Chef Aziza Young previews HELL’S KITCHEN Season 16
This Friday on FOX, HELL’s KITCHEN is kicking off Season 16 at 8/7c and from screening the first two episodes alone, the show is off to a crazy, intense start. Chef Aziza Young is among the 18 competing to win the prize and she and I spent some time talking about her journey to the show and what her experience was like.
The kitchen manager from Harrisburg, PA, told me, “I wanted to challenge myself,” when I asked her why she wanted to subject herself to the screams and shouts of Gordon Ramsey in the kitchen. She added, “Being able to work with him, that’s what I wanted to do!”
Asked what made her fall in love with cooking, Aziza told me that she grew up loving the freedom in cooking without recipes, that you could “create whatever you wanted to. You didn’t have to stick with cookbooks.” Turning that love for creating into a career as a chef, Aziza said she “practiced making risotto and scallops” before taping the season, a very smart decision for those who watch and know that those two dishes could make or break a team.
And if you’re wondering what she’s worried about when she finally gets to see herself on TV, it’s not any creative or negative editing; she’s “worried to see if…[her] makeup is not right!”
Check out my full chat with Aziza below!
I’ve watched HELL’S KITCHEN for years and I see how Gordon is, and I’m always wondering what is it about HELL’S KITCHEN that made you want to be a part of it?
(laughs) I wanted to meet Chef Ramsay and I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. When you’re at a regular job, that you’ve applied for. You get the job, it like “Yeah I got the job”, but this is working with Chef Ramsay. You know what I mean? Being able to work with him that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to get yelled at, no one wants to get yelled at but to be yelled at by Chef Ramsay rather than being yelled at by regular chef is a little bit more special.
What is the audition or the application process like? What did you have to go through to get to the point where you were a member of the team?
I filled out the application. You have your first interview on the phone. They liked me, so I was really happy. I was like “Yay”. The second interview was my craziest interview. It was in New York and everything that could have went wrong, went wrong. I missed the bus twice. We got to Philly, my husband and I, my husband went with me. We got to Philly and we were late going in, and as we were walking up to the bus stop the bus is leaving. I didn’t even know it was our bus. I go up there and they’re like, “Your bus just left.”
We had to wait ‘til the next bus, and then the next bus was too packed. When that one went and I was like, “We’re not going to make it, we might as well just give up now.” My husband was like, “No, Aziza! We’ve got to push on.” I was like, “Why, what’s the point.” We get on the 3rd bus and I make it to New York. We get there we’re walking to where the audition is and we’re walking in the wrong direction (laughs). We’re I don’t know how many minutes away from. We had to walk 17 blocks in the other direction then we were already walking. Yeah. We wound up catching a cab. We made it there just in time. When I say just in time I mean ‘Just’ ‘in’ ‘time’. It was pushing and then with the final interview in L.A., it was so many hurdles and so many obstacles where I was I have to do it. There was times when I wanted to say, “You know what forget this!” but I’m happy I did it. I had such an amazing experience. Even that, pushing myself to complete those things right there. Believing in myself and then making it, it was like wow. This was amazing, this was intended to happen, so it was crazy. The whole process it was crazy.
What is your background? Did you want to always be a chef? Is it something that one day you cooked something and you thought, “Okay I can do this”? What was it for you that back when you started cooking, why did you start?
When I was younger I didn’t want to be a chef, actually. When I started cooking what made me … I started cooking when I was 9. My dad started teaching us how to cook when we were 9. What made me enjoy cooking was the fact that you could create whatever you wanted to. You didn’t have to stick with cookbooks. You didn’t have to stick to recipes. You could create your own recipe so it could be yours, you know?
Being able to have that freedom; I never liked baking, I hated it. I can bake but I prefer not to though. Baking is just chemistry. It’s a balance of ingredients and it has to be this way. Where’s cooking is, if I put too much of one thing in there I can cover it up by adding another ingredient to it. Cooking, the fun part, the fun of being able to create something off the top of your head. Seeing your creation, seeing people eat your creation, and like it. It’s like, “I made that.” It’s not like your children, where everybody can enjoy it, even if you enjoy them most, it’s like I made that, I created that and the only person that knows how to make it again is me (laughs).
Right, that’s the thing, you know, people paint a picture so people can look at it. People make music so people can listen to it. People cook so we can eat it. I think of it as an art form. I’m so jealous of people, like you said, who can just create things like that. I kind of have to stick to recipes because I’ll add too much salt or something will explode in my kitchen.
(laughs) I love it!
What’s the experience like on a show like this? You get there, seeing the first couple of episodes and you’re kind of put through the ringer right away. What was it like a day in HELL’S KITCHEN for you?
A day is always something new. I’ll tell you that. It’s never boring, it’s never ever boring. It’s something new to experience, I would say refreshing but you’re tired. (laughs) Most of the time you’re tired. It’s hectic, but not, at the same time. I wish I could find a vocabulary word to use for it. It was an all, especially the first night of service, the first time I saw Chef: “He’s here” and everything else disappeared. Every time he came in the kitchen it was just “oh my gosh he’s right here” I’ve always seen him on TV but he’s right here!! I remember one time he touched me on the show and he was yelling but in my brain all I could think was “Chef is touching me!” (laughs) It was so surreal. It was so surreal. You’re doing these challenges and you’re cooking during service. You go into this hectic time but it feels so surreal when you’re in that moment, just being in that moment was just amazing.
Is there a challenge that stands out to you that you remember and always look back on from your time on the show? Was there something that surprised you or it’s just a memorable moment for you?
A memorable moment? It’s all memorable. Most memorable? I don’t have a most memorable moment on the show. I really don’t because the whole experience was a dream come true to me. I met a lot of great people there. Awesome, awesome chefs there. There is no moment where that moment right there, I’m going to cherish forever. It was this whole experience is something that I’m going to remember and grow from and hopefully remember when I’m old so I can tell my grandchildren.
You mention the other chefs, what’s it like to be thrown into a situation where not only are you cooking with everybody, you’re forced to live with everybody for six weeks. What was that like to have to be around everybody all the time and the interactions?
To cook with everyone, sometimes it can be intense because of your skill level, other people’s skill level; you also learn a lot, everyone there is very helpful. They’re very encouraging as well. Though it’s a competition, they’re very nice, they are. Living with everyone that was different because not living with the women so much but living with the men as well. Only people I’ve ever lived with is my husband and my children, so living with other men and being around, having to share a bathroom, having 18 people and 3 bathroom stalls, 3 showers, it was like “hurry up” and get out of the bathroom. Definitely different, try to get in there before everybody else get in there.
When I was younger, when it was time to wash our hands, I would hurry up and run to the bathroom and pretend I was going to the bathroom so that my brothers wouldn’t beat me to the sink to wash our hands before dinner. It was kind of like that (laughs), you have to hurry up and try to get in there before we’re called down to service or called down to do our prep or whatever we have to do. It’s kind of like that. It is definitely strange and to live with 18 people with different personalities than yourself and trying to live with them. I don’t mind conflict, I don’t run away from conflict but you’re living there so you want to try to keep the peace with the people that you’re living with. At least I do. I want to try to keep the peace with the people I’m living with because I don’t feel like it.
Are people reaching out to you now that they know you’re going to be on the show? Have you heard from old friends or new friends or family? What are they saying to you about like are they excited for you to be on the show? Do they know? What have you heard from friends?
A lot of people have been reaching out to me, people that I have worked with or people that I went to school with but we never associated with each other. Now they’re friend requesting me and I’m like “I don’t know you!” (laughs) But my closer friends are like, when did this happen? Matter of fact, I was just at one of my old jobs and they were like when are you going to go tape? I’m like, it’s recorded. They’re like, when did this happen? I love keeping secrets, I love, love keeping secrets so I’m still like, you’re gonna have to just…it was recorded. Well when? Haha, a-ha.
People are just very surprised, they’re very happy for me. I’ve had a lot of congratulations and a lot of support and people just can’t wait ‘til the show comes on. The more excited they get, the more excited I’m getting. Their like “I can’t wait” so I’m like I can’t wait. (laughs)
Was it hard being away from the family for that long? What’s that like to be that disconnected from that for a while?
Nope, it wasn’t hard at all. Nope, not at all. That was a nice little vacation. (laughs)
How old are your kids?
Now they are 19, 14, 10, 8 and I have a newborn, he’s 2 months old. Nope, it wasn’t hard at all, I enjoyed every minute of it. (laughs)
If you could cook one thing, like if there’s one thing you knew you could cook for maybe the rest of your life, do you have a dish that you would know that you’d want to cook or would it be too hard to choose?
One thing I could cook for the rest of my life is pasta. I love, love pasta, I do. I think it’s so good. I like pasta with white sauce. I don’t care what type of sauce it has on it. Pasta is my favorite dish, hands down, bar none. If I had to cook that for the rest of my life I would probably be OK.
Is there any kind of prep you’d go into for HELL’S KITCHEN? Recipes you think you should know if you’re going to be in the kitchen? We know Gordon loves his Beef Wellington. Are there any things you had to do to prepare yourself to go in there or was it just all “I’ll deal with it when I get there?”
No, actually I practiced making risotto.
That’s a good one.
Before I went on HELL’S KITCHEN I practiced making risotto and scallops. That’s what I practiced. As far as meats, I felt I was OK with meats and chicken but risotto I had never made before. Scallops, I’m just not a big fan of scallops so at that time I had rarely made any scallops.
Those are two things that can very quickly turn on you if you’re not doing them correctly.
Yes, the risotto could be too dry or too wet and the scallops could be under cooked. I wanted to make sure I at least had at least the risotto down because I had never made that before. Scallops are really basic, you sear them and make sure that they’re pretty nice brown color. Risotto, I did not want to mess that up. I didn’t want to be yelled at.
Is Gordon different off camera or out of the kitchen? Is he always that intense? What’s he like when you’re not in the kitchen? Was he a different guy?
He’s different, Chef is nice, he is. A lot of people have asked me that, is he really like that? Chef is nice, outside of the kitchen, he’s nice but in the kitchen he’s just like every other chef that I’ve worked for. He wants the food to be perfect and I understand that. When I’ve had catering jobs and I’ve had people help me, I’m like, this is how it’s supposed to be, do it how I want it to be done because my name is on it. That’s how it is with him, his name is on that, those are his recipes. Those are his recipes, he wants it done the way that it should be done and that’s fine. Outside of the kitchen, he’s nice. He makes jokes, he laughs. He’s a nice guy. I want to be friends in real life.
Are you going to do any big viewing parties at home or is it going to be something you’re watching with the family every Friday night? Do you have any plans for that?
This Friday coming up I’m going to go to my mom’s house. It’s just going to be my mom and of course my siblings, my children, my niece and my nephew, and just a few of our very, very close friends. I want to see it. I want to sit back and I want to laugh. I want to laugh at the first episode, I want to laugh at myself. I don’t want to, the restaurant I work at, they were thinking of having something, but I don’t want to cook, I want to watch me. It’s just, going to sit down, have a few Hors D’oeurves I am going to make a few Hors D’oeurves. Nothing big, I want to sit and laugh and socialize. That’s all.
So you’ve probably not seen any of the show so far and this will be the first time you’re seeing it. Is there anything you’re worried about seeing yourself on TV and kind of what may have happened?
No, I’m not worried about any of that. I’m just more so excited. I can’t wait to see how I look on TV. I’m worried to see if I look, if my makeup is not right. Other than that, I’m not worried about anything else.