Ask Gordon Ramsay, the British celebrity chef famous for his eviscerating tongue-lashings, if he's as rude as TV's other notorious verbal abuser and he doesn't miss a beat. "I make Simon Cowell look like a poodle," declares the pot-stirring star of Hell's Kitchen, debuting tonight at 9 pm/ET on Fox.

Once you've seen him in action — stalking his charges in the kitchen, his eyes ablaze like lumps of burning coal, spewing forth a constant stream of expletives — it's clear he's not lying. In fact, he's being modest. Gordon Ramsay makes Simon Cowell look like a goldfish.

Ramsay, 38, is the undisputed hard man of cookery. A muscular former professional soccer player with a face that, in repose, could easily scare small children, Ramsay — married with four children himself — stands out from the usual salad tossers and oil drizzlers. His talent is also larger than life: He's earned a total of seven Michelin stars.

Ramsay's dogged quest to earn those stars was documented in two U.K. series, Ramsay's Boiling Point and Beyond Boiling Point. The whole country tuned in to watch his long-suffering staff "get Ramsayed." Two more series followed: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (Gordon aids ailing restaurants) and Hell's Kitchen (Gordon runs a kitchen staffed by C-list celebrities). Now Hell's Kitchen has relocated to Los Angeles and the devil is sharpening his Sabatiers. This time he faces a crew of 12 chefs, one of whom will win the chance to run his or her own restaurant. Forming two teams, contestants must prepare a dinner each week for paying customers in a real restaurant created especially for the series. Ramsay picks the winning team; the weakest link in the losing team is sent home.

Ramsay was impressed by the teams' level of commitment. "Some of the contestants were more passionate than some of the staff I employ." Nevertheless, he puts them through their paces and then some, dropping the F-bomb (and other even more unmentionable bombs) as frequently as we might say "like" and "you know." Much of his dialogue is obscured by one long bleep — all part of Fox's master plan. "Sometimes the bleep is funnier than the word," says executive producer Arthur Smith. "You get to supply your own."

Don't expect Ramsay to sign up for anger-management classes anytime soon. "You push them to extremes for a response," he insists. "The objective is to become stronger. It's nothing personal. That's the way I've always worked." He also denies he plays up to the cameras. "I'm not interested in standing in position. I don't want to redo anything. And Fox [execs] were brilliant. They said, 'Be you.'"

That he does. He pulls no punches when contestants present him with original dishes, such as a chicken breast that "looked like a big camel hoof," a vodka penne that he describes as "absolute dog----" and a dish of soft-shell crab that "looked like it had been run over by a juggernaut."

Ramsay is so harsh that at least one contestant threatens to walk off the show. But he's unrepentant. "If those contestants thought I was going to become their best mate," he scoffs, "they should go work on the Food Network."

Ramsay was fired up by his contestants' all-American competitive spirit, too — but in a good way. "Within 48 hours, they started turning on each other," he enthuses. He even admits he found the whole experience deeply moving. "The time I did enjoy was one minute before announcing the winner. I've never seen emotion like it in my life." For a moment, Gordon Ramsay is almost as nice as Simon Cowell.