I’ve been a fan of Hell’s Kitchen from its first season. There are certain elements of the show that viewers can see coming from the start — and perhaps those elements lend a comforting familiarity year in and year out — but the mix of personalities keeps the show fresh and fun.
This season, the show’s twelfth, was the best and most interesting yet. The producers must have chosen to focus less on outsized characters and more on genuine talent, because we saw less of the tabloid drama to which we’ve grown accustomed over the last few seasons.
Here are ten observations I’ve made about this season, and each of them play a role in why I love Hell’s Kitchen so much. Check them out…
10. The Chefs Struggled With Even The Simplest Dishes.
I’d love to see the bill for how much food goes to waste on Hell’s Kitchen. Gordon Ramsay has such exacting standards that he has no compunction about throwing food away if it doesn’t meet those ideals.
This season was no exception, as it seemed like the chefs struggled with even the simplest of dishes. Overcooked scallops, raw halibut, ruined Beef Wellingtons, unseasoned risottos – one by one, these disgusting dishes went into the trash bins. As the season went on, the condition of the food barely got better.
One would think that, after a dozen seasons, the chefs would bone up on Hell’s Kitchen staples before going on the show. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and we witness the same mistakes year in and year out.
9. Sous Chef Andi Van Willigan Received Significantly More Screen Time.
Andi Van Willigan has served as sous chef for the last six seasons of Hell’s Kitchen, in addition to assisting Gordon Ramsay on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Hotel Hell, and Masterchef. For the most part, Van Willigan and the sous chefs who preceded her – not to mention the male sous chefs on the show – simply served to help Ramsay yell at the competitors.
This season, Van Willigan inherited a larger role throughout the series. In one episode the red team engaged in an extended discussion with her about the sacrifices female chefs make in the industry. She has been a more vocal encourager at certain points in the season, and she even accompanied Jason on one of the season’s final post-challenge rewards.
I, for one, am glad to see Van Willigan’s role elevated on the show, and I would like to see sous chef James Avery get more screen time as well.
8. Teamwork Is Crucial, And Lone Wolves Get Noticed.
On Hell’s Kitchen, the level of teamwork can make or break a challenge or dinner service. Over the seasons, we’ve seen teams go on lengthy winning streaks due to good teamwork, while lone wolves get noticed quickly and are often not long for the competition.
This season, 36-year-old Sandra distinguished herself as this season’s lone wolf, even as her team won challenge after challenge and the occasional dinner service. The early episodes seemed to feature constant confessional camera shots of Sandra bragging about how much better she was than everybody, yet during dinner service she remained silent, refusing to communicate with her teammates.
In the dorms, Sandra reacted belligerently every time a teammate even suggested putting her up for elimination, and she alienated herself as the season went on. At one point, Gordon Ramsay switched her from the red team to the blue team, where she continued her lone-wolf ways. She barely made it halfway through the season.
7. Chefs Who Challenge Themselves Receive Rewards.
I had my eye on Joy as a potential winner from the beginning. She exhibited leadership and poise from the start, her teammates never put her up for elimination, and her cooking impressed Gordon Ramsay. But one event in particular endeared her to me, and it involved her willingness to challenge herself.
In Episode 15, Ramsay challenged the remaining chefs to create a dish that would appear in the inaugural Hell’s Kitchen calendar. The winner would also receive immunity at the next dinner service. Joy’s dish consisted of a duck breast topped with figs, mushrooms, and Swiss chard. She revealed to the judges – past Hell’s Kitchen participants Rock Harper, Dana Cohen, and Paul Niedermann – and Ramsay that she had never cooked any of those items before! Ramsay expressed his doubts, but her dish was deemed the best, and she won.
Joy’s story just goes to show that chefs who challenge themselves often win rewards.
6. Emotion Does Not Equal Passion.
Hell’s Kitchen has seen its share of passionate chefs come through its kitchen doors, but occasionally one chef or another will bring raw emotion into the competition – and emotion does not equal passion.
The two best examples of this phenomenon were Beth and Jessica. Beth had a tendency to turn belligerent or cry – or both – when she found herself backed into a corner. She did not last long, largely because of her cooking, but also because of her attitude.
Jessica, on the other hand, was a crier. Anytime she felt like she was on the verge of elimination (or even nomination for elimination), the tears would flow. In her last two appearances, she told the story of being homeless and sobbingly begged for another chance. But her time ran out.
Gordon Ramsay has a keen ability to separate emotion from true passion, and he can be quick to get rid of emotional wrecks.
5. Age Doesn’t Always Mean Experience, Wisdom, Or Skill…
Conventional wisdom tells us that with age comes maturity and experience. Though most of the contestants on this season of Hell’s Kitchen were in their 20s and 30s, four were in their 40s. Yet these older contestants failed to make much of an impression due to their lack of wisdom, maturity, and skill.
Simone, 43, flamed out early. In the third episode, she acted unstable – well, crazy – and she faked an illness and offered to go home at elimination. Bev, 42, flailed around and looked and acted like Marcie from Peanuts, and she went home seven episodes in.
Beth, 43, clashed with her teammates and poor-mouthed about her gender and Southern upbringing working against her. But her real problem lay in the fact that she couldn’t handle the pressure, and she was gone in the fifth episode. The oldest competitor, 48-year-old Richard, made it to the top ten not by distinguishing himself but by performing just a little less poorly than others.
So much for the maturity and skill that come with age.
4. …While Instinct, Talent, And Heart Can Overcome Youthfulness.
At the same time that the older contestants came up short on maturity, wisdom, and skill, three of the younger contestants demonstrated the talent, heart, and instinct to go far in the competition. Joy, Melanie, and Kashia came from different backgrounds but all demonstrated a similar passion to succeed in Hell’s Kitchen.
Kashia, 23, hails from Mississippi, but we never heard the same complaints from her about being a Southern woman that we heard from Beth. Though Kashia may have had the least amount of experience of any of the chefs on the show, she played to her strengths, worked hard, and learned all she could.
Melanie, 24, stumbled often early on, but she found her voice and the best way to channel her talent and made it one step away from the final. Joy, 25, whom we read about earlier, looked like a frontrunner from the start, and she performed in challenges, revealing a certain ingenuity. However, she didn’t have what it takes to make it all the way, which we’ll discuss later.
3. The Chef I Expected To Win It All Burned Out Early.
I had my eye on Joy from the beginning of the season. She had poise, confidence, and leadership, and I predicted early on that she would win. However, she had a real struggle in Episode 18 and left the competition too early.
During a dinner service with plenty of speed bumps (especially for so late in the competition), Joy experienced some timing issues with her halibut dish. She brought the fish to the pass ahead of the garnish, which went against Gordon Ramsay’s orders. The second time she brought the halibut up early led to an argument between her and Ramsay, which caused her to walk out of the kitchen.
Chef Andi immediately tried to convince her to go back and apologize, knowing that Ramsay saw something in Joy, but she couldn’t muster the confidence to admit fault and left the competition. Ramsay referred to Joy’s exit as “one of the most shocking things I’ve ever experienced.” I couldn’t agree more.
2. The Chef I Thought Wouldn’t Last Long Made It All The Way To The Final.
Sometimes I like for someone to prove me wrong. In Jason’s case, proving me wrong meant going from leaving the competition first three seasons ago to becoming runner-up this season. The 31 year old first made a name for himself in Season 9, where he fell ill before the first dinner service got underway and went home.
Honestly, I didn’t see Jason making it terribly far this season either. He came across as loud, obnoxious, and unserious, but he grew tremendously as the competition went on. He proved himself to be a more than capable chef and a real team player. He made the biggest impression on me in the penultimate episode when Gordon Ramsay gave each chef a chance to run the pass, and not only did Jason run it effectively, he encouraged his teammates as he led them.
By the final episode goofy Jason deserved to be there.
1. One Chef Blossomed At Just The Right Time To Win.
I never expected Scott, 36, to go terribly far in the competition, much less win it all. In the early episodes, Scott struck me as clueless, flailing about as though he had never cooked under pressure in his life. He made mistake after amateur mistake and failed to distinguish himself. He even publicly clashed with Gordon Ramsay twice!
Yet something turned, as though Scott had flipped a switch, and I believe it happened when his wife and children visited him. With a renewed focus on what mattered in life – and on his reason for competing in Hell’s Kitchen in the first place – Scott transformed into an expert chef and capable leader. From that point on, he deserved to win.
What are your favorite moments from Season 12 of Hell’s Kitchen?