Gordon Ramsay, <EM>Hell's Kitchen</EM> Gordon Ramsay, Hell's Kitchen

Super-mean superchef Gordon Ramsay turns up the heat again as host of Fox's Hell's Kitchen (premiering tonight at 8 pm/ET), in which cafeteria cooks, prison chefs, pizza makers and deli workers toss their pots and pans into the ring, this time with their eyes on a bigger and better prize an executive-chef gig at the Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa in Las Vegas.

Seeing as, judging by the premiere episode, Ramsay is his same gruff self, what is new for this second helping? For one thing, the dozen would-be restaurateurs are split into men's and women's teams. "It's the most amazing sort of scenario," says Ramsay, "because it raised the bar in terms of competitiveness. The guys hate losing against girls in a way that made them more competitive, and the girls were far more excited about beating the guys. The drive and tenacious attitude of the women [were] outstanding."

A key ingredient to going far on Hell's Kitchen is each contestant's interaction with Ramsay, who, he is first to admit, isn't the easiest to charm or get along with, let alone impress or wow. The host was surprised that the second batch of players didn't pick up on that from the premiere edition. "In my mind, the cast were technically better, but you'd think they would have learned a little bit [from Season 1] and sort of not practice what I preach."

In tonight's opener, the chefs kick off the competition by whipping together their "signature dish," many  OK, all but two! of which were either spit out, literally deposited into the creator's open hand or viciously lambasted by Ramsay. His advice for future wannabes? "Cooking with tuna" (as one of tonight's players does) is completely different than cooking a steak, so having it as a signature dish and trying to be clever with it [is a bad idea]. Simplicity is always best."

In other words, don't labor to plate what is largely a pretty, Bon Appétit-ready picture for Ramsay, but something that shows passion, and pleases the palate. "If someone had done something alone the lines of a sashimi or sushi, I would have been very impressed because they would have respected the integrity behind the ingredients," he says. "All I wanted to see was simplicity of good flavors and the balance right."

Alas, guessing what it is that Ramsay wants is an art unto itself, leading many contenders to rub him the wrong way and elicit his ire. Is it all an act? Or is this the way Hell's unheavenly host really is at the stove? "What you saw in [Season 1] is no different from how I run my kitchen," he insists. "When things ride high, and the standards are met, I'm the best person they'll ever get to meet in their career. But when things go wrong, and customers are upset... then the s--- is going to hit the fan."

Recalling his own stints in some of the culinary world's most revered kitchens, he says, "When Table 7 has spent $10,000, and the main course has come back because the duck is not cooked properly, trust me, [the boss] doesn't exactly talk to the chef that cooked that duck as if they'd just won a beauty parade."

In the time between Hell's Kitchen's seasons, like-minded culinary contests (think NBC's short-lived Celebrity Cooking Showdown, or Bravo's Top Chef) have peppered the dial. Though Ramsay has heard of them, he isn't worried. With a nod to the former example, he says, "A celebrity cooking show is never going to work because you're wasting time and money trying to get people up to speed that don't care about food the way professionals do. It's like a celebrity [American] Idol  it's not going to happen. You're missing the big picture [with such ideas], so I don't really fear them as any form of competition."

Instead, Ramsay is resolved to keeping the heat on his Hell's Kitchen cooks, if only because of how important and significant this season's prize is. "You know, I take a lot of flak across the world for my management skills for being so abrupt and arrogant but I don't hate these guys and girls," he says. "I just want the best. That's all."