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To Hell and Back
SJ chef feels the heat from Gordon Ramsay
By Marianne Aleardi

It was divine intervention. Cyndi Stanimirov, an à la carte chef at The Madison in Riverside, believes her late grandmother had something to do with her making the cut to appear on the FOX TV reality series “Hell’s Kitchen.” With an angel looking out for her, the young chef felt unstoppable – even in the face of Gordon Ramsay, the show’s host and celebrity chef famous for his loud, insulting outbursts.

“My grandmother was the biggest supporter of my career, and she passed away January of last year,” Stanimirov says. “When that happened, I made a promise to myself that I would pursue getting on ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ to honor everything she had taught me. She always told me to understand my net worth – what it is I’m worth to me, then everything will fall in place. She always told me to strive for things that seemed out of reach to other people, because I had that personality. I had that upbringing and mentality to be a leader and go for the gold, essentially.”

Contestants on “Hell’s Kitchen” need to have a strong will, a thick skin and some pretty good cooking chops. The reality intense competition pits 20 chefs of various skill-levels against each other. Each week, they perform different tasks led by Gordon Ramsay, who spices up the show with his own hard-core version of judging. At the end of each show, one contestant is eliminated. The last chef standing will be given an executive chef position at Ramsay’s Pub & Grill at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Starting salary is $250,000.

Hoping for a chance to win that culinary prize, Stanimirov showed up for a casting call in Philadelphia last summer three hours early. She had watched other reality shows like “American Idol” and knew contestants could be camped out in line the night before. “But when I got there, the gentleman looked at me like I was crazy, because I was one of 15 people there. That was it: me, 13 other guys and one other girl. We sat around for three hours waiting for people to show up. It was a confidence boost that there was only one other girl. I knew ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ cast an equal amount of girls and guys, so I figured I had a good chance at a second interview.”

After only a few minutes into the interview, the casting agent interrupted Stanimirov and told her to come back the next day for an interview.

“She said, ‘That’s all I need to hear. You’re fantastic. I want to see you again.’ I got into the elevator and thank God I was by myself, because I let out the biggest scream of my life. It was such a rush. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m really going to do this. I’m really going to get on this show and be in this competition.’ I had an overwhelming feeling I was going to get on. I think it was my grandmother looking down and saying, ‘Ok, here’s the door. You just need to step through it.’”

Stanimirov’s next interview was filmed so executive producers in Los Angeles could see her. “This was a little more nerve-wracking. I’ve been on a couple local networks before with Chef Jack [Jack Connor, executive chef at The Madison]. I told myself I just had to do what I did yesterday, which is be me, only be me with a camera in front of me, a light in front of me and a microphone on me. I knew if I mustered through this, they’d love me.”

A month later she was flown to Los Angeles for a face-to-face interview with the show’s producers. Two weeks after that, she was headed back to LA as a cast member of the 11th season of “Hell’s Kitchen.”

MADISON_031213_CH7_0154“I had to tell my boss – Chef Jack – I was leaving for about six weeks, and I was leaving in two weeks. But Chef Jack is always accommodating, so I knew he would work with me, and he did. I was able to leave knowing the restaurant would be fine, and he would be fine. He made it possible for me to feel comfortable leaving. He understood this was something I needed to do. We have developed a close relationship; he’s my mentor. He’s a second father to me. He’s helped me become a better chef and a better person.”

On her flight out, Stanimirov began to mentally prepare for the show. “I’ve watched season after season of ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ so I was going through how everything works. I knew that on the first day we’d be cooking our signature dishes. And they’d break us into teams of girls and guys. I’d have to work with ladies who would be worried about their hair and nails, so I tried to figure out how to deal with that. And, I’d basically be living in a college dorm with all these other people.

“I knew we would be on teams. I had to go in there and get everyone to think, ‘Right now we’re a team, and we’ll win as a team or we’ll lose as a team.’ We had to work together to be successful. No one gets to the end unless you work as a team. If you want to have enemies, that’s fine but you’ll never get far – in any kind of a competition.

“I was also thinking how my family and close friends are huge supporters in everything I do, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to talk to them. If I had a bad day, I wouldn’t be able to call anyone. That made me say, ‘I need to dig deep here and do this all on my own. That was hard. It was hard to step away from my family and closest friends for so long and not have them be right behind me.”

Only minutes after disembarking from the plane in LA, Stanimirov was on-camera. “It’s surreal,” she says. “You get right into everything. You meet everyone and think, ‘Ok now what? What are we going to be doing?’ In my head, I knew we would be cooking our signature dishes, it was just a matter of where and when.”

The answer to ‘where and when’ was: Las Vegas – and now. The chefs were whisked away and flown to Las Vegas, where they each prepared their signature dish. But this year’s show added a twist to the initial competition: the chefs worked in front of a live audience.

Stanimirov prepared tricolored, pepper-crusted New York steak served with black truffle white cheddar macaroni and cheese, and grilled asparagus. “I chose to do a steak because I work at a high-end steak house, so I knew I would be able to execute this to perfection. It’s something I do all the time. The macaroni and cheese is an inspiration of my grandmother. Every grandmother has the best macaroni and cheese recipe, of course, but my grandmother has the best recipe. I put my own twist on her recipe, using the black truffles. This was my way to thank her and pay some respect for her. I was there because of her.”

There isn’t much Stanimirov can tell about the show, which is airing now on Tuesday nights. She’s sworn to secrecy, but she does say the competition was grueling.

“It was probably the most excruciating thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. I call it culinary boot camp – the Marines meet culinary – and Chef Ramsay is the drill sergeant. It was mentally, physically and emotionally tough.”

Gordon Ramsay is well known for his abrasive, sometimes condescending interactions with the show’s contestants. Nonetheless, Stanimirov admires his professionalism and skills.

“I understand where he’s coming from. Being yelled at, being praised when you do something good or getting that disappointing look when you do a simple task wrong, I understand his reasoning more than ever. I understand why he is the type of chef he is, and why he conducts himself the way he does. He’s a very genuine chef.

“When I first met him, I thought ‘Somebody pinch me.’ I was standing in front of a nationally recognized chef – just feet away from him. I knew his passion for cooking and excellence. I was meeting someone I knew I could learn a huge amount from. It was more exciting than anything.”

HK1103_Challenge_0053Stanimirov says she learned plenty of skills she can take back to The Madison, where she continues to work. “I think I’m a better chef having been there – having gone to hell and back. My ability to compose a dish and put flavors together has definitely gotten better.

“I learned how to have higher standards and expect a higher standard from everyone I work with. Shortcuts are not the answer. Stick with what you know and the basics of cooking. As long as you execute that to perfection, then your dish and dinner service will come out perfect. If everyone around you has the same mentality, achieving the impossible is possible. I definitely learned that from Chef Ramsay.

Stanimirov has also developed a greater interest in foreign cuisines. “Chef Ramsay’s knowledge of every cuisine out there – whether it be French, Moroccan or Greek – is so extensive. That’s something I wish I knew more about, so I’m reading lots of cookbooks and recipes. I’ve also been experimenting with Moroccan dishes. I’ve tried to eat out more. I’ve gone to authentic Indian restaurant to understand their layers of flavor and how they get to that point.”

Although the young chef has no idea how she will be portrayed on the show, she hopes people will like what they see. “There’s always a voice in the back of your head – how will America perceive you: the villain, the ditzy one, the over-confident one? It’s a huge risk. You know going in that every moment of your life is being filmed. You know there’s going to be embarrassing moments. You know there will be moments you’re not proud of or happy with. You just have to accept that. I had to accept that there would be people who may not like me or make fun of something I do. That’s all irrelevant to how I perform as a chef.”

Stanimirov says the greatest part of appearing on “Hell’s Kitchen” was the chance to compete against other chefs. “I was able to measure myself as a chef among 19 other very well-rounded chefs. Being able to gauge myself against them was what I needed to fully understand what everybody else had been telling me for years – I was a great chef. Everybody can tell you that, but sometimes you don’t believe it. If you ever have the chance to find out how great you really are, take that chance. I wouldn’t trade the chance I took for anything.”

April 2013
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