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Stepping into Hell’s Kitchen



Okay, I'll admit it - I'm officially hooked on Hell's Kitchen. I started watching it kind of sporadically a few seasons back, but this time around, with a spot at Whistler's Araxi restaurant offered up as a prize, I had a real reason to tune in on a regular basis.

To be frank, I'm not quite sure why I'm so drawn to the show - Chef Ramsay's methods are a bit, um, brusque for my liking - but I think the characters they recruit for the competition are kind of hilarious (some even seem to be talented) and I think I've almost exhausted the roster of programs the Food Network has to offer.

Apparently, I'm not the only fan of this season of Hell's Kitchen. Araxi started off the season with special screenings on the television in the lounge every Tuesday night, complete with a special prix fixe menu to accompany the show, but the event quickly became so popular that management decided to expand it into the dining area and offer a repeat screening on Wednesday evenings.

"The first five weeks sold out instantly," said executive chef James Walt in a recent interview. "... But we didn't want people to be disappointed, because it's really for the locals."

At first, the folks at Araxi were actually hesitant about getting involved in the show until Ramsay himself spoke with the team and reassured them that the experience wouldn't jeopardize the quality of the 28-year-old restaurant.

"He said, 'Listen, you know, this is a good thing and I appreciate what you're doing and I'll get the best person.'"

Ramsay explained to Walt that the first eight to 10 episodes of the show are spent eliminating "driftwood" - the people that just really don't stand a chance. The remaining five or six competitors are quality chefs who can hold their own in Araxi's ranks.

"I think everybody should be proud and that's what I said, that this is Fox Television and Gordon Ramsay, and they could have chosen anywhere in Vancouver, wherever they wanted, but they picked us. And it's not just that they picked Araxi, they wanted Whistler and the mountains and the lifestyle, and that's something to be proud of," Walt said. "Thirty-million people watch that show."

In case you haven't been following the show, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, a special Whistler episode aired, complete with a challenge for the remaining competitors to create unique dishes from ingredients fresh from Pemberton fields.

Ramsay's aggressive approach to teaching definitely doesn't seem to jive with Walt's laidback demeanor and cruelty-free leadership style, but the Whistler chef seems to understand that some people need to be worked with a "firmer hand" to get top-quality results.

"There are five million clichés," he said with a small shrug. "But you're only as strong as your weakest link."

With a brand new cookbook just out in bookstores this week, all the press and action created by Hell's Kitchen, and Olympic plans simmering away on the back burner, things behind the scenes at this culinary hotspot have been a bit hectic, to say the least. But Walt seems to be handling the heat with aplomb, working 12- to 14-hour days, six days a week.

Walt has been so busy in the kitchen on Tuesday evenings that he actually hasn't been tuning in to watch the show.

"It's all being PVRed for me and I definitely will sit down at some point," he said, adding that he ate at Ramsay's restaurant in West Hollywood and actually appears in two of the episodes.

And though Walt is no stranger to the world of television - he's been featured on segments of Canada AM and Good Morning America before -Hell's Kitchen is an entirely different animal.

"I've never seen anything like this - it was insane," Walt said.

Apparently, there's been some misunderstanding about what the winner of the show receives. A lot of people think they'll become head chef at the restaurant, but in fact, they'll simply join the kitchen brigade, working under the direction of Walt for about five or six months.

"I'm going to show them some ideas and techniques and the local food, and they're coming from a different area so hopefully they'll have something to offer, as well," Walt said. "...But they're going to be a pair of hands and they are expected to work. It's not a free ride; we're going to be crazy busy."

The winner of Hell's Kitchen was actually selected long ago, and Walt knows who will be joining him and the rest of the Araxi team in the kitchen during the Olympics. But don't bother asking, he's sworn to secrecy. Actually, it's more like legally bound.

"My wife doesn't even know," he said with a grin. "I was with like 900 people there and everyone was asking, and I was like, 'You know what, unless you want to give me $10 million, I'm not going to tell you, because that's what I'd get sued for.'"



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