Chef Matt Sigel Survives Hell's Kitchen

| February 15, 2010

Our 2010 Cruisemates Culinary Cruise on Norwegian Epic will feature a brand new ship and a hot new chef.

The Fox network just re-ran the entire season four of Hell's Kitchen featuring Matt Sigel, our guest chef for the upcoming CruiseMates Culinary cruise on Norwegian Epic Oct 30, 2010. Of course, we watched the entire season again to catch Matt in action, making it to the final six before being eliminated. For those of you who also watched, I am sure you realize Matt was not the most popular person with his competing chefs.

I find it interesting that they hardly mention Matt's prior experience as outlined in my interview below. In fact, Matt has worked in some Michelin-starred New York restaurants with celebrity chefs. One of the celebrity chefs actually paid for his way through culinary school He is far more experienced than the way he was portrayed on the air.

I thought about the nature of shows like "Hells Kitchen" and I wonder how much they deliberately try to provoke the contestants into irrational behavior. After all, without the psychological drama, almost always precipitated by host chef Gordon Ramsey himself, the show would not be the same.

Let's be honest, Matt did not look good on the show. In fact he was portrayed as something of a psycho. Having talked to him extensively on the phone about the show and other life experiences I have to say this was not the same man I met. Matt only had good things to say about the show to me. This only makes sense if you also believe, as I do, that there is a good amount of "Hollywood" built into the show and that what you see on the final cut is only a tiny fraction of what really happened during the taping.

This can be verified in an interview the season's final winner, Christina MacHamer, did with where she says, "after Matt was traded to the red team, all of the girls decided they were going to target him for elimination. Later that night, Matt and I had a long talk out on the patio. Matt had no friends in Hell's Kitchen, and, in truth, I didn't either. That night we formed an alliance. Although Gordon may have the final say, I believe that this "friendship" was pivotal in both of us making it to the final six."

Christina also adds this illumination, "When watching this show, you must take it in stride, and remember that editing leads us to our opinions as viewers. Jen made a great deal of obnoxious comments on season 4. She wasn't always that horrible, but when certain comments and actions are put together, the villain emerges."

Watching the show it is obvious that Matt started out with a lot of enthusiasm but stopped enjoying the experience at some point. Having already met him personally I experienced a really sweet young man who genuinely knows and loves the culinary arts. He had not one bad thing to say about his experience on Hell's Kitchen and praised Gordon Ramsey, except one comment about a personality dispute he had with the eventual winner, Christina MacHamer. In fact, watching the show I saw many moments when Ramsey actually showed true fondness for Matt despite the way the shows producers decided to portray him in the end. He was the first person Ramsey chose to squirt with a bottle of celebratory champagne, for example, on the final show.

I have to wonder how much is real about this "reality" soap opera that just happens to be staged in a restuarant actually built on a sound stage in Hollywood. The prize for Matt's season, mentioned repeatedly, was the job title of "executive chef" at Gordon Ramsey's newest West Hollywood restaurant, "London." I just check and the truth is the show works like the this; the winner is awarded $250,000 and they are given the choice of taking it one lump sum or earning during a year working in the restaurant featured during the season. Many chefs would opt to work in the restuarant to build out their resume, and Christina did, but she was eventually given the job of sous chef, not "executive chef" as promised so many time during the show. She did not stay for more than one year.

Christina has now returned to her native St louis where she is pursuing other food-related business interests, but we do not see any evidence that she has yet to work in any restaurant as an executive chef, let alone Gordon Ramsey's "London West Hollywood." NOt that she is not a very sweet and talented young lady. She had this to say about matt and the final competition,"Christina: I'm definitely glad I got Matt instead of Jen. I think she's probably a stronger cook than Matt is, but with Matt you know what you got. Sometimes he can be a little off, but you know when he's starting to break down and how to react to that. With Jen, you never know. (laughing) I don't want an unknown in the restaurant." In this interview at

I am not saying this to disparage Christina or the show. I am merely saying my gut feeling is that the show is more about creating a good drama for television viewers than it is about culinary talent. In other words, there is a lot that happens on screen that does not reflect the reality of what actually played out during the contest. That's show biz, folks. I personally lived in Hollywood for 12 years and have had my share of time witnessing show biz in action.

In any case, that is my theory and we WILL be discussing Matt's experience on the show Hell's Kitchen during our culinary cruise on the Norwegian Epic, even though he did sign a non-disclosure agreement with the producers. All we need to do is make sure no one is video-taping when we get Matt to give us the real scoop of what happened during the taping of the show.

In my interview of Matt below you will see that he is a sincere and accomlished chef who certainly had far more experience than how he was portrayed during the show. Yes, he is an authentic Brooklynite now living in New Jersey. He has that East Coast edge, which after my years in New York I have also learned to appreciate for its authenticity. Here is our original interview with Matt Sigel from Hell's Kitchen....

Matt Sigel Survives Hell's Kitchen

Can an accomplished chef find culinary heaven on a cruise ship? Up-and -coming celebrity Chef Matt Sigel was hooked after his very first cruise on Carnival Miracle. "The food was phenomenal," he said, "and the service was incredible. I certainly didn't expect it and I couldn't believe it." That cruise was in October, 2006. Not long after that he got married and then appeared on Season Four of the Fox Network hit series Hell's Kitchen.

Before his first cruise, Matt admits thinking, "I don't want to be stuck on a boat with cafeteria food served out of buckets." But his first cruise turned that premise on its ear, and Matt is so excited about cruising now that he says "it's the only way I want to travel." So when we offered Matt the opportunity to host the 2010 CruiseMates Culinary Cruise, he didn't hesitate for a second. The cruise will sail on Norwegian Epic, the brand new NCL flagship still under construction in France and scheduled to debut next year.

The Culinary Cruise will feature cooking demonstrations by Matt, question-and-answer sessions, plenty of "how to" interactive demonstrations and a culinary palate test similar the one he dominated on Hell's Kitchen. If you would like to join us, this is a great way try a brand new ship, in the company of our great CruiseMates readers, and immerse yourself in the culinary arts all at once.

Chef Matt's Story At just 37, Matt's philosophy is that it is never too soon or too late to learn something new. Always more focused on where he is going rather than where he has been, this scrappy Brooklynite emerged as a professional chef through sheer tenacity and determination. He has worked with some of the best chefs in the world and credits many of them for believing in him even when he wasn't so sure about himself. Matt started cooking at age 27 -- later than many chefs -- but he started in New York City, the right place to learn a lot quickly. His first job was with celebrity chef Matthew Kenney, one of Food and Wine Magazine's Top-10 Chefs, followed by a series of jobs and experiences that have both toughened and refined Matt's skills.

Skill, and talent, both are essential to the art of cuisine. When it comes to natural born talent Matt's focus on discerning and mastering the nuance of fresh ingredients is one of his best assets. This talent was even more highly developed after his trial by fire on Hell's Kitchen. "Chef Gordon Ramsey (the host chef on the show) taught me a lot about simplicity in food," he said.

Matt got his start by writing his first boss, executive chef Matthew Kenney, a touching letter explaining that although he didn't have any cooking experience, he was so compelled by Kenney's story that he just wanted to meet him. Soon Matt was working at Kenney's Café M and Canteen restaurants, and Kenney paid his tuition to one of the country's top cooking schools, New York's Institute of Culinary Education.

Matt was going to school from 9 to 5 and working at Canteen from 6 p.m. to midnight or later every night. For a New Yorker in the restaurant business, that is typical. It's the one city where a chef can continue to grow no matter how much experience they have. Matt soaked up culinary knowledge like a sponge. "You can learn something from anyone," he says. "You just have to keep your ears, eyes and your mind open to new possibilities."

Matt continued to learn from the best chefs in New York. He met Drew Neirpont, who along with Robert De Niro and celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa started the renowned restaurant Nobu. Soon Matt was working at another Neirpont restaurant, Icon; at the Hotel W on 38th St.

Around this time the idea of cooking on television kept popping up. Matt did a demo with Martin Yan of "Yan Can Cook," A too-close call on September 11 prompted a move to Atlantic City where he started working at Caesar's with Robert Irvine, the controversial host of the Food Network's "Dinner: Impossible," and executive chef at the hotel. "There I met with the most talented chef I have ever worked with - Keith Mitchell" Matt said.

Eager to break through as a celebrity chef himself, Matt started listening to people urging him to try Hell's Kitchen. The original version of Hell's Kitchen started in the U.K. and the U.S. version is hosted by British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey. Matt appeared on Season 4, beginning April 2008. He did not win the grand prize (a $250,000-a-year job as head chef under Ramsey in a West Hollywood eatery), but came in sixth. But he was a very scrappy contender who did not go unnoticed, especially when he butted heads with the eventual winner, Christina Machamer, more than once.

"I was drawn to Hell's Kitchen because it is the most realistic cooking show on television. That is real life for a chef, not these cooking shows where you put a dish in the oven and it comes out fully cooked in five minutes. Being a chef is extremely hard work. You have to be creative and perform flawlessly under very stressful conditions," he said. Since he was married just before he did the show, his wife likes to say "he just wanted to be yelled at by Chef Gordon instead of me."

That may be real life for a chef working in a restaurant, but the CruiseMates Culinary Cruise will not be "Hell's Kitchen." We will see the more philosophical side of Matt, the devoted culinary disciple.

The CruiseMates Culinary Cruise

Although our cruise is still over a year away, Matt already has some excellent ideas.

Matt is passionate about his ingredients. From a writer for Bon Appétit Magazine, I recently learned the latest culinary buzzword is "fresh." The point is the difference that a truly fresh ingredient can make in the final taste of a dish, whether from the garden or the field. I have experienced this difference myself in countryside restaurants in France where they kept live chickens in a pen.

Matt won't show us how to pluck feathers, but he will show us how to recognize, and where to find, truly fresh ingredients. He will show us to make the freshness of your ingredients into a significant taste factor.

Matt is already famous for a favorite dish of many cruisers; his Wild Mushroom Risotto was deemed by chef Gordon Ramsey to be the best ever to come out of Hell's Kitchen (fans of the show know how much risotto they cook). Matt is obsessive about the process of making authentic Italian risotto, rather than relying on the shortcuts many American chefs use.

Another idea Matt has been toying with is how to stock the perfect pantry -- to know which ingredients you should always have on hand, and which ones you shouldn't.

Matt is also passionate on the art of dining. As a chef, he has seen diners unknowingly do things that ruin the experience of his best dishes. For example, a culinary master will select side dishes that complement the main course. Matt recommends that you not ask a waiter to make substitutions for what the chef has chosen.

Matt also endorses trying new kinds of food. "Please don't order a steak and baked potato in a fine restaurant," he says. "Go to a steakhouse for that. If you go to a renowned chef's restaurant, then try the special -- especially if it is something you normally wouldn't order. That is how you find new foods to love," he says.

To Matt, one of life's greatest joys is finding a delicious way to prepare a food he may not even like. "I can't stand sliced beets from a can," says Matt, "but freshly picked and baked whole makes a beet a thing of joy - serve with a raspberry sauce. I love them, even though I never expected it."

But you might not want to copy Matt's obsession with another food he doesn't like, tripe - cow's stomach -- which requires three hours of boiling just to make it chewable.

"I order tripe every time I see it on a menu," Matt says, "but I still haven't found the right recipe." That is dedication to the art of cuisine.

Possible Recipes for the Culinary Cruise Matt says he would love to hear suggestions from the people who book the Culinary Cruise. His ideas include Italian fare, such as making gnocchi from scratch; or Caribbean cuisine -- since that is where we will be.

"The Caribbean is a melting pot of cuisine," he says. "You have the fresh tropical fruits and of course amazing spices from the West Indies." He notes that Jamaica has a unique cuisine all its own, while Martinique has Creole roots due to its French and Caribbean influences.

Matt loves to work with lobster, a favorite of every cruiser, as well as curry. "How about a lobster salad with a curry mayo?" he asks. "I also have a Caribbean Shrimp Cocktail with shrimp on sugarcane skewers served in a martini glass with a Creole cocktail sauce."

Unusual Food Experiences I asked Matt about the most unusual foods he has ever eaten, and I was surprised at his answer, but I will leave those surprises for later. Furthermore, if you want to find out more about Hell's Kitchen, including his now famous feud with Christina, that will be covered on the cruise as well. All ten episodes of the entire season four with Matt can still be seen online.

I have to say that just doing research for this cruise has piqued my interest in culinary arts. Learning more about professional chefs has me really looking forward to this cruise. I think that if you book this cruise you will also gain a new interest in fine food, if you don't already have one - and you could be looking forward to this cruise as much as I am now.

Our "Chef Matt Sigel Culinary Cruise" sails Oct. 30, 2010 on the brand new Norwegian Epic. For more details go here: Chef Matt Sigel Culinary Cruise.

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