, Salem, MA

July 7, 2011

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

By Matthew K. Roy
Staff writer

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.

She interned at the Hawthorne Hotel and cooked there for five years before leaving for a corporate catering job. Six years ago she returned to the hotel, which is responsible for food service at the nearby museum's two restaurants.

"Only top-notch chefs appear on the show, and we are honored and excited that Jen made the cut," said Juli Lederhaus, general manager of the Hawthorne Hotel. "We are so proud of her and can't wait to watch."

Normant is one of 18 chefs on the show; Ramsay eliminates all but the winner, week by week. She couldn't say how far she made it.

The experience made her more aware of her strengths and weaknesses, she said, and ultimately made her a better chef. She adapted her cooking based on Ramsay's critiques.

"He's intense, but you've got to realize that he's there to do a job," Normant said. "He gets the best out of you."

Normant enjoyed her time in Hell's Kitchen.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat," she said.