That first hour in "Hell's Kitchen" was a blur to Elise Wims, yet one moment stood out: "I'm cooking and he's looking over my shoulder. I didn't even know he was there -- I jumped!
"I just did not expect him to be standing there."
He, of course, is Gordon Ramsay, the man who has reduced more chefs to tears than an onion-chopping marathon.
But no one signs on for the hit Fox Network reality show expecting a fun time. For Ms. Wims, who turned 27 after the show finished taping, the challenge and the terrors of trying to please the notoriously demanding Chef Ramsay were exactly what the Forest Hills native wanted.
"It was hard, but I wanted the opportunity to make a better life," said Ms. Wims, a graduate of Woodland Hills High School and the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. She is currently working as executive chef and president of catering at the Andora restaurant in Scott.
First and foremost, "Hell's Kitchen" is a television show, and therefore entertainment, but the payoff is great for whoever wins the grand prize -- in this ninth season, a head chef position at BLT Steak in New York City. The 15-episode series premieres Monday at 8 p.m., with a results show the next night.
A quick primer: teams of nine men (the Blue) and nine women (the Red) compete in the kitchen, with the winners awarded prizes such as use of a $20,000-a-night suite in Las Vegas and a private jet to Palm Springs, Calif. The losers are assigned manual labor tasks such as cleaning both teams' kitchens or creating ice sculptures. The losers also send a handful of contestants to bear the wrath of Mr. Ramsay, who is sole judge in the elimination round.
Episode 1 introduces the 18 chefs, most of whom have "big" TV-ready personalities and say things like "I'm gonna win!"
Ms. Wims beat out thousands of would-be contestants during the auditions. "I'm very outgoing and have been known for people telling me I'm over the top," she said.
After a meet-and-greet where she told producers about herself and submitted a few signature dishes, she was flown to the West Coast for more rounds of auditions.
"It's a long process, then it took a couple of months to find out I'd made it onto the show."
Her reaction: "I was kind of in shock."
Her passion for cooking has been simmering a long time.
"I was very much a foodie, growing up. I was punished when I was 9 years old for making Cornish hens and almost burning down the house," she said, laughing. "But the Cornish hens turned out great."
She said she also learned a great deal working for Donato Coluccio, proprietor of Donato's restaurant in Fox Chapel.
Still, nothing prepared her for the moment when she finally stepped into Hell's Kitchen, the restaurant set for the show.
"It's kind of 'boom,' the show starts and here is Gordon Ramsay," she said.
Although Ms. Wims is listed as a line cook in the Fox promotional materials, she was confident she could handle the heat in the kitchen.
"I think with anything you can be organized. ... The stations I usually worked were saute or broil, and if you're not organized, then you're in trouble. You have to time everything perfectly, use those time-management skills."
In Monday's episode, the first challenge is for the chefs to turn out their signature dish in less than 45 minutes. Ms. Wims prepared pesto-seared scallops with sauteed escarole, but you'll have to watch to hear Chef Ramsay's opinion.
Rejection on "Hell's Kitchen" can be brutal -- evidenced when the Scottish chef takes a mouthful of another contestant's signature dish and spits it into a garbage can.
The show requires contestants to walk a fine line between showing leadership and doing exactly what Mr. Ramsay asks. Ms. Wims discovered this early on when she attempted to organize the Red team as the first restaurant orders arrived. Oops, the superstar chef had not finished talking.
"I think he was harder on me than anybody else," she said.
Regardless of how the show plays out, she apparently earned a fan in Chef Ramsay. During a July 8 teleconference with the media, he was asked about this season's notables.
"There is one extraordinary lady, her name's Elise ... and she is rare," he said, noting that he wasn't going to say more. "But watch out for this one because you're not going to be tired of her name. And the confidence is extraordinary, and I can say she can back it up with the talent, so it's quite a phenomenon."
Already Ms. Wims is hearing from fans on Twitter and Facebook.
Feeling the love after the boot camp of "Hell's Kitchen," she added, has been heavenly. And while she is not at liberty to talk about the upcoming season, she is enjoying the return to normalcy.
"This was absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done," she said. "'Hell's Kitchen' was like childbirth for months, without any kind of meds."
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 15, 2011) In a story about local "Hell's Kitchen" contestant Elise Wims, the final quotation should have read, " 'Hell's Kitchen' was like childbirth for months, without any kind of meds."
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478.