HELL’S KITCHEN Interview: Chef Johnny McDevitt previews Season 16
Every now and then, running My Take on TV takes me down a weird avenue that I never anticipated, which is how I came to get on the phone with Johnny McDevitt, one of the charismatic, no-nonsense chefs competing for the Season 16 prize on HELL’s KITCHEN. He’s not just another reality cooking show chef; Johnny happens to be someone I’ve known for two decades. He used to play trumpet with my brother David, his family still lives on a street where I sometimes house-sit, and his larger-than-life personality brings back a ton of memories from back in the day.
Johnny’s home again after a few years on the West Coast. He has a 2-year-old son (“I’m a really good dad”) and is re-adjusting to life on the East Coast. When I mentioned being happy to catch up, Johnny let me know that I’m apparently not the only one – “I definitely had a lot of people from high school and my past contact me and say ‘Hey, what are you doing? How have you been?’ ” He agreed the phenomena is a little odd, but he’s having fun with it, too. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked him how, or if, he’s changed. He confirmed that he hasn’t changed much, calling himself a “super nerdy adult now” who travels with baby wipes. Everywhere.
On the topic of HELL’S KITCHEN and whether it was what he expected, Johnny told me, “it is real-deal cooking and it was so intense … being able to have Gordon … show you how he wants garlic cut … It’s priceless.” He explained that he “had to go in there with this surreal confidence and just trust that I was going to do all right.” If you’re wondering why you should watch this season of HELL’S KITCHEN, Johnny offered one word, with a laugh, “Me?”
Check out our long conversation in its entirety below:
How did you get involved … Had you always wanted to be a chef? I don’t remember that from our past, but when did that kind of come into your life?
You know, I used to do music.
Yeah, of course!
I was like, Mister Music. I tried my hand at being a musician, like 17, 18, 19 years old, and there’s no money in it at all (laughs). Unless you’re amazingly good-looking or you just know somebody, and I couldn’t find my way into that business. I’ve always cooked — I’m Italian, so I’ve always cooked. I tried my hand at construction work and I hated it. Hated it, hated it.
I realized that I could be very creative in cooking and then still be able to pay the bills. 20 years old, I just started cooking in bars all over Philadelphia, I progressed into some nicer restaurants and worked under some really great chefs and some awesome owners who just taught me the ins and outs of the business. I read every cookbook and every article and everything I could, and I just really have a lot of passion for it and it ended up turning into this career.
In the beginning it was literally just a way to pay bills while I was still trying to be a musician. Then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh my god, I love this.” kind of a thing.
How did HELL’S KITCHEN come up for you? Was it, did people in your life say you really should go audition for this, did it come up? What was the beginning of that?
No. I didn’t even watch the show, to be honest. It’s on at night; I work at night. I never really watched it. I was running Sketchburger in Northern Liberties — it’s on Frankford Ave – A couple came in and they had clipboards and stuff, and they were like, “Hey, would you like to try to be a part of HELL’S KITCHEN?” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know,” and they were like, “We’ll fly you out to LA,” and I was like, “Oh, yeah!” then I was super pumped! I ended up going to New York, then filming some things there, then I went out to LA for an audition. Lo and behold, a few months later I was on the show.
What’s the audition process like? Do you have to cook? Is it just interviews? Is it a combination of both? What do they put you through?
I think my background … There’s a ton of questioning. Everything — your background, your knowledge. I had never talked more about myself in a month than I did going through that process. I think by the time you’re done they really have a good idea of what your abilities are, where you are as a chef … Definitely your personality. That’s a huge part. I mean, it’s television. You could be the best chef in the world but if you don’t have the right personality it’s probably not the right show for you.
Right. There’s a lot of conflict on the show, so you want to also be able to interact with people, both well and maybe not well at the same time.
Yeah. I don’t know if you remember anything about me, but I definitely have a lot of energy. Let’s call it that. I actually just saw Dave (my brother). Dave was in my old restaurant a few months ago playing. He’s doing the music thing.
Oh, yeah, he’s doing it. They’re playing all over.
Hell, I saw him and Andy. God, I haven’t seen those guys in like 10 years.
It’s such a small world.
They played at my old restaurant called The West End.
That’s amazing. I was going to say, I didn’t know what you were doing now, because I knew you had done stuff in the city. I wasn’t sure where you had ended up currently since the show stopped filming.
After the show I worked on the West Coast for a while, and stayed out near LA, loving the lifestyle. I do have a 2-year-old son; I’m a single dad, so I came home for him. I was the head chef of The West End for most of the summer, from April until about 2 weeks ago. Then I ended up getting offered something I could not turn down, so I left, although I love the [West End guys]; I love them, so I am going to run their catering and their food truck for them. I still have ties with them.
When you were getting involved in the show, was there something you hoped to get out of it besides winning? Everybody wants to win when they’re in a competition, but was there something you hoped to learn or experience from the show?
I looked at it as a way to further my career. It was about business. It already has, even without the show coming out. The whole experience, even I come to this … I watch reality television and I’m like, “God, that is so fake. That is so scripted.” I can tell you, it is real-deal cooking and it was so intense, and being able to have Gordon Ramsay show you how he wants garlic cut – Little things like that, was just … It’s priceless. That kind of knowledge, that experience, in this industry is absolutely priceless. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was really an awesome experience for me.
What is Gordon like? I think when HELL’S KITCHEN first came out he got a pretty bad rap, and then he softened a little bit with MasterChef, but I just wondered: Is he that rough and tough on you guys “off-camera” as well?
In the kitchen … It’s not about on-camera or off-camera. It’s in the kitchen and out of the kitchen. In the kitchen he’s an immaculate professional. He expects perfection and he’s earned it. The guy is unreal. He’s definitely a huge inspiration to me. I like the intensity. That was something that just pumped me up. I really enjoy … Because I can empathize with his passion. It actually reminded me of my dad. My dad’s like that about electricity. He’s an electrician and he’s always super, super intense on the job. You get my dad off of work and he’s like the most laid-back guy and super fun to hang out with, and Gordon was the same way.
It’s so funny you say that. You know my dad’s always been the same way, too. He’s just such a passionate guy, then he’s like the goofball when he’s on a break. Family’s good? Everybody’s good, everybody’s still in the area?
Yeah. My whole family is still somewhere in the area – Whether it’s Philly or Montgomeryville. My parents live in the same house, been there forever. Yeah, it’s wild. It’s wild because I haven’t been home for about two years.
Have people reached out to you since they found out that you’re going to be on the show? Are you getting in touch with a lot of old people? What are you hearing now that people are hearing that you’re going to be a part of the show?
I definitely had a lot of people from high school and my past contact me and say, “Hey, what are you doing? How have you been?”, and I’m just like … I’m not really that guy. I have like two friends, and they have been my friends forever, so it’s a little odd for me. I’m good at putting on the face and being nice and all that. I’ve definitely had a lot of people try to get back in touch with me. My social media account is frustrating right now, because I guess they announced my name and now … And people are like, “Oh my god, you’re famous!” I’m like, “Oh, god. That is like the last thing I am.” That’s not me at all. I don’t know, it’s fun too. I’m having fun with it. It’s a good time.
Do you think people will be surprised to kind of see the John, Johnny, now from when we did know you years ago? Have you changed much or are you the same?
(laughs out loud) I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve changed much. The only thing that’s changed is I’m a super nerdy adult now. In my car, while I was in high school I had empty beer cans and a bunch … Whatever, whatever a freaking high school kid has in his car. Now I have the stroller and baby wipes. I have baby wipes everywhere. Every bag I own has baby wipes. My life is baby wipes.
It’s hysterical to hear you talking about a baby. I’m just like, “John McDevitt has a baby?” It’s crazy. I still think of you as that kid from 20 years ago!
(laughs) I’m a sweet dad. I’m a really good dad. I’m really all about it, it’s fun!
I think it changes people and I think that’s a good thing, that you’re a single dad and you’re loving it.
Yeah … I don’t know. When I first had my kid I was like, “Oh my god. I have no idea what I’m doing.” Now I’m just Superdad. I don’t know. You have to be. You either have to be or you’re just a total deadbeat, and luckily enough for me I had the greatest father ever. I had a good example for me to learn from and to emulate.
Which is great. On the show, is there a lot of new dishes you wanted to try, or you had to learn? Or is it mostly stuff that you have in your head that you know you’ve made before, like your signature dish obviously is going to be something you’re good at. What kinds of recipes or foods did you enjoy making the most, being involved?
Everything? (laughs) I didn’t know any of the stuff. Most of the guys … I feel like I was the least experienced person there. I’m sure other contestants are saying that now, but when I went in there I was working in a burger joint. I definitely did not have fine dining experience. I went in there and my thing was, I will out work you; I will work you under the table. That was my, I don’t know, superpower. I was just willing to go the extra mile, and I can work fast. Almost everything we did was brand new to me, completely brand new, and I just learned on the job, and it was wild. It was really fun. I love to cook in tableside because it let me kind of do my … Put on my shtick, as they say. Schmooze customers and stuff. It was really fun. I had a blast with it.
I always think about how Gordon’s so specific about his Beef Wellington, everybody loves … He’s always about the Beef Wellington. Is that something that you had to learn on the fly, or is that something you had a history with at all?
I understand temperatures, I understand cooking, I understand that stuff. All those little things, that wasn’t new to me. I’m trying to think of one thing that blew me away, where I was like, “Oh, I’m so, so fucked.” I mean, even the Wellington, I had never actually made one. I cooked 4 million steaks in my life.
It was more just nerve-racking with … I had to go in there with this surreal confidence, and just trust that I was going to do all right. The other contestants picked me up a lot. There were a couple of guys that had way more experience that I used to my advantage, because you’re a team for a while. I’d tell them, “Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
“I don’t even know! (laughs) You have to teach me this in the next 30 seconds, and then I’ll just join. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, and I’ll do it really, really well.” And the guys would. It was definitely interesting.
That’s important because you have confidence in that you know how to cook, which sounds like you’re not afraid to ask the questions so that you can take it one step further, because a lot of people are afraid to ask that question and don’t get anywhere.
Right. That’s actually … I mean, now that I’m running restaurants and doing that, it’s something that I can’t stand in my employees, when I say, “All right, I need you to do this,” and they just say, “Uh-huh,” but they have no idea what this is. Then it either doesn’t get done or it gets done wrong. It’s just then it’s either an ego thing where they don’t want to admit they don’t know something, or they’re afraid that I’m going to be mad that they don’t know something, and I’m like, “Dude, just let me show you. That’s what I’m here for.”
Right, because down the line you’ll be mad if they don’t do it correctly and never asked the question.
Oh, yeah. Then I’ll tear them a new one! That’s something I never understood, was not asking. If you don’t know something, definitely ask. That’s how I learned this entire business, by learning things from other people and then applying my own experience.
You mentioned the team aspect to it. What’s it like being cooped up with these people for six weeks? Was there a lot of, obviously, camaraderie, but butting of heads, was it just kind of what you would expect from a bunch of guys and girls living in the same place?
Yeah, It was awful. It was fucking terrible. (laughs) I lived on my own for, I don’t know, like 12, 13 years? I can’t even share a place with my family, let alone strangers. I like to be alone. I enjoy solitude and quiet. Being thrown into a room where you’re sleeping with five, six other guys, you’re being woken up at 7-o’clock in the morning after working all night. The stuff that they don’t show on that show is, you have to work in the kitchen. Just like the dinner service, you make all of it. There’s so much more going on, it’s like a real, really intense job where lack of sleep, and you’re totally out of comfort zone. I said to someone, “You know, when I got home I think I slept for like a month.” (laughs) You just feel like when you’re there you’re just running on adrenaline. Afterwards, you’re like, “Holy shit, did I just do that? Like, what?” It was very, very intense. But that’s part of it, that’s why they want … I mean, it’s not called HELL’S KITCHEN and then you get to stay at a 5-star hotel. It’s like, no, you’re in the thick of it. You’ve gotta battle your way.
It’s hard to get prepared for something like that because you don’t know until you experience it what it’s going to be like.
Yeah. We were definitely in the dark for everything. It was left and right. To the point where it just started to get funny, like ours was like, “Oh my god. Really, this is happening now? Okay.”
That was the delirium setting in, is what that was.
Yeah. It just became completely delirious. I was just laughing at my own pain.
Why do you think people are going to love this season? Is there anything that you think is going to stand out that they’re going to say, “HELL’S KITCHEN, this is the season.”?
Yeah, I knew that you were going to say that.
Is that an answer? I don’t know. I am excited and terrified at the same time for this show to come out, because during our time I said tons of stuff, and I can’t remember half of the things that came out of my mouth. I know that I say things all the time that I regret, and people are shocked and awed by it, so I’m assuming that somewhere along the line they all will have me being on me at my finest.
It’s going to be fun, that’s for sure. It’s going to be really fun!
HELL’S KITCHEN S16 premieres Friday 9/23 at 8/7c on FOX.