‘Hell’s Kitchen’ interview: Winner Ja’Nel Witt on Gordon Ramsay, taking risks

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Ja'NelWhile this season of “Hell’s Kitchen” may have been somewhat predictable, there was ultimately a pretty good reason for that: You had a chef in Ja’Nel Witt who was pretty dominant, and it was hard for some of the other contestants to really compete with her from a perspective of a home viewer. Were things different there in person? Definitely, but they always are when you’re forced into the stress of long work days and paranoia.

But now that the experience of going through the kitchen is over, Ja’Nel has quite a bit to look forward to: A new position working with Gordon Ramsay in Las Vegas, the title, and the distinction of being with the strongest crop of ladies ever to be on the show. All of this and more were a part of our conversation with the Houston chef recently, as we went through how she made it onto the show, and some of what ended up helping her win.

CarterMatt - How does it feel now that you’re finally able to talk about this? It’s been months since the show filmed, and you’ve had to be so quiet about it.

I’m just so happy now that the cat’s finally out of the bag, and to be able to share it with everyone. Every week, everyone was like ‘did you win,’ and I just stopped talking to everyone because I didn’t want to spill the beans. (Laughs.)

It felt for almost a few weeks like you were going to be the person to win this season. Did you ever get a sense of that on your end, or felt like you were a favorite?

I knew that I was one of the strongest chefs, and I had experience. I remained calm, I felt like I was honest with everyone, and most importantly, I felt like I respected my whole team. They would appreciate my opinions and listen to me, and that’s important in a kitchen.

I was confident in my ability, but I never thought I was a shoo-in or that I had it in the bag. I felt like every day, I had to prove that I deserved to be there. I had to prove it to my teammates, and I had to prove it to Chef Ramsay.

So what got you to come on this show to begin with?

I’ve always wanted to do like an instructional cooking TV show, but I never thought I would be able to handle being in ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ or being yelled at by Gordon Ramsay. But I’m a huge fan of Ramsay; I watch all of his shows, I love his perspective of food, and I’ve loved him for years.

I was actually laid off from my job as an executive chef in Houston, and I got the call and I thought that [since] I didn’t have anything going on, I may as well bite the bullet and go for it.

What was it like to not only make it to the end, but to do so on such a dominant Red Team?

This season, the Red Team was a force to be reckoned with. I was nervous coming on, because usually, the women are the cattiest and try to take each other out. But we recognized early on that if we all work together, all four or five of us could get black jackets and a woman could win this season. We approached it very differently, we were very supportive of each other, and we were always there to lean on each other. I’m excited that a woman won, and that there were two women in the finale. Very good for our female chefs.

When it comes to the menu you came up with for the finale, is that something that you had been thinking of a few weeks out?

Even during the audition process, I was thinking about what my menu would be if I made it to the end, but I always drew a blank. It’s very funny; I’m really indecisive sometimes, but when it came to this menu, it just all poured out … It was definitely food that I like to eat, and that I like to see on menus; or, that I don’t see on menus enough, and that I like and want to share it.

Let’s move straight in then by talking about the beef cheeks, which was your biggest risk. Is that something that you make pretty often?

I have cooked them a lot. We do restaurant weeks in Houston, and I’ve put them on my menus then. It’s a little approachable for people to try then, and I want people to try something new. The first time I tried them, it was nothing like I expected them to be, and that is what I want other people to try them. I want other people to see what I love them so much.

Do you think that the team you selected played a role at all into Ramsay’s decision, or do you think that it’s something that is more subjective? What I mean is that unless somebody completely bombs, do you really think that it makes that big of a different?

That’s a good question, because when you have returning contestants you always have that question of if they respect you, if they want to redeem themselves, can you bring them all together … I think it played a little bit of a role. I think he’s watching how you guide and lead them, and handle them at the pass, but also I think that he doesn’t make that too much of an issue because you don’t get to pick everyone you want to work with … You have a small pool of people to choose from.

So now that the secret is out, when do you think you’ll be heading to Vegas to start working?

I’m hoping to be popped up from Houston and into Vegas in the next week or two. I did get to spend a lot of time in the restaurant last night (note: This interview took place the day after the finale), and it’s amazing. I can’t wait to get in the kitchen. The staff is wonderful and so welcoming, and the sooner the better. I can’t wait to get in there.

If you want to look back at the rest of this “Hell’s Kitchen” season, just be sure to visit the link here.

Photo: Fox

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