Caesars has a big, large entertainment tent that they have been doing a lot of producing in, and so we used that space,” he said.
The contestants did not stay in a hotel; their dorms are constructed as part of the set, and they’re monitored and filmed 24/7 by producers in the control room, just like Big Brother.
Outside of the set, as we saw in episode one, the production even built a faux airport check-in and waiting room, complete with Allegiant Airlines product integration, to try to fool the contestants into thinking they were being flown back to L.A.
How long it takes to film and edit Hell’s Kitchen
Hell’s Kitchen seasons 19 and 20 were filmed back to back starting in April 2018. It takes just 18 production days to film one season.
The much-lengthier process is post-production, which took six months. Both seasons were entirely completed back in 2018, and Rosen told me that there was no re-editing or going back to the shows now.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work to put the show together in the edit,” Rosen told me. “Sixteen hours of TV shot over 18 production days is a lot, so we have story teams of three that rotate episodes, and each team does four episodes in a round robin. Just to get through all their footage before the edit is, in and of itself, a monumental task.”
The Hell’s Kitchen template
I haven’t watched Hell’s Kitchen regularly since season five, when I got tired of the repetitiveness. But I know that, for a lot of people, the show is like comfort food, and the consistency helps with that.
Watching season 19’s premiere before I talked to Rosen, I was struck by how similar the show still felt to what I first watched almost 16 years ago, back in 2005. The same music cues, the same surveillance camera footage. I assume we’ll soon have the same risotto, scallops, and, of course, the beef Wellington.
“We have a template and a flair for it,” Rosen told me. “It’s a show that is partly a game show and partly skill show. … So as long as the formula is working, there’s no real reason to go away from it in a dramatic way. … As long as we’re keeping it fresh, then there’s no reason to mess with the formula, because the formula works.”
But he also said that the show has evolved in subtle ways. “It’s really interesting, though, when I go back and watch early seasons of Hell’s Kitchen, or if I happen to catch them on YouTube or wherever, the show has really developed a lot along with the whole genre of reality TV.”
The reality competition used to have “a lot more big music and bells and whistles and stings and cymbal scrapes, and we’ve kind of gone away from that and tried to do a little bit more—it feels more like straight raw vérité. We stripped music out of a lot of scenes to try and make it feel more raw and more real, and put the viewer in the moment as if they’re a fly on the wall without the music trying to tell them what they should be feeling at the moment,” he added.
Gordon Ramsay’s behavior that Hell’s Kitchen does not show
Rosen told me that he has “not seen a huge change in Gordon over the 18 or 19 seasons that we’ve done the show,” even as Ramsay has become much more famous.
“From a casting standpoint, easier to produce right now because Gordon is so well known,” he said. “The first few seasons, nobody quite understood what a big deal Gordon was in the United States. It’s funny: Our first season we went shot out on the corner of Hollywood and Vine for our final challenge with the final two doing their dishes on the street, and nobody in Hollywood and Vine and in the heart of Hollywood was recognizing who Gordon was other than one British family that walked by, and they’re like Oh, Gordon, what are you doing here?“
Now, the chefs know who they’re getting—but that person isn’t just the screaming, abusive monster who gave us the moment that became a popular GIF:
“Gordon’s immensely respected. and he earned that respect from the cast by spending a lot more time with them than you’ll ever see in the actual edit on the show,” Rosen told me.
“They really want to please him, and they take it very seriously. The cast knows what they’re signing up for—we’re not trying to put one over on the cast either. This is a real cooking competition with a real, legitimate prize and real, legitimate money, and for the winner it’s truly life-changing. So we don’t want to mess with what we’ve got working.”
Ramsay “takes it very seriously because he knows what an important job it is. And I’d say he’s been 100 percent fair with everybody ever since day one of season one,” Rosen added.
So what kind of additional time does Gordon Ramsay spend with the cast?
At the start of each episode, when Ramsay introduces the next challenge, he “talks with them, and he’ll discuss what happened the night before it at the dinner service and what went wrong,” Rosen said. “It’s a new day, and he always does a fresh, clean slate with them, and they really appreciate it.”
Ramsay also goes into the kitchen to help. “A lot of times during a dinner service if somebody is messing up on something and they just can’t get it, he’ll go over to that station and he’ll do the entire dish for them and show them how to do it,” Rosen told me. “And once you’ve shown them—then, yes, he’ll ride them if they do it incorrectly. But he shows them.”
That hands-on help included once teaching every single chef how to cook their food for dinner service.
“We had some really struggling dinner services along the way,” Rosen said. “And I remember, we needed the cast to start to get it after three or four episodes, and I’ve never seen a whirling dervish in the kitchen like Gordon was on that one particular service where he basically went and taught every single person on every single station how to do their dishes. Regardless of the fact that they’ve been through the dinner service two or three times, they were trained by their sous chef, they should know most of the stuff, they weren’t quite getting it. It wasn’t clicking. He went in and taught each of them—without screaming at them without berating them— how to do their jobs. He wants success; he wants to get people fed. He takes it very seriously, whether it’s for a TV show or for his real restaurants; he wants people to get fed … really good food.”
Rosen said “that’s how his intensity gets to the level that it gets to, because he gets disappointed and frustrated when the cast isn’t able to perform what they should be able to.”
Does Hell’s Kitchen cast incompetent people on purpose?
In 2013, Gordon Ramsay admitted the show cast for drama: “there’s 50 percent cast for character, and there’s 50 percent cast for talent,” he said.
But Rosen said that the production legitimately tries to cast people who are capable in the kitchen.
“It’s easy to say that, but the truth of the matter is, we cast everybody hoping that they can cook, and then we’re pleasantly surprised by some and unpleasantly surprised by others,” he told me.
“Usually when you’re putting 18 contestants into a show, some of them have misrepresented their culinary skills a little bit, and that’s quickly found out. They become, you know, the first people that Gordon will eliminate based on the cooking skills—not on personality or who can make a TV,” he added.
“You’re pleasantly surprised when somebody is better than you think they are, but invariably we’re going to get two or three chefs along the way who misrepresented [their experience] just because they want to be on TV.”
How season 19’s cast compares
Hell’s Kitchen season 19 didn’t change its casting along with its location. But Rosen said something is different: “This is one of the strongest casts we’ve ever put together, from a culinary standpoint and from a personality standpoint.”
In fact, he said, “this is honestly my favorite season I think since season five. It’s really good and there’s really great characters. Without giving away anything, I’d say our final four was the most competitive final four chefs we’ve ever had, and they all had great personalities, so it was kind of an embarrassment of riches at the end of the season.”
What will happen on Hell’s Kitchen season 20?
“We try and change things up every season so it’s fresh, whether it’s casting twist that we did season 17 and 18 of all-stars, and then newbies versus all stars, or this season, the big twist being in Las Vegas,” Rosen told me.
And he teased that there’s something coming for Hell’s Kitchen 20, though of course he wouldn’t say what it was: “We’ve got another twist for season 20 coming up that’ll be interesting and fun.”
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