When “Hell’s Kitchen: Season 15” kicks off on Friday night, one of South Philly’s own will make his television debut.
Joe Ricci, a sous chef at Howl at the Moon and part-timer at Ippolito’s Seafood, will be one of 18 contestants battling it out in Hell’s Kitchen for a shot at the grand prize — a head chef position at BLT Steak in Las Vegas.
Ricci, 32, has roots in the neighborhood and the restaurant business. As a kid, he got his start at the long-closed South Philly Grill at 12th and Mercy streets, working there throughout high school at St. John Neumann (Class of ’01).
“I used to move cones outside so people could park their cars, and I would get tips from it,” Ricci said. “I’d be outside, I’d peek in the kitchen window to see if it was slow enough for them to cook me something to eat. It just looked like organized chaos. It didn’t look like there was any rhyme or reason to it, but I knew that there was. So I was fascinated, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”
After working outside for about a year, Ricci started washing dishes, and busing tables. It wasn’t until a few years later that he finally got his chance on the line.
“They were short handed so they said, ‘All right Joe, we need you to hop on the line today,’ and I bombed big time,” Ricci said. “I think I was 17. I bombed so bad.”
How did he bounce back after such a rough start?
“I didn’t. They sent me back to the dish pit.”
Eventually, Ricci did make it back behind the stove, once he got a “little more seasoning in the kitchen,” he said. As for formal training, he attended the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, but only briefly, as other temptations of his 18-year-old self (read: partying and girls) won out.
Fast forward 15 years, and Ricci is still making his bones, cooking at Howl at the Moon in Center City, and sharpening his knife skills part time at Ippolito’s in South Philadelphia.
The chance to be a television chef-testant began late in August, 2014.
After what Ricci describes as “a grueling interview process,” phone calls, production meetings, a trip to New York, and finally being flown out to Los Angeles, Ricci was cast in the 15th season of “Hell’s Kitchen,” the rigorous cooking competition overseen by the famously volatile chef Gordon Ramsay.
“Filming was a great time,” Ricci said. “Not only the castmates that I lived with on the set were great, but the crew that we worked with — they were awesome and knowledgeable and prepared. Never made us wait. It was a well-oiled machine. Happy to be a part of it.”
As for Ramsay, did he freak out and scream? Was Ricci thrown out of the kitchen at all?
“If you’ve seen the show, then … I’ve had a taste of what’s in store.”
The obvious challenges at hand weren’t too much to stop Ricci from giving it his all — even though the past few years have been hard for him and his family.
“Both my parents passed away, like one year apart. It was a tough thing to go through,” he said.
Ricci debated whether to try out at all for the show, “but then It became a no-brainer,” he said.
“What would my mother or my father do if this opportunity came around and I didn’t seize the opportunity?
“They would kill me,” he said. “They would slap me on the back of the head. So, I went on the show, I did the best I could, I left it all out there, I think they would be proud.”
Ricci isn’t the only chef from the area to appear in “Hell’s Kitchen” this season. He joins Dannie Harrison, Chad Gelso and Eddie Jaskowiak, also of Philadelphia; Meese Davis of Upper Darby; Alan Parker of Lancaster; and Manda Palomino of Atlantic City on the season premiere this Friday.
And as these things go, we won’t know who won or how far the home-grown talent will go until the show plays out on air, so cheer on the locals while you can.
Ricci has a watch party planned for Friday at Bainbridge Street Barrel House on Sixth and Bainbridge.