Kitchen Q&A: Christina Machamer
Photograph by Katherine Bish
Just seeing the promos for FOX-TV’s Hell’s Kitchen, with craggy-faced chef Gordon Ramsay spit-yelling, belittling people and throwing food when he wasn’t throwing up, is enough to make you wonder who would volunteer for a month of verbal pile-driving, spiced with more F-bombs than Scarface. How about a petite, blonde culinary student from mild-mannered St. Lou? More fodder for GR to chew up and spit out? We’ll see. Christina Machamer dished to SLM during Week 2 of the show.
You attended the Harvard of cooking schools, the Culinary Institute of America. That had to help. The CIA teaches you to master the basics. Then it’s all you. I also learned British culinary terms and metric recipe measurement from Josh Galliano when I apprenticed at An American Place. That helped as well.
Did you work with Larry Forgione while you were there? Not so much. But I was fortunate enough to sit next to him on an airplane flight—had him captive—and was prepared to totally pick his brain. We ended up talking about horses—another interest of mine—for two hours. Never even got to food.
So what led you to Hell’s Kitchen? At the CIA, we all watched Season 3. I thought I could compete.
Did you graduate from CIA? Yes, in 2008. During filming, I was in between semesters. I had to return to graduate.
Was school different after a stint with GR? At school I thought I was pressured … I had no idea. I learned way more in 30 days than I did in a semester of school. I was like, Are you kidding me? This [stuff] is easy.
On that first show, when GR tasted everyone’s signature dishes, did he really vomit? It was no act. That contestant mixed raw quail egg with venison … on the plate with ceviche scallops and white chocolate, shallot and Tabasco.
What was your dish? It was chicken thighs and crawfish over mache salad. My error was putting hot chicken on a cold salad and putting a cloche over it—mmm, nice steamy lettuce. So obviously, there was little strategy, but he still ate it.
He’d gotten his vomiting out of the way. Yeah, at least the chicken was cooked. Raw chicken is one of his things. I was thinking, “Please be cooked ...”
Viewers like me can’t believe contestants make the same mistakes time after time. What did you learn from watching previous seasons? I learned a lot from listening to those who had watched previous seasons. “In Season One he did this …” So I shut up and listened.
Were any of the contestants good? Seemed like a rather pedestrian group. I was a lowly culinary student among a lot of experienced line cooks. Talent aside, there was plenty to learn from them.
What’s GR like when the camera’s off? Pretty much the way he is on camera. But there’s a lot you don’t see. He conveyed a lot of information to us, but all people remember is him throwing a piece of fish against the wall.
Does he throw stuff in his kitchens? I think that’s the European perfectionist’s way. It’s “If I scare you, you’ll remember; if I tell you, you’ll forget.” If the cheese remains stuck to the wall all night, you remember.
Did you fear him as a person or just in the kitchen? I didn’t fear him after Episode 1. But I didn’t realize he was 6-foot-5.
Describe him in three phrases. Brilliantly talented and quick. He lets you know where you stand. And he’s a jokester.
He seems like such a nice guy on those helicopter rides. How much of the screaming, cursing and spitting is just his shtick? He is intense. Cooks are intense. Even I am intense … short and blonde, but don’t be confused.
Is he as flirty as he seems? Was it an advantage being a female? Yes and no, because he flirts with everybody. He had an ongoing thing with a cameraman … a red-haired male he called Ginger. All within earshot are victims.
Sous-chefs oversee each team. Do they give you any advice or support? They were amazing resources. They were there to help … and hinder.
How so? Some contestants thought they gave bad advice. I did not see that personally, but I did approach Chef Gloria with respect. Having worked for Alice Waters, she had a rustic American background—as did I—so we got along well.
Where did you eat? Did someone cook for you? Our kitchen was stocked, but we cooked for ourselves. No gourmet stuff. I ate a lot of turkey sandwiches.
No wining and dining on the town? Only what you see on the air. We were sequestered in a locked-down dorm: no TV, no magazines, no books, no phones, no driver’s license, no money—and no escape.
What happened at show’s end? A few exit interviews, where we obviously couldn’t say much. They asked me what I was going to do next, and I told them, “Well, back to class: Cuisines of the Mediterranean.”
Are you a smoker? It seems like all of the contestants are smokers. Yes. All the contestants were smokers. If it looked like we smoked a lot, it’s because we did, but only in the dorms. I know it didn’t look so great.
Does Ramsay ding you for being smokers? He doesn’t smoke or drink. But he’s realistic. It’s like saying you won’t hire anyone with a tattoo. Good luck.
What most surprised you about the experience? We had 8 hours to memorize a menu—five appetizers, five entrees and five desserts—and then cook it for Gordon.
A little different than reality. Right. Menus take days to perfect in a normal restaurant. In Hell’s Kitchen, we made our own stock, filleted our fish, made our sauces, set our own station. We were responsible for the monotonous everyday work, so in that regard, our show is a little more real. Except for the brigade system …
And that is …? We don’t set up our plates. Each chef is responsible for his portion of the plate, and then Gordon does the assembly. So if I need something in 2 minutes and that means 5 to you, the system falls apart and we have to re-fire that entree or that table’s entrees. It’s just hard to get used to. It’s intense.
Where do you go in St. Louis to unwind? I go to Brennan’s—downstairs. The upstairs is too glitterati for me.
Any pet peeves? Local wine lists. They all read the same, like a greatest hits album. I’m used to a lot more variety.