One of the 17 chefs who are laboring under the uber-demanding Master Chef Gordon Ramsey in the latest season of Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” reality TV series that began last week hails from Falls Church.
Tennille Middleton, a native of Hampton Roads, has for four years been the master chef at the Sweetwater Tavern on Gallows Road at Route 50.
She’s taken a lot of heat from Ramsey in the first two weeks of the new “Hell’s Kitchen” season, undercooking shrimp in the first week and soaking scallops in too much oil this Tuesday. But while others have already been cut from the show, she’s still hanging in there.
In an exclusive interview with the News-Press at the Sweetwater Tavern last week, Tennille (as she is known on the show, no last names are used) was not allowed to say when the series was actually taped in Hollywood, or, of course, what the outcome was. She could only confirm that the filming process took about a month.
It could be said that personality (i.e. attitude) has not only done a lot to keep her in the hunt this season, but was also a huge factor in her being chosen during an audition that occurred at the Hard Rock Café in downtown D.C. earlier this year.
She said she was coaxed by a friend to show up and stand in a long line outside the Hard Rock, the audition being held on her day off. She waited her turn to stand with a group of six to answer questions from a panel. As her group was dismissed, she said, she was asked to stick around. No cooking was involved, just her resume and personality.
When she learned she was chosen, she said, “I was in awe. I had never watched the show before. I was definitely surprised and also intimidated. The show demands expertise in truly fine dining.”
Conceding that she looks like Whoopi Goldberg on the first show, something she doesn’t generally like to admit, she’s demonstrated so far an ability to push back against Chef Ramsey’s over-the-top insults and demands.
While another chef “lost it” this week and threatened to punch out Ramsey while TV cameras were filming, and was banished from the show, Tennille has shown just enough humility to swallow Ramsey’s yelling and cursing, and criticism from other contestant chefs on the show, as well.
The winner of the show is promised a master chef job at a plush restaurant in British Columbia, while Ramsey orchestrates frantic preparations of dishes, with an all-women team competing against an all-male one. Ramsey eliminates contestants at the conclusion of each one-hour episode that airs Tuesdays on Fox at 9 p.m.
She said of Ramsey that, in real life, “He has the same aura, just doesn’t yell so much. What you see is him in flesh and blood.”
But she said she’s got some of his demanding qualities as the master chef at Sweetwater Tavern, as well. “I am renowned,” she said. “You have to push to get the best out of people.”
And while there is a lot of verbal abuse and pressure on the show, the experience “did make me a better chef,” she conceded. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but I don’t really like the attention. You can’t use lack of experience as an excuse or a crutch. You have to make opportunities for yourself.”
She said that it was a challenge to share a dormitory with the other contestants, and even though they were made to work together, she was “a team of one.” It wasn’t easy, she said, “being away from home with no communication, and no one believing in you. But I did know I was up for the challenge.”
Tennille graduated at the top of her class at the Johnson and Wells Culinary School in Hampton Roads after graduating high school in 1998, and having enrolled at the Coast Guard Academy. She suffered an injury that caused her to drop out, and took a variety of jobs as a cook in New York City until 2001, when she entered culinary school back in her home town. Upon graduation in 2005, she began her employment with GAR.
While Tennille is identified on the show as being from Falls Church, it took some sleuthing to track her down, since her last name was not mentioned, nor her restaurant. She sounded surprised when the News-Press found her and called for an interview, but she was readily willing to talk.
One News-Press contact with strong ties to the regional restaurateur industry could only pass on a rumor that she had worked for the Great American Restaurant (GAR) company that operates the likes of Coastal Flats, Silverado, Carlyle, Mike’s American Grill and others. Since the only GAR restaurant in Falls Church is the Sweetwater Tavern, it was a good bet that Tennille could be found there. So it was.
She’s content commanding her kitchen now. Her partner’s battling illness and she’s getting some on-the-street recognition. Her Facebook site, she said, has been “blowing up” since her first appearance with the start of the new season last week.