Local butcher feels heat on TV’s ‘Hell’s Kitchen’
COURTESY OF FOX Mary Poehnelt of Belchertown is a contest on the reality TV show "Hell's Kitchen."
BELCHERTOWN — Mary Poehnelt is hell with a cleaver on Fox’s reality cooking show, “Hell’s Kitchen.” The 26-year-old Poehnelt, who lives in Belchertown and works as a butcher at Whole Foods in Hadley, is a contestant on the 11th season of the show, which airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
She is competing against 19 other chefs and cooks for a position as executive chef at the Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Contestants compete in challenges each week under the scrutiny of the show’s own “hell’s angel” — celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.
“It’s been pretty crazy, a lot of ups and downs, but it’s been a great experience,” Poehnelt said of her time so far on the show.
Poehnelt was approached to be a contestant while working at a small café in Buffalo, N.Y., where casting representatives of “Hell’s Kitchen” saw her at work with a knife.
“They were looking for cooks, and they saw me butchering this pig,” Poehnelt said. “They loved me. They thought that I was the last person you would expect to be on a show like this.”
The soft-spoken Poehnelt does seem an unlikely choice to go toe-to-toe with Ramsay, a Brit whose biting criticism and harsh treatment of contestants is a theme of the show. Poehnelt may be the butcher, but Ramsay is the one butchering contestants every Tuesday night on Fox, going so far as to ask one contestant in the season premiere whether his signature dish had been “thrown up” on the plate.
So far, however, Poehnelt seems to handling the heat. She didn’t break down when the chef criticized her signature dish, a pan-seared duck breast with a red-wine orange reduction, in the season premiere. And in the second episode she was one of the few contestants to stay in the kitchen through the end of the challenge, a full dinner service.
Poehnelt even says she likes being yelled at by the chef.
“When he yells, it means he sees potential,” Poehnelt said. “When he isn’t yelling, it means he’s given up.” According to Poehnelt, Ramsay is “as transparent as they come.”
“Who he is on TV is who he is in life,” she said.
For Poehnelt, being on the show is a step in achieving her dream of becoming a professional chef. It’s a dream she’s been chasing since working as a butcher at Eataly, a restaurant in New York.
“I realized that I was cooking all day at work and then coming home and cooking for my friends,” said Poehnelt, who details her journey as a chef on a blog (www.bulgogiandbutter.com/). “I thought, maybe I could do this as a career.”
Originally from Redding, Calif., Poehnelt lives in the Valley with her husband, Tom. She says that she and her husband are “very mobile” and would be up for the challenge of moving to Vegas if she does win the grand prize.
“We’ve lived all across the country,” she said.
According to Poehnelt, the hardest part of being on the show is that everything comes as a surprise. At the beginning of the show, contestants are split up into two teams (men and women) and are presented with different cooking challenges each week. In the season premiere, the chefs were asked to cook their signature dish for Ramsay in front of a live audience, a first in the show’s history. The second episode saw them presenting a full dinner service in teams. In the third episode, they participated in team “boot camp” in which they were asked to help teammates scale a wall and then capture live lobsters from a lobster tank. The teams then had to work together to clean and present the lobsters in “Hell’s Kitchen.”
So far, the women’s team has won each of the three challenges.
Poehnelt was saved by Ramsay after being voted into the bottom two in the third episode.
“I was definitely nervous,” she said. “You never want to be in the bottom two. Can’t end up there again.”
Poehnelt said the show has taught her to push herself and develop her abilities as a chef. “The show’s taught me to go above and beyond, to push beyond my limits.”