Belchertown butcher parlays‘Hell’s Kitchen’ appearance into job at Ming Tsai’s Blue GingerChef

Last modified: Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mary Poehnelt, the Belchertown butcher who won second place on Season 11 of Fox’s Cooking Reality Show, “Hell’s Kitchen,” may soon be leaving Belchertown to take a job as a line cook at the Blue Ginger, an Asian-fusion restaurant owned by celebrity chef Ming Tsai.

The 26-year-old butcher, who has been working at Whole Foods in Hadley since Hell’s Kitchen wrapped last November, was hired two weeks ago as a line cook at the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley.

“I ate there about a year ago, and when Hell’s Kitchen ended I sent in my resume,” says Mary. “It’s East meets West, Asian fusion cuisine.” For Poehnelt, working for the Blue Ginger is an opportunity to cook in one of her favorite styles (Asian fusion) and move forward in her culinary career now that “Hell’s Kitchen” is over. She will start later this month and says it is likely that she and her husband will move east to be closer to her new job.

Poehnelt was the sleeper hit of “Hell’s Kitchen” Season 11, surviving two months of competition against 19 other top chefs from around the country under the glare of caustic British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. After a rocky start on the show, Poehnelt went on to be Ramsay’s first choice to move on to the season finale, which aired July 25 on FOX.

“I was ecstatic,” says Poehnelt of being selected for the final two. “I fought so hard, and for him to say you’re in the final two … I was like, are you kidding me? Is this real?”

Poehnelt narrowly lost the competition to Ja’Nel Witt, an executive chef from Houston. Witt won a $250,000-salary position as head chef in Gordon Ramsay’s Pub and Grill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Poehnelt, as runner-up, returned home to her family in Belchertown and her old job at Whole Foods in Hadley. She left with a chef’s jacket, a set of Vitamix all-clad wear pots, and a new determination to start her culinary career.

“When I moved here I was ready to settle into a steady job,” said Poehnelt, who started working at Whole Foods in June 2012, “but when I came back from “Hell’s Kitchen” it was a reminder of what I want to do, what I studied to do.”

Poehnelt moved to Belchertown in June 2012 so that her husband, Tom Poehnelt, could pursue a Ph.D. in English at the University of Massachusetts. A native of Redding, Calif., the 26-year-old Poehnelt studied at the French Culinary Institute in Soho New York. She first became interested in butchery after seeing a demonstration by an Italian butcher from Eataly restaurant in New York City.

“He broke down the hindquarter of a cow,” Poehnelt said. “And he told us, the animal is beautiful, it deserves respect because it died so we can eat it. It was beautiful, and at that point I was like, I have to get a job at Eataly.

“I would always have to have an aspect of butchery in my life,” she said, adding jokingly, “Dead animals are beautiful.”

After graduating, Poehnelt got a job at Eataly, where she worked for a year before moving to Belchertown. She was working for Eataly when she was first approached to be on “Hell’s Kitchen.” She said the casting directors saw her butchering a pig, and were so impressed they asked her to audition for the show.

“They loved me because I sound really soft-spoken, and I love to butcher animals,” Poehnelt said. “They thought it was funny.”

Poehnelt had never seen “Hell’s Kitchen,” and was initially skeptical of participating.

“I watched the show for the first time and I was like, why would anyone want to do this?” she said with a laugh. “But then I watched some more and I realized that Chef Ramsay is an incredible chef, and to cook with him even for a day would be worth it.”

Poehnelt was accepted as a contestant on the show last June, right after being hired at Whole Foods. She left to film the show in California from September to November of 2012, and returned to western Massachusetts once filming ended.

According to Poehnelt, the experience of being on the show was intense. Filming took place for two months in fall 2012. The contestants worked 9 to 5 every day filming the show, and were followed by cameras 24/7. The chefs were only allowed outside “Hell’s Kitchen” for rewards and were not allowed any contact with family or friends while the show was filming.

“The producers at Fox would call my husband to let him know I was alive,” she said with a laugh. “But he had no idea how well I was doing while the show was going on.”

Poehnelt said the most nerve-wracking part of the show wasn’t the constant filming, but working under the intense gaze of Chef Ramsay, the caustic Brit known for his biting criticism and harsh treatment of contestants. Poehnelt’s ability to keep her composure in the kitchen is one of the reasons she advanced so far on the show. She even says she liked it when he yelled at her.

“If he’s yelling, it means there’s something he wants from you and it’s up to you to deliver it,” she said. “He’s a very kind person. He wants the best for everyone who comes through his show.”

Poehnelt said she is still in touch with Ramsay and many of the contestants on the show.

Since returning to Belchertown, Poehnelt has enjoyed watching the show air every week with family and friends. The show aired from March to July, with the season finale July 25. For the past year, she has been living in Belchertown and working at Whole Foods market as a butcher. Poehnelt said she does less cooking at Whole Foods, but fills the void with “Chef Mary’s Club Gastronomie,” a private supper club she started in the Pioneer Valley.

“It’s just a way for me to be my own boss,” she said. “I can do my own menu. It’s a way to keep honing my skills.”

The supper club meets once a month at someone’s house or restaurant, and features a dinner prepared by Poehnelt. Tickets for the dinner are $50-$60 per person. Poehnelt says that this sort of supper club is more popular in Los Angeles, but that the Pioneer Valley is a great area for it as well.

The “Hell’s Kitchen” alum said she initially had a difficult time finding work as a chef after moving back to western Massachusetts.

“It’s been really kind of dry,” Poehnelt said one week after the finale aired. “I tried to find a job but I guess on paper I really don’t have a lot of experience aside from Gordon Ramsay.”

That changed two weeks ago, when she was hired as a line cook at Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley. Tsai is a celebrity cook who hosts “Ming’s Quest” on the Fine Living Network and “Simply Ming” on American Public Television. He was also a contestant on Season 3 of “The Next Iron Chef.”

“I did a ‘stage’ there on Saturday,” Poehnelt said. “That’s working a whole shift and they watch your performance. It’s a way for both the restaurant and the chef to see if it’s a good fit.”

For Poehnelt, it’s an opportunity to cook in one of her favorite styles and move forward in her culinary career. Poehnelt is an avid lover of Korean food, especially Korean BBQ. She got into Asian-fusion cuisine through her husband, who is half-Korean. Her favorite is French-Korean fusion cuisine.

“I love taking two distinct cooking styles and bringing them together,” said Poehnelt.

One of her favorite local restaurants is the Gohyang Korean restaurant on Russell Street in Hadley, where she goes often with her husband.

“The people there are so friendly, and it’s a great market,” she said. “Great people, great food, fresh kimchi. It’s my favorite all around.”

For Poehnelt, the Blue Ginger is just the next stage in her career as a professional chef. As she said in the season finale: “Goodbye, Mary the butcher, hello, Mary the chef.”


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