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‘Hell’s Kitchen’ runner−up and local chef reveals behind−the−scenes realities

Jason Santos spices up the menu at Gargoyles in Davis Square

Published: Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 07:09

Restaurant

Tien Tien / Tufts Daily

‘Hell’s Kitchen’ chef Jason Santos cooks up a storm in Davis Square’s Gargoyles.

As a preteen, Jason Santos would frequent his grandmother's living room to watch Julia Child's cooking shows all day long. As a teenager, he entered into the culinary world, making pizzas at a bowling alley. He enjoyed the job so much that, even then, he knew he wanted to be a chef.

About 20 years later, Santos achieved culinary stardom. Santos is now the executive chef of Gargoyles On the Square in Davis Square, but more famously, he also starred in the seventh season of Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," a cooking competition hosted by world−renowned restaurateur Gordon Ramsay. He made it to the show's finale but lost to fellow contestant Holli Ugalde, who won $250,000 and the position of head chef at Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant at the Savoy Hotel in London.

Although Santos regrets losing the competition by such a narrow margin, he does not seem to mind the attention and perks he is now receiving. And even after his final episode on "Hell's Kitchen," the 34−year−old chef from Melrose, Mass., is confident he will maintain his local celebrity status as the out−there, blue−haired character "Jay" from "Hell's Kitchen."

"I got everything from stuffed Blue Jays to women sending me naked pictures," Santos said. "I'm now getting endorsements and [free] trips around the world. Three weeks ago, I made $14,000 in one week, just in appearances."

But the celebrity stardom, Santos said, did not come easy. On top of the hardships he experienced on−screen — including Ramsay's notorious temper tantrums — Santos's six−month−long audition for "Hell's Kitchen" almost three years ago was, as promised, "hellish," Santos said.

Santos recalled that the audition process was offensively probing and more of a personality test to weed through characters than an actual culinary test.

"They asked me the weirdest questions, everything from what was it like at my grandmother's funeral to whether I sang [in a] choir. Then they asked me how I felt about promiscuous sex and what my favorite alcohol was," he said. "It's Fox — they're very thorough."

When he finally received the call confirming that he was accepted to the show, Santos and his family members had to sign a $5 million confidentiality agreement, prohibiting them from sharing any information about production with anyone, including close friends. Santos's solution was to tell his friends that he was going to Thailand for an extended vacation.

"I've been there before, so I knew I would have stories if they asked," he said.

Once finally on set, Santos began to understand the anxieties associated with reality television and likened the experience to living in a jail cell. As soon as Santos and the other contestants reached their hotel accommodations in Los Angeles, where the show was filmed, the producers confiscated their phones, keys and wallets.

"There was no way of getting out; you [couldn't] talk to your friends and family," Santos said. "The first thing that popped into my head was, ‘What did I get myself into?'"

After three days of signing more contracts and reviewing schematics at the hotel, Santos finally met Ramsay in person, and the challenges began.

The superstar is exactly as he appears on TV, Santos said.

"You guys watch the show; you see what he does," Santos said. "Out of the kitchen, he's super nice, but once he's inside, he's Satan."

But Santos got used to Ramsay's mind games early on and managed not to take the vulgar insults too seriously.

Aside from Ramsay's harsh personality, the producers' editing heavily distorted what really went on behind the scenes — more, even, than one might expect, Santos said.

"You'll say something meant for the first episode, but they'll air it on the third episode. For example, if you say, ‘Oh my gosh, that's burnt!' They [may] take a sound bite and put it on a different episode [describing a different dish]," Santos said.

Food descriptions were far from the only misrepresented elements of the show, though. In one episode, Santos was made to look like he cut and severely injured his finger when, in reality, the incident did not happen at all.

"They even called in an ambulance and medical professionals," Santos said.

Editing was also used, he said, to create media hype around his off−screen romantic relationship with Ugalde. Although the show's contract specifically prohibited romances between contestants, producers on the show made an exception for the media−pleasing spectacle made of "Santos−Ugalde". One episode featured the two contestants flirting over champagne in a hot tub.

"We were both drunk, and that was 30 seconds taken from our two−month relationship," Santos said.

In the end, Santos said, Ugalde's victory was based not on her cooking skills but on how much those skills had improved over the course of the season — those, plus other media−friendly qualities she possessed.

"She's a single mom, so it's a great story. It's good for ratings," he said. "You can be the best cook in the world, but if you don't make for good TV ratings, you're going to be nowhere."

This October, Ugalde will begin her job at the Savoy Hotel under Ramsay, while Santos will stay on as executive chef of Gargoyles On the Square in between appearances at press events and guest appearances on television shows.

Santos is also working on a cooking show that he hopes will debut sometime this year on Spike TV, and if the opportunity for a "Hell's Kitchen" reappearance should ever present itself, he will not hesitate to take it up, he said.

"Physically, being there on [the "Hell's Kitchen" set] sucked, and they really mess with you," he said. "But I would totally do that all over again."

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