Hundreds of aspiring chefs want a chance at ‘Hell’s Kitchen’

One man sneaked into the United States only to live in the mountains for three months. Another is a pastor and a holder of three black belts. Yet another is a goateed and tattooed guitarist.

What else could bring such a motley crew of South Floridians together, besides food?

About 200 aspiring chefs assembled at the Hotel Eden Roc in Miami Beach on Saturday for the chance to join the cast of the upcoming season of Hell’s Kitchen, the cooking-centered reality television show. But at this audition, there was no cooking.

At least for now, the casting producers were unconcerned with the chefs’ cooking skills or the length of their experience. One of those who was called back for a second audition, 25-year-old Jasmin Patterson, had only been cooking for four years, compared with 20 years or more for many of the others.

Instead, the show was looking for “big personalities” that would make for good television, said Paul Zurheide, a casting associate.

Those personalities were on display as the potential reality TV stars were interviewed at the front of a large meeting room while their competitors milled about.

“How confident am I?” said Eric Delano, repeating the question posed by the casting producer. “I’ve already packed my bags for L.A.”

He had cut off the sleeves of his chef’s jacket to show his tattooed arms, and a bandana covered his head while a pair of aviator sunglasses concealed his eyes. A guitar, bearing a silver skull and flame stickers, which he said was used to serenade his guests as they ate, was strapped to his back.

John Lent, the pastor and martial artist, tried to make a more subtle impression. He spoke about how he’d taught missionaries to cook the Indian and Caribbean foods of the locals they sought to convert in order to bridge the culture gap.

“You seem so… tender,” the producer said. “How are you going to deal with Gordon Ramsay yelling at you?”

The concern seemed genuine. Ramsay, the renowned British chef and star of Hell’s Kitchen, is famous for his outbursts against chefs who can’t satisfy his palate.

But most of the chefs vying for a spot on the show, scheduled to air late summer or early fall, were unconcerned. Lent explained that he’s “dealt with much worse than Ramsay” and that it was just how some head chefs motivated those under them.

Even those who didn’t completely approve of Ramsay’s domineering style knew that being on the show — and possibly winning a position as a chef at one of Ramsay’s restaurants — would be well worth the verbal abuse.

Although Pedro Alaniz already hosts two weekly radio cooking shows and appears regularly on Univision, he hoped being on Hell’s Kitchen would help him cross over from the Spanish-language market.

Alaniz’s success story has improbable beginnings. He crossed the border from Mexico without a visa in 1985 and lived in the Encinitas Mountains of California. While there, he said he took advantage of an amnesty program enacted under President Reagan that offered legal status for immigrants who worked as migrant farmers for three months.

Given how poorly he was eating in the mountains, he was drawn to a restaurant job once he got his green card. He started as a dishwasher, then a line cook, and eventually a head chef.

“America is a land of opportunity, and if you work hard, you can make something of yourself,” Alaniz said.

While his story may be the starkest example, all of the chefs, with their varying skill sets and personalities, hoped to go through Hell’s Kitchen for their own bite of the American Dream.

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