WOLFEBORO — If you were handed a whole shrimp, would you know how to clean it? During the second episode of the 19th season of Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, local contestant Nicole “Nikki” Hanna learned that she didn’t. That failure triggered a cascade of anxiety that nearly sank her hopes of continuing in the cooking competition.
Hanna, a Kingswood graduate who, prior to the 2019 filming of the season had only two years of experience as a line cook at Wolfe’s Tavern in Wolfeboro, and the rest of the contestants watched at the start of the episode as a crate of shrimp was pushed out of a hovering helicopter and smashed on the asphalt before them.
This season of Hell’s Kitchen is set in Las Vegas. New episodes air on Fox at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, and past episodes can be viewed on Hulu.
“Las Vegas is the shrimp capital,” Ramsay declared, citing an oft-repeated, but unverifiable, claim that the city consumes 60,000 pounds of the shellfish each day. As this season is being filmed in Sin City, he challenged the contestants to come up with a “stunning, fine-dining dish” that would be at home on his restaurant’s menu.
It was the start of Hanna’s second day on the show’s set, and it was a bad one for her, she said in a telephone interview Friday.
“The anticipation for this one was the highest out of all the episodes because I know that I had a rough day. It’s over now,” said Hanna. With no culinary schooling and a short tenure in the industry, Hanna said that she had figured out by the second episode that she was the “rookie” of the group and was eager to prove herself worthy of her spot in the competition. Her dish, grilled tiger shrimp with sushi rice, thai chiles and soy, was ambitious for the time frame, and that’s how she wanted it, she told the camera.
“I’m ambitious. I know it has a really high chance of not playing out well for me, but I would rather go big or go home and be as ambitious as I possibly can,” she said in the episode. It was a calculated risk, because contestants were told that the two best dishes from their team – female chefs were on the red team, males on blue team – would be presented to Ramsay, who would taste them and decide which chef deserved to take the prize, a “punishment pass” which would allow them to skip the onerous tasks given to the losing team.
“There was a twist. There’s always a twist in Hell’s Kitchen,” Hanna said on Friday. The twist was that Ramsay said he wanted to trim the “dead weight” from the group and taste the two worst dishes, as determined by Ramsay’s sous chefs, from each team as well. Chef Christina Wilson, team red’s sous chef, sent Hanna’s dish as one of the two worst.
Ramsay immediately spotted Hanna’s error, picked the shrimp up with his fingers and displayed it to the group.
“Why am I holding it up like that?” Ramsay asked.
“Because it’s not cleaned, chef,” Hanna answered. Wilson had told her, prior to Ramsay’s judgement, that she had failed to remove the intestine – usually called the “vein” – from the shrimp prior to cooking. Ramsay called that “Rule number one” when cooking with fresh shrimp, but Hanna said on Friday that she simply hadn’t worked with fresh, whole shrimp prior to that episode. “I straight up did not know how to clean shrimp,” she said, and added that she was too proud to ask her more seasoned competitors for advice.
Saving Hanna was a competitor from the blue team who had served a plate of pasta with a golf-ball sized chunk of parmesan in it, so Hanna watched as he was sent out of the competition. Still, she was shaken, she said.
“It started me off on the wrong foot for the day,” she said. The first-day jitters were gone, and she was starting to realize what she had gotten herself into. “It all became real. It weighed on my mind a lot. I let the stress get to me, and I carried that mood into the dinner service, which was a big mistake.”
Later in the episode, each team was given a cursory and rapid explanation of the dishes they would be serving at the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant. Hanna’s role on her team was to grill seafood, and she stumbled again, first by sending out a lobster tail that was still raw in the middle, and later couldn’t understand what Ramsay was trying to ask her in his hurried, loud, British accent. By that point, tears were flowing down her cheeks and Ramsay pulled the whole team into the walk-in cooler.
“What happened, and why are you crying? Are you done?” When Hanna didn’t immediately respond, Ramsay continued, “You’re done.”
“No,” Hanna answered.
“You can’t bounce back,” said Ramsay.
Hanna replied, “I can bounce back, chef,” which was the answer he was looking for.
“Let’s get a grip a little bit, shall we? Get in the game,” Ramsay said.
The red team was able to pull together and finish service that night, which is more than could be said for the disaster that was unfolding in the blue team’s kitchen, which again meant that Hanna avoided elimination thanks to another cook’s implosion.
On Friday, Hanna said that she frequently used to cry while cooking in adverse circumstances. “I would start crying out of pure stress, but I wouldn’t leave the line, I would cook and cry,” she said. But something happened that day in Hell’s Kitchen, and Hanna said she hasn’t cried on the job since.
Hanna said the chance to watch herself on the competition is a welcome bit of entertainment and light-heartedness at a difficult time to be in the hospitality industry.
“The whole restaurant industry is really struggling right now, please order takeout, if you feel comfortable please go out to eat, if there are places you really like and you have the means, please support them,” she said.
Had she been in any other season of Hell’s Kitchen, she would be leveraging her celebrity by doing restaurant take-overs, or meet-and-greet events with fans. Celebrity isn’t worth much during a pandemic, though.
“I don’t really go out, I go to work and I go home,” she said. But she and the other contestants aren’t upset by the lost opportunities, she said. “Honestly, we’re just happy it’s here. It’s a little light in dark times, it’s entertainment and fun for everyone, including ourselves.