If you’re a fan of “Hell’s Kitchen,” which locally airs on Fox 29, then you should be paying special attention this season. Local chef Kenneth J. McDuffie has long made mouths water, but starting in January he will be making strides as one of the contestants on the long-running culinary reality show. McDuffie is the first out, gay, Black chef to be taking part in the series. Although trained largely in his great-grandmother’s kitchen, he has been cooking professionally for 15 years, onboard cruise ships, running his own catering company called Young and Hungry, as a host of TV appearances locally and nationally, and cooking for local icon Patti LaBelle.
The show — which begins with 18 contestants and through a process of elimination reaches a winner — is headlined by the decidedly acerbic chef Gordon Ramsay.
“It was funny, because Chef Ramsay is more of the enforcer,” McDuffie explained, and shared he idolizes the British cook. “And I am the one that will holler and scream in the kitchen. It’s kind of funny to have someone put me in my place. As a Philly boy if you yell at me — I will yell back. So, ‘I had to say don’t let the Philly come out.’ I had to take his criticism and his critique for a reason, but I learned a lot of new things.”
This was not the first time McDuffie tried out for the show. Six years ago he threw himself into the running but didn’t make the cut. The process starts out with over 100,000 people submitting an application, so that he didn’t make it last time was not too much of a blow to his ego.
However, when he got in this time around he said it was what he called a blessing. In 2019, a friend urged him to try to get cast again because McDuffie was dealing with a lot of personal trauma that stemmed from a potential threat to his business. Someone close to him published false information that he was HIV-positive, and that he was dying from AIDS-related issues. Fortunately, he did not see his business deplete. Instead clients still hired him in what he describes as a “whirlwind of support.” Ironically, this was all over a bottle of PrEP, a medication which if taken correctly prevents patients from contracting HIV.
“But still, that was a rough year for me,” McDuffie explained over what he called family drama. “I was dealing with depression, suicidal tendencies, and a friend reached out telling me to audition again. I didn’t want to even cook anymore. I didn’t think I was going to be cast. But I told my story, and the rest is history. “Hell’s Kitchen” pretty much saved my life.”
For two years now McDuffie and his “Hell’s Kitchen” colleagues have been waiting for the show, which this time was filmed in Las Vegas, to come out. It’s a very unique learning experience. The 18 contestants live and work together — as well as cook and eat together — in what McDuffie describes as a sort of culinary boot camp. They surrender their electronic devices and really just focus on their craft. Professional cooking is often a stereotypically male-dominated field and homophobia is often a side dish that restaurant or kitchen employees may not have ordered. McDuffie, though, said he hasn’t experienced any homophobia in the kitchen.
“I have been blessed to work with many chefs. They didn’t care if I was gay, straight or whatever. I have been open for years about it. I am not afraid to tell someone — as long as I am making great food that’s what it’s about.”
McDuffie, like most reality show contestants, can’t reveal who made it into the final episodes let alone who was the top-placed winner. But, judging by how ecstatic he was, he walked away with new friendships and new culinary knowledge which makes him a winner regardless of the outcome. In that vein he encourages young cooks and chefs who might be gay or people of color and want a culiunary career to keep cooking, follow their dreams, market themselves on social media, and knock, or even kick open the doors, to make their cooking aspirations a reality.
In this 10th month of the COVID-19 shutdown, in which the most confident and even the most unlikely of at-home cooks have had to become clever chefs and spice up their culinary repertoire, his advice was similar.
“All cooks create. We are able to play around in the kitchen now,” he says. “Keep watching cooking shows. You know, get in there and create something. Go for it. Don’t get scared. 2020 has developed so many chefs — there are chefs galore. Keep playing around in the kitchen. Get inspired, make up your own recipes from things you saw on social media. Cooking is fun, it’s supposed to be fun.”