WOLFEBORO — Shortly after graduating from Kingswood High School, Nicole Hanna began a career helping people recover from traumatic brain injuries. After several years, though, she felt ready for a change.
“I got a kitchen job as a way to get extra money. As soon as I set foot inside the door, I quit my entire career and just wanted to stay forever,” Hanna said.
“So cooking is clearly your passion,” said Gordon Ramsay.
“Yes, absolutely,” Hanna replied.
The above exchange took place at a high-stakes moment. Hanna, one of 16 contestants on the 19th season of Ramsay’s reality television show, Hell’s Kitchen, was about to watch as the British celebrity chef tasted her food for the first time.
On paper, Hanna, now 27, didn’t belong on the show. Other contestants had much more impressive resumes, while she had only a couple of years of experience as a cook in a small New Hampshire town. In cooking, though, it’s what’s on the plate, not on the resume, that counts. And Ramsay liked what she served him.
“(This) dish is delicious,” Ramsay declared after tasting her charbroiled strip steak with truffle chimichurri sauce and pickled red onions, and Mexican street corn with couscous. He was judging each contestant’s dish on a scale of 1 to 5. Some seasoned chefs scored as low as 2, and Ramsay was stingy with the 5s. “That, for me, is a very, very strong 4,” he said after trying Hanna’s cooking, which he said “showed great finesse.”
At the time that the show was filmed, in 2019, Hanna’s only culinary experience was two years she spent working as a prep and line cook at Wolfe’s Tavern, at the Wolfeboro Inn. She still doesn’t know exactly how, but she somehow gained the attention of the producers of Hell’s Kitchen, who offered to fly her out to Las Vegas. They told her to come prepared to serve her signature dish to Ramsay in the first challenge, which is how each of the previous 18 seasons, which were all shot in Los Angeles, began.
Not for the 19th season, though.
“You are not going to cook your signature,” Ramsay said in the first episode. “Everything in Vegas is a gamble,” he said, and then called pairs of contestants to come up to a slot machine to find out what they would cook. With a pull of the handle, Hanna found that instead of the pan-seared snapper with garam masala turnips and a spring nettle quinoa, she would have to come up with something using a New York strip, couscous and corn. Each ingredient was, on its own, straightforward to prepare. And that, she said, was the problem.
“The biggest challenge was how to make these three basic ingredients into something special,” she said in a phone interview after the episode’s airing. “Anybody’s auntie could make couscous, steak and corn.”
The dish that she came up with revealed that Hanna’s skills were much sharper than two years cooking in Wolfeboro would suggest. And that’s because her experience is, in fact, broader. While working with brain injury patients, she would teach them how to cook for themselves, or would prepare a meal for them. In her free time, she enjoyed cooking for herself. Once she started working at The Wolfeboro Inn, she volunteered to help fill temporary vacancies at the 17 other restaurants operated by the hotel’s parent company, Hay Creek Hotels.
“I used that opportunity to get exposure to different chefs and different techniques,” Hanna said in the phone interview. “I’m very passionate about what I do and always want to learn. I took every opportunity to amplify what I knew.”
Even so, she said she couldn’t help but wonder if she deserved to be on the show, as she confessed to the camera at one point during the episode. She carried a mixture of confidence and doubt.
“I have not gone to culinary school. I actually have only been in the field for 2 years, but I have picked up as much as humanly possible in that short time. I will prevail,” she said in one part of the episode. In another, though, “I’m feeling confident, but I’m trying to not psych myself out. I have to strike this balance between, ‘You’ve got this, girl!’ and ‘You suck, you suck, you suck!’”
In the telephone interview, Hanna said her confidence was genuine, but that she also couldn’t ignore her lack of experience compared to the other contestants.
With Ramsay’s favorable review of her first entree, she knew she deserved to be in the competition. Participating in the show led her to a job at the MC Hotel in Montclair, New Jersey, and she is launching her own line of clothing, Yellow Jacket Chefwear, aimed at serving female cooking professionals.
Hanna said her appearance on Hell’s Kitchen changed her life.
“A hundred percent,” she said. “I was so fresh in this industry, and though I knew I wanted to do this forever, this experience was so validating… it solidified what I wanted to do with my life.”
Hell’s Kitchen airs on Fox at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. If you missed the first one, past episodes are available for streaming through Hulu.
“I want everybody to keep watching,” Hanna said. “It gets crazier from this point forward, there’s a lot of ups and downs for me. I want everyone to just enjoy.”