The Dallas-Based Chef Is Returning To The Hit Gordon Ramsay Cooking Competition Program To Show The Newcomers How It’s Done.
Roe DiLeo didn’t go on TV to make a name for herself.
When the chef signed on as a contestant for the 13th season of Gordon Ramsay’s hit reality cooking competition show Hell’s Kitchen in 2014, she was already a known fixture in the Dallas dining scene thanks to her stints running the kitchens as Henry’s Majestic and The Libertine. These days, her gig might be different — she’s running the kitchen at the new Deep Ellum honky tonk Mama Tried now — but her thoughts about reality TV remain the same. She’s interested in what she can get out of it on a personal level, not on a professional one.
That’s why she’s giving Hell’s Kitchen a second try this fall, returning to the show when it premieres on Friday, September 28, as one of the veterans participating in the 18th season’s “Rookies vs. Veterans” theme.
In advance of her return to television, we recently caught up with DiLeo to discuss, among other things, how she’s changed as a chef since her last run on Hell’s Kitchen and her disdain for the term “celebrity chef.”
What was it like to be asked to come back to the show? The first time you went on Hell’s Kitchen, you made it clear that you weren’t necessarily going on it to further your career. What were your motivations this time around?
Honestly, this time around was all about pure fun, to see how far I could push the limits of what FOX will allow you to do. The first time, I felt like I was like the good student. I wanted to impress, I wanted to look good culinarily. The second time around was more for me to go out and have fun. I think I’m not completely different, but I think I’m a little lighter, I’m a little less serious. To do this again, I was a little less intimidated. I already knew what’s going to happen; I already know what [Ramsay] is looking for.
Whenever people leave the reality TV realm the first time around, people always ask them what they wish they’d known. What are the things you took with you from your past experience to this one?
I definitely think that anyone that cooks — you don’t cook under a clock. Any good chef has plenty of time to do what they need to do. I think that one of the things I learned the first time around was really how to utilize your time, make some quick decisions and get right in there and start making things. I know the first season, I ran out of time almost every challenge. So I think this time around it was about using my time correctly, and I kind of learned how production works. You learn what it’s like to be told when to eat, when to smoke, when to sleep and when to use the bathroom. For some people, that’s a lot of freedom to give up and they don’t handle it very well. But when you’ve already done it, you kind of expect it. You know that you’re not going to be able to live your normal life for six weeks.
How would you describe the differences between cooking for a production versus cooking on the line?
The very basic answer is one is real and one is not. There are dishes that I have created at Hell’s Kitchen that I thought were fantastic that have bombed, but when I created them in real life, customers have loved and come back for them. That whole “what’s real and what’s not real” is a big factor.
What would you say are some of the most important factors for what you cook in a production kitchen?
It’s a little more flashy. One of the things that I love about Hell’s Kitchen is that they give you such a plethora of ingredients. That’s one of the hardest parts. As you create a dish, there’s every produce that you can think of. It kind of spins your mind a little bit because there’s so much. Because you have such great products to work with, it kind of can bog you down. Using all of those products in a flashy way is something they really look for. Whereas a normal diner doesn’t necessarily look for that, they look for a little more value. They never ask us: What’s the cost of this? What do you sell this for? What is your food cost? It’s totally irrelevant. You can stuff caviar into lobster; it doesn’t matter.
It’s kind of like a chef’s playground, in a way.
It is! The access they have to produce and fish that was just swimming this morning. Just stuff like that. So, of course, if they ask if you want to come back, you would love to!
How has what you’ve learned from production cooking influenced your day-to-day cooking, professionally or even at home?
Everyone says I’m a lot calmer now, which is funny to me. I guess when you’re under that kind of stress — which I feel is a lot more stress than normal restaurants — when you get back into a regular everyday restaurant it doesn’t seem like everything is such a big deal anymore. I’m just a little bit calmer. I kind of know the pitfalls and things that happen during the day in the standard kitchen, and I kind of roll with it a little bit better. When I’ve had someone screaming at me while you’re cooking, nothing can ever be that bad in a normal kitchen. But it could also be an age thing. Who knows? I am getting older.
Do you think that having that experience also helps your interactions with your own employees?
Well, I was never a screamer. I’ve never treated my staff like that, so I don’t think I changed much at all. The only thing I think that has changed is what I expect from them. When all of this was expected of me, I can expect a little more from my people. I can trust my people a little more, and want a little more out of them. [Ramsay] wanted a lot out of us, and he wanted a 110-percent every time we did anything. So I think you can kind of expect that from your people, and that’s it’s OK to expect that. But it’s not OK to yell at them.
What was it like to be on the other side, watching rookies experience the challenges for the first time?
There’s a little tinge of jealousy because everything is so new and shiny to them, and they’re just so eager to please. They’re a little less jaded, and I feel like us veterans were a little jaded because we’ve already seen all of this. We already knew what it was like to walk down the hallway, and they’ve never been yelled at before. All of us have been knocked down by Gordon Ramsay before. I don’t know if it’s better to have been knocked down and have that under your belt, or to be so optimistic because you’ve never been knocked down.
Were there moments that you saw yourself in any of the rookies?
No. I like the rookies, but there were none of them that I thought were a reflection of me. The whole cast was very different. I think they did that on purpose.
Having gone through this experience twice now, what is some advice you wish you could have given yourself before either season?
I feel like the first season, I wasn’t exactly true to myself. I was trying to be “good.” I didn’t speak up. I got back from the first season, and friends and family that know me were like, “Man, I can’t believe you let that slide.” I was proud of my career, I didn’t want to create a bad impression for myself out in the world. I didn’t want to go on TV and act like a crazy person, and then not have a job anymore. This is real life at the end of the day; this is my career. The second time, I found a way to do that without being an embarrassment, or being too much or being dramatic. I wish I would have just relaxed a little bit the first season, and been a bit more myself.
What’s it like when people in Dallas recognize you from the show?
There’s this weird thing where they’ll look at me, then look back at whoever they’re talking to, then look back up at me. So I’ll go “Hi, how are ya?” and then they’ll ask where they know me from. I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and I go out about town to a lot of events in Dallas, so I never want to be the one that says it’s from TV. But usually eight times out of 10, they’ll ask, “Were you on Hell’s Kitchen?” and that leads to a picture.
Do you ever have those moments of realization where to some people, you’re a celebrity chef?
That is the worst phrase ever! Whoever came up with the phrase “celebrity chef” shouldn’t be allowed to speak ever again. Because it still surprises me. I know millions of people watch the show, my brain knows that. But, for some reason, every single time I fly, TSA makes a big deal. There are pictures and someone calls me out of line. For some reason, TSA loves Hell’s Kitchen. But I’m very lucky that it happens to me — it’s not something everyone gets to experience. When you’re on a first date and someone recognizes you, it’s impressive!
What would you say are some of the pros and cons of the increased notoriety?
The pros are all of the good feelings of getting to meet people, getting to go on trips and opportunities that some people that weren’t on a show wouldn’t be able to get. But cons are that whole connotation of the celebrity chef. Like, no, I’m not a fucking celebrity chef! I got to go on TV and show people that I’m a good chef. That’s where the adjectives stop. I have chef friends that told me not to do it the first time around — one of my mentors told me not to do it. One of the chefs that I worked for for years, that started my career was like, “Roe, don’t do it. You shouldn’t do it.” So there is definitely a stigma inside of the chef community about it — but only if you act like an asshole about it. It’s something I did; it’s not me, and it doesn’t define my career. I had a career before it, and I have a career after it. Some people latch on to it, and that’s why they think they’re great. Are you great because your restaurant runs on good food costs? Are you great because you’re opening new concepts that are innovative and creative? Or are you just riding on the fact that you went on a TV show? So that stigma is a little annoying, because some people deserve to be made fun of for how much they count on it. But some of us went on it because we’re good chefs, and we’re entertaining.
What were the reactions from those people when you decided to go back on the show a second time?
Still kind of the same. I think they were more OK with it the second time than the first because I wasn’t turning into an asshole. It wasn’t as big of a shock as it was the first time.
Plus, it sounds like it’s only so much of your brand.
I fought branding myself for so long. The first time around, I was told to get a PR representative and create a brand. But I was hesitant. I didn’t want to do that. I’ve just always been Chef Roe — that’s it. And I like that. I come into my restaurant, and my brand is on the plate.
Hell’s Kitchen: Rookies vs. Veterans premieres on FOX on Friday, September 28.