The kitchen is the heart of the home, where meals are prepared with rich helpings of emotion, where people gather at parties despite more comfortable chairs and more flattering light elsewhere, where days begin with coffee or juice to break the bleary-eyed fog of sleep and end with a snitch of ice cream straight from the container just before bed.
It is the welcoming soul of a place, the kitchen is.
Not, however, when Gordon Ramsay is running it.
In the eighth season of Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” which got under way Wednesday with a two-hour premiere, chef Ramsay’s kitchen is a raucous, messy, chaotic swirl of competitive souls with varying degrees of competence.
And in the middle of it all this season, staying cool amid the crazy, is Russell Kook II, a Madison native and LaFollette High School grad who now lives and cooks in Chicago.
For Kook (pronounced, appropriately enough, “cook”), the show was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It was a great experience,” he said of the shoot in Los Angeles.
He’s vying, along with 15 fellow contestants — now 13 after Wednesday’s premiere — who range in experience from a bartender/line cook to an executive chef, for the grand prize of running the kitchen of L.A. Market with a salary of $250,000, and a yearlong gig as the spokesperson for Rosemount Estate wines. Whether he wins or bows early, the show offers invaluable exposure and insight for his chosen career.
“I learned a lot about myself,” he said, “and I learned a lot about my career, what I need to do to get where I want to be.”
The biggest lesson by far, the 29-year-old Kook said, was the importance of communication.
“You can have all the technique and all the skill in the world, but if you can’t communicate, everything else is null and void,” he said.
At first blush, it may seem communication is a refinement lost on Ramsay. Here’s a chef who routinely tears down his charges, whose reputation as an egomaniacal, foul-mouthed tyrant precedes him by a mile. It’s no wonder the hopeful restaurateurs who step into “Hell’s Kitchen” fear the wrath of Ramsay.
“He’s huge!” Kook said, referring to Ramsay’s physical size (he stands at about 6 feet, 2 inches). “He’s definitely an imposing figure.”
But Kook could have been referring to the chef’s reputation for achieving success in the kitchens of his — and others’ — restaurants around the world. In addition to “Hell’s Kitchen,” in which he whips aspiring chefs into a frenzied state of sleep-deprived competition, he lends his experience to struggling restaurants in “Kitchen Nightmares.” His critiques in both shows tend to hurt the ears of their recipients, often bringing tears, but the words are rude truths.
“He’s honest,” Kook said of Ramsay’s often harsh communication. “You get what you deserve.”
Road to ‘Hell’
Kook came into the culinary world naturally, he said, but it wasn’t his first plan. After studying finance at MATC (now called Madison College), he decided it wasn’t for him, and turned instead to cuisine.
“My dad is from New Orleans, and he was always introducing us to different foods,” he said. “So it was kind of a natural shift for me.”
He studied at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and followed that with stints at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Fla., Bank restaurant in Minneapolis, and David Burke at the Venetian in Las Vegas. Trained in classical French technique, he most recently worked at an Italian fine dining restaurant in Chicago but since the show, is taking some time off.
On “Hell’s Kitchen,” he has so far demonstrated his skills in preparing seafood; though Ramsay thought his calamari was a tad underdone, he approved of the dish.
“I love cooking fish,” Kook said. “It’s delicate, it takes a lot of technique. A steak you can hammer and just throw on the grill and it’ll be fine, but the difference between getting fish right and overcooking it is really small.”
When preparing meals for himself, he keeps it low-key.
“Pasta, a nice salad, something simple,” he said. “Of course, when I come home, I have to cook a five-course meal for my family.”
And he may do that a lot; he said he gets to Madison often, about once a month.
“I have to leave Chicago to relax,” he said. In addition to visiting favorite haunts around town — he never misses a stop at Jolly Bob’s on Williamson Street, and mentioned New Orleans Take-Out, L’Etoile and the Tornado Room in Madison and Louisianne’s in Middleton as other faves — he said hanging out on his parents’ back porch is the place to be.
“My dad owns a Christmas tree farm (parents Russell and Luann Kook own Caledonia Tree Farm in Merrimac), and I usually go out on the back deck, kick back and just chill,” he said. “All that fresh air … there’s no better place.”