Blazing kitchen fires, chefs screaming obscenities, irate, starving diners... yep, it's time for another season of Hell's Kitchen. But what's it like cooking in an actual restaurant kitchen? We asked a few real-life chefs to define their idea of the kitchen from hell.
"I suppose I'd say that my idea of hell's kitchen is based on the notion that most chefs, including myself, are control freaks seeking unattainable perfection. Hell is being caught off guard by a full dining room with a kitchen staff down with the flu. Hell is one of your cooks starting a fire in the middle of service, resulting in closing down the restaurant. Hell is preparing for a large benefit for days, only to find that the patrons are more interested in the pigs in a blanket at the booth next to you. In other words, hell is what you can't control."
—James A. Rosenbauer
Chef de Cuisine, Doubletree Hotel, Tarrytown, NY
"Two out of three cooks call out sick, the [ticket] board is full, I'm working a station, my runner is expediting and the exhaust is broken—but hey, that pretty much happened last week."
Chef de Cuisine, BLT Fish Shack, New York City
"The kitchen from hell would have a mezzanine for observation whereby every food critic in America would be watching at one time."
Executive Chef, Savona and Bar Savona, Philadelphia
"A kitchen filled with greenhorns, no dishwasher, a broken AC, a full dining room and the board of health walking in."
Chef/Owner, Braeburn, New York City
"I have actually worked in the kitchen from hell, a couple of them to tell you the truth. The worst was absolutely retched to even walk into. The chef was a complete ass who was coked up all the time and had no clue what was going on. All of the sous chefs and cooks had horrible attitudes and were always negative as hell. Seriously, as soon as you walked in you felt all of your passion sucked out of you. Sanitation was nonexistent and the chef paid no attention to the quality of the food. To put it into perspective, the owners wouldn't even eat in their own restaurant because they saw what was going on, but even worse, they did nothing to change it. I worked there for four days, and I have to tell you that those four days still haunt me."
Executive Chef, Counter, New York City
"A cold, dirty, inefficient kitchen is my nightmare. I can't be successful in such conditions."
Executive Chef, Harbour, New York City
"My idea of a kitchen from hell is an environment where everyone works against each other—a kitchen that is not a team, but every man for himself."
Chef de Cuisine, BLT Fish, New York City
"I had some interesting experiences while working in France for a year. Flying plates of food and being told to return to America to work in McDonald's is my idea of hell's kitchen!"
Executive Chef, Buddakan, New York City
"While we were opening up at [restaurant] 42, there was a problem with the restaurants' HVAC [heating, ventilating and air conditioning system] and exhaust. It's a very large space, about 25,000 square feet, so there is a lot of air and airflow...We had a situation where any time a door into or out of the kitchen was opened, carefully or not, it was almost blown off the hinges. We had 15 mph winds and a 70 degree temperature right across the expediting table. Now I know this might not sound like hell to a casual diner, no one was hurt, and everything was working, in theory. But here we are, in a brand new [restaurant], trying to put up plates for the first time, and not only is there no way to keep the plates hot, I can't even keep my tickets in a check rail. I couldn't put pepper on a plate without it blowing away. It was like trying to plate fine dining at a beach barbecue.
"We were forced to delay our opening another week. I say another week because the construction schedule fell behind, and we had to cancel hundreds of reservations during December of '07. We were scheduled to open at the end of November and began booking. But the restaurant wasn't ready for us until the end of December. So when we finally got into the restaurant, we made hundreds of calls to guests who were not only anticipating this opening for a long time, but were pissed that they couldn't come in December. We apologized up and down, promised we were going to make it right, rescheduled the reservations, and then got into kitchen and found out we couldn't put out hot food. That was hell in the kitchen for me."
Chef/Owner, 42 at the Ritz-Carlton, Westchester, NY