When I interviewed Hell’s Kitchen executive producer Arthur Smith, of the reality TV production company A. Smith and Co., he told me a memorable story about clashing with Gordon Ramsay on set on the very first day of filming a dinner service.
We also talked about the other people who clash with Gordon Ramsay: Hell’s Kitchen’s chefs.
Why are some of them so bad? How are they cast? And most importantly, are some people cast just for Gordon Ramsay to yell at them?
A decade ago, Gordon Ramsay told Emmy magazine that, of the chefs, “50 percent [are] cast for character, and there’s 50 percent cast for talent. … When things go wrong, I go crazy. When things go right, I get really excited. I’m not going to change for anybody because so far it’s working.”
Ramsay also referred to the chefs as “the muppets I have to work with”—and I don’t think he meant the charming and lovely Muppets, stars of iconic cinema.
But Smith told me that it’s not as simple as half culinary geniuses, half people who cannot open a microwave’s door.
The actual Hell’s Kitchen casting application says the show is looking for “chefs and cooks,” and includes those who “have years of experience in a professional kitchen or are an accomplished line cook ready to make your mark.”
The application asks about their favorite dishes to cook, their experience, and awards they may have won.
But the very first question applicants must answer is choosing the type of chef they are from a drop-down list. The options:
- Executive Chef
- Chef De Cuisine
- Sous Chef
- Line Cook
- Pastry Chef
- Cooking Instructor
- Private Chef
- Culinary Student
In other words, they’re casting people with very different levels of experience. They are also, of course, casting a reality TV show, so the application asks other questions.
And prospects must submit a two-minute video in which they explain “why we should choose you for this life changing experience” and share anything else yourself that we might not know just by looking at you,” and the application says “we love personality so don’t be afraid to have fun with it!”
“Personality” may explain how some of Hell’s Kitchen’s chefs find their way to set!
When casting the show originally, Arthur Smith said, the people they found “were chefs. They wanted to be on the show—not to be on TV—they want it to be on the show, to work with Gordon Ramsay for the ultimate prize of being a head chef or winning the money. But it was all about their interest in food. They don’t go on to careers as performers.”
He added that “it has to be that way,” though the casting team does encounter people who want something else out of the experience.
“Every so often, when we’re casting, we have to sniff out the ones who are in it for the wrong reasons. Because if you’re in it to be an actor, or if you’re in it to be just a pure celebrity, you’re not right for the show, because it’s not that type of show.”
What about Gordon Ramsay’s claims that only half are cast for talent?
There are, of course, bad chefs, or people who just cannot function in that reality TV restaurant environment with Gordon watching and critiquing them, they’re not always who the production expected.
I asked if people are just “cast as cannon fodder for Gordon Ramsay to put some bread around their head and [then] let them go.”
“We always get surprised,” Smith said. “We do have our own predictions, and they’re not right. Sometimes they’re right—I’m not saying they’re always wrong—but so many times we get surprised with an executive chef with a great resume who comes in and just is a disaster, a complete disaster.”
“And then we have it the other way, where someone who’s been a line cook for a couple of years, graduated culinary school, but they learn incredibly fast, and they go much farther than we thought they would. So we don’t know,” he said.
Hell’s Kitchen’s chefs are not being set up to fail, he insisted. Instead, the production “work[s] with the chefs [so] they’re prepared.”
“There’s a whole bunch of things that don’t make it into the show, because they’re not that interesting,” Smith told me. “Prep’s always a montage, training is always a montage, because it’s not what you want to watch, but it’s really happening. Gordon will come to me, and he’ll say, I need four hours today because they sucked last night. And I’ve got to get them to know the menu. And we’ll do it.”
Smith added, “it’s not like they’re getting sandbagged. That’s why the disappointment is real. That’s why Gordon’s anger is real … It may look like they’re being thrown to the fire, but they’re not. We’re really working with them.”
The key to Hell’s Kitchen, he told me, is that “if you can survive long enough that you can learn—even though you may have been on the chopping block early on—you start getting in that mode of learning. You can actually do really well in Hell’s Kitchen.”