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Belchertown butcher takes second in ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ finale

Mary Poehnelt of Belchertown is coming home after winning second place Thursday in Fox’s reality cooking show, “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Poehnelt, 26, made it to the season 11 finale but lost the competition to Ja’Nel Witt, a 31-year-old executive chef from Houston. Witt won a position as head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub and Grill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

“It’s very hard,” Poehnelt said at the end of the show. “I wish I could sit here and cry tears of joy, but it’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Poehnelt was the sleeper hit of the season, a butcher at Whole Foods Market in Hadley who survived 20 rounds of cooking challenges and beat 18 other professional chefs from across the country.

The soft-spoken Poehnelt seemed an unlikely choice to go toe-to-toe with Ramsay, known for his sharp, profane tongue, but her cheery personality and way with a cleaver helped carry her through 20 rounds in “Hell.”

A self-proclaimed underdog, Poehnelt’s culinary and leadership abilities grew remarkably over the course of the season. After being voted in the bottom two three times in the early episodes of the season, Poehnelt went on to become Ramsay’s first choice to move on to Thursday night’s finale.

“Mary, your improvement in ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ has been remarkable,” Ramsay said at the end of the episode. “You were born to cook.”

In the final episode, Ramsay tested the chefs’ culinary skills and kitchen management in a final cooking challenge and dinner service.

In the final challenge of the season, Poehnelt and Witt were given just one hour to cook five dishes: a cold appetizer, a hot appetizer, a chicken dish, a fish dish, and a beef dish.

“Five dishes in an hour,” commented Witt. “Normally we have 45 minutes to cook one dish.”

The dishes were judged by five professional chefs from across the country. Despite being told she had cooked “sexy sea bass,” Poehnelt lost the cooking challenge to Witt, who took a risk with a “beef cheeks” dish.

Later, in a challenge designed to test both their culinary prowess and their kitchen management, Witt and Poehnelt had to create menus for the final dinner service and then choose a team from their former competitors to help them carry out the service. The dinner service was delivered to a celebrity audience, including skateboard legend Tony Hawk.

Both of the finalists had strong showings in the dinner challenge. Poehnelt showed some fire in the kitchen, keeping her team on their toes and throwing cook Dan Ryan of Westchester, N.Y., out of the kitchen after he repeatedly sent out cold entrees.

“I am your boss and you will show me respect,” Poehnelt shouted after Ryan’s third mistake in the kitchen, “And you will say ‘Yes, chef.’”

Witt kept her cool even when her team failed to communicate, sending out entrees at the wrong times.

In the end, Ramsay said he wished he could have both women on his team at Gordon Ramsay Pub and Grill.

“Mary and Ja’Nel, you were both impressive,” Ramsay said. “Not only did you sound like head chefs, you acted like head chefs.”

After checking the customer reviews from the dinner service and Poehnelt and Witt’s overall performances on the show, Ramsay chose Witt to be his new head chef in Caesars Palace.

“In all my time on ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ I’ve never seen a chef who is as composed as Ja’Nel,” Ramsay said. “I’m proud to have this ambitious, creative, talented woman as my head chef.”

Poehnelt struggled with tears as she faced the audience, which included members of her family.

“‘Hell’s Kitchen’ has transformed who I am,” she said. “Bye-bye, Mary the butcher, hello Mary the chef.”

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