It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dickens wasn’t recalling competition cooking TV show Hell’s Kitchen when he penned that famous line, but it’s an apt description nonetheless. The cable program’s 11th season starts this week with Jacqueline Baldassari of Florence, Burlington County among the 20 contestants vying for a Head Chef position in a Las Vegas restaurant owned by the show’s host, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.
The series promises to be a roller coaster ride of highs, marked by the luxurious prizes for weekly challenge winners, and the lows of harsh punishments doled out to the less fortunate losing team. Baldassari, 27-year-old executive chef and consultant at The Ivy Inn in Princeton, competes alongside ten female chefs on Team Red and against ten male chefs on Team Blue. And for a little added drama, the teams are subjected to a near-constant barrage of verbal insults shouted at them by their big and loud mentor, Chef Ramsay.
In a first for the long-running series, a live Las Vegas audience is present for the opening cooking challenge pitting the two teams against each other. The team with the most impressive dishes scores a VIP night on the town including a special concert. The losing team gets an eight-hour journey back to Los Angeles on a sweltering school bus. How did this passionate Jersey girl, born and bred in Trenton, fare in the competition? She’s not at liberty to say.
But she does comment on the personal highs and lows she experienced while filming the show. “The best days were when I felt like I was cooking in my own kitchen,” Baldassari said. “But on the worst days, I messed something up that I really shouldn’t have.” She recalls one undercooked chicken, in particular. Baldassari declined to comment on her most memorable moment because she didn’t want to give anything away.
Baldessari says cooking just comes naturally to her. “My family has always been in the restaurant business so I fell into it,” she said. Baldassari Regency is a catering and banquet facility in Mercer County. “I actually tried to get out of the business and went into accounting but I found that boring. I missed the exciting atmosphere of a restaurant.” Baldasssari says she enjoys being a chef because it gives her a way to express herself. She describes her signature dish as Magret Duck Breast, Sweet Potato Rosti and Caramelized Brussel Sprouts with a Currant Au Jus.
Hell’s Kitchen is not Baldassari’s first try at cooking competition television. She was a contestant on Food Network’s Chopped in 2011. “A chef friend passed along my name and phone number and they called me,” she said. She says she hopes her appearance on Hell’s Kitchen makes people aware of her talent. “I want people to come check me out and hopefully enjoy my food,” she said. “Within two or three years I’d like to open my own restaurant.” And she’ll be doing that in her home state. “I can’t leave Jersey. People here love to eat!”
Show summary: Award-winning chef Gordon Ramsay welcomes 20 competitors on the season premiere of Hell’s Kitchen airing Tuesday, March 12 (8:00-9:00 p.m. ET) on FOX. The aspiring restaurateurs will endure an intense culinary academy, including a series of grueling team challenges and dinner services as they vie for the grand prize – a position as Head Chef at Ramsay’s new Las Vegas restaurant.
Jersey Bites is a collaborative website of food writers in New Jersey. They write about restaurants, recipes, food news, food products, events, hunger relief programs, and everything else that tickles their taste buds.