To be a Hell's Kitchen contestant, one must be hungry for fame, excellence and no small amount of drama. But to be a Hell's Kitchen diner, one must go hungry ... or at least that's the impression the editing on the reality cooking competition show has given.
With all of host-mentor Chef Gordon Ramsay's bellowing, the undercooked proteins and overdone egos apparent on the show, many a filmed dinner service has ended in tears or has been shut down well before all courses have been served. Imagine my relief (and satiation) that this was not necessarily the case when I recently had the privilege to dine at Hell's Kitchen itself.
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Check out what other preconceived notions I had and how they played out through dinner service:
My expectations: Obnoxiously towering ceilings and larger-than-life decor
The reality: Hell's Kitchen is built on a sound stage, and everything appears even more exaggerated than on TV -- from the menacingly oversized, flaming HK-pitchfork logo to the stairway that winds up to the balcony where the two finalists stand behind frosted glass doors to discover their fates. The only real difference is the lighting: It's far brighter than you'd expect in a fine-dining restaurant, no doubt to better capture Chef Ramsey's apoplectic fits.
My expectations: Yelling. Lots of yelling. Punctuated by choice bits of cussing.
The reality: Even though I was only about 60 feet from the Blue Team's kitchen pass-through, i was disappointed that I could not hear any of the dialogue distinctly. I'm not sure who engineered the place, but I had a clear view of Chef Ramsay berating the finalists and the chefs barking out orders, but I had to strain my ears to make out even a handful of words. $#*!
The Fine Print
My expectations: Signing away my firstborn's kidney if I revealed any spoilers from the episode. Also, dire warnings to not look Chef Ramsay in the eyes.
The reality: I signed a standard media confidentiality agreement (no baby organs were stipulated) and a diner's release form to be filmed. All my electronics were temporarily confiscated as a measure against tweeting or Instagramming spoilers. Finally, in person, I was warned to not smoke near the HK logo because it's fed by "large propane tanks" and requested not to Yelp the place because "it's not a real restaurant." There goes my Yelp elite status!
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My expectations: Ingratiating and apologetic, accustomed to dealing with fed-up, underfed diners
The reality: The food and beverage servers were super-confident, friendly, on-point and surprisingly chatty. I accidentally swatted a gnat into my guest's water glass, and without pausing to blink, the server whisked away the glass and produced a replacement immediately. Cameramen and earpiece-equipped production assistants were also stationed everywhere so they could get that VIP's wife a phone, STAT, and monitor the status of all the diners.
My expectations: A Wile E. Coyote-like appetite that is constantly thwarted. Why else would my reservation include the caveat: "It may be wise to have a snack prior to arrival, as any or all of each order cannot be guaranteed for every patron"?
The reality: Roast and baste me for Thanksgiving because I was stuffed! Although one cheery server who resembled a young Fred Rogers admitted that he attended one previous dinner service that never progressed beyond the appetizer, I received all three courses in a timely manner, and in between courses partook in the honking-huge basket offering four different types of breads.
The Usual Suspects
My expectations: Ordering one of Chef Ramsay's infamous HK staples -- Beef Wellington, John Dory (not the same breed of fish as Dory from Finding Nemo, alas), scallops or risotto -- all or separately underprepared because he's often declared, "They're raw!" on the show.
The reality: I attended the finale taping, which meant that a) the finalists created their own menus that did not include the usual suspects, and b) every element was so well executed -- perfectly seared seafood and steak, tender potatoes, crisp greens -- that my only complaint was a slightly underdressed slaw that could have used a touch more acid.
My expectations: Intrusive cameras and production people everywhere, taking away from the dining experience
The reality: The camera people and PAs were so quiet and efficient that I tuned out their activity pretty quickly. I had difficulty ignoring the cameras only a few times -- when they captured my reaction as I sampled a new dish. Here's a little taste of what ran through my head: Oh no, I cut the piece too big! How long will I look like I have overstuffed chipmunk cheeks? Chew, dammit, chew! This is really, really good. Hey, share a bit of your steak, buddy. Ugh, did I just critique the slaw on camera? I sound so pompous! Later, I had the privilege of visiting the master control room, which has what looks to be at least 100 monitors trained on every little action in the dining room and kitchen. Self-conscious much? Yes. I might have to rethink my dreams of participating on The Amazing Race.
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My expectations: Free-flowing wine to keep diners occupied and in a pleasantly undemanding state of euphoria
The reality: Yep, the waitstaff is very Johnny-on-the-spot when it came to topping off our Malbec. Fortunately (and very responsibly), Fox provides cab vouchers for those who over-tipple.
My expectations: A port-o-potty since Hell's Kitchen isn't a real restaurant
The reality: There were multiple bathrooms outside in the honeywagons, aka those trailers actors hang out in on location shoots. So in a way, we got star treatment!
My expectations: Strange cut-outs for cameras to capture the competitors surreptitiously
The reality: A side hallway separated by a one-way mirror allows the camera to capture the action inside without bothering the contestants, who have cushy living quarters and an impressively turned-out kitchen. Fun fact: Near the beginning of the competition the contestants start out requesting good ingredients, like organic vegetables, to cook for themselves, but by the end of the month's filming, they're exhausted and ask for items like Hot Pockets.
The Overall Experience
My expectations: A surreal undertaking in which I'd be alternately starving or distracted by production
The reality: It feels like a real restaurant and is a surprisingly normal dining experience as soon as I ignored the cameras and occasional celebrities dining near me -- but I live in Los Angeles, so that's common anyway. My hyper-aware attitude created suspense (If that table got their apps, when will we get ours?) along with appreciation (Three fat scallops instead of just two? This is the best meal ever!), but in the end I was satisfied and wondered how one would go about tipping on a free meal at a fake restaurant.
Hell's Kitchen returns for its 11th season in early 2013 on Fox.