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July 7, 2011

Local chef debuts as contestant in 'Hell's Kitchen'

SALEM — You don't smile in hell.

It's a hard lesson that Jennifer Normant learned during taping of the upcoming season of "Hell's Kitchen," a reality cooking show in which chefs compete for the head job at a New York City restaurant.

Moments before a dinner service, Normant smiled at a fellow contestant, and she shouldn't have — because there is nothing funny in Gordon Ramsay's kitchen. Normant felt the verbal wrath of the famously hot-tempered and often profane celebrity chef.

"I never smiled again," she said yesterday.

Normant, 34, is the head chef at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. A dedicated viewer of the show's eight previous seasons, she earned a spot on the ninth at an open casting call in Boston after three years of trying.

"I wanted it so bad that I was totally persistent," she said. "I wanted to see if I could do the challenges."

On season nine, which has already finished production, chefs must prepare a "mommy and me" meal for a roomful of moms and toddlers and cook using different types of beer as the basis for their recipes.

Normant will make her television debut on July 18 at 8 p.m. on the Fox network.

Ramsay, she said, lives up to the hype.

"He is extremely intimidating," Normant said. "I wanted to throw up for the first five minutes after I met him."

She grew up in Burlington and still lives there. Cooking for her was a calling.

"It was like a moth to a flame," Normant said.

During high school, the now-gone Riley's Roast Beef in her hometown hired her to work the counter, but Normant would join the kitchen crew any chance she got. She abandoned her pursuit of a criminal justice degree and took culinary classes, first at Bunker Hill Community College and then Newbury College.

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