Interview with Chef Michael Wray, first ever ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ winner

Interview with Chef Michael Wray, first ever Hells Kitchen winner

Christian Jones B'23, Contributor

It was my pleasure to meet with the Chef Michael Wray, the first ever ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ winner, for an unforgettable interview in late April. The interview lasted for a duration of approximately 45 minutes and was a low production adventure that I wouldn’t trade for a quarter pounder.

At the last minute, Wray said that a Zoom meeting would not work and a recorded FaceTime would have to suffice; unbeknownst to me a screen recorded FaceTime doesn’t collect an iota of audio. The interview was initially started in my 2002 Honda Civic due to the convenience of the phone stand. The sun was setting because the interview had to be scheduled later in the afternoon, on account of dinner service running long and the call being recorded whilst Wray was closing down shop. The bad lighting from my dome light caused it to look like I was telling a spooky story with a flashlight to my face, so I ended up scratching my idea to use the stand. I simply held my hand out propped against my steering wheel for half the interview. It is worth noting that I shifted the location of the interview to my bedroom because my phone was on the verge of death. Despite how frugal things were on my side, the conversation proved to be vastly inspirational and engaging.

The interview started with discussing Wray’s beginnings in the kitchen and how he found himself in “Hell’s Kitchen.” Wray dropped out of high school due to an awful learning disability. His parents were fine with the idea as long as he got some kind of a job. When Wray started in the kitchen he found that cooking was the thing that clicked and what made him happy so the rest is history. Wray had been trying to get work with Ramsay long before the show, Wray had lived in England for a period of time trying to work with Chef Gordon Ramsay but all attempts were futile. Wray heard about the show’s auditions and also happened to have a friend of a producer that helped the audition process since there was a line for the auditions about a mile long.

Wray’s first challenge on the show was to make a signature dish for Ramsay to judge. Wray had used a recipe from one of Ramsay’s cookbooks and from then on he knew that the way to win was to shut up and take orders. Right off of the bat Wray knew that it would come down to him and contestant Ralph Pagano as the finalist, and Pagano knew it as well.

Wray stressed that the worst punishment faced on the show was the squid gutting. He and his team spent around 8 hours straight gutting squid. The best reward on the show according to Wray was getting the chance to fly over the LA and San Diego area with his fellow comrade Jimmy. During the show there was a peculiar interlude where Wray can be seen speaking with the billboard of Chef Ramsay promising the billboard that he will win; as odd as the verbal self-talk is, Michael has continued to speak with himself before large dinner services, especially during holidays like Valentine’s Day. The cameras did not interfere with Wray’s performance but rather motivated him not to humiliate himself on national television, although, in the final moments of the season Wray says that when turning the door handle the shot was rehearsed for around 45 minutes, taking away all the suspense from the opponents. Although the preparation for the reveal was gratuitous and to a degree fake, the reaction was 100% genuine.

When Wray won “Hell’s Kitchen,” he was offered an opportunity to go with Chef Ramsay to London to work side by side with him. Initially Wray accepted but later rejected the invitation due to family. Wray opened his first restaurant, but after losing his infant daughter, his ongoing struggle with drugs made the perfect storm and the restaurant went under as well as his marriage. Wray became homeless and lived on the streets of LA. Wray ended up in the Mojave desert where he was starved and dehydrated for days. Wray attempted suicide but failed, he was found by a passerby and was taken to the hospital.

He then made it a point to make a change in his life. He found his recovery through food: he taught at a community college and cooked at a number of small restaurants. Through the 9-5, Wray says that he found his flow again. Since then Wray has opened a new restaurant and has lots of new plans. He is working to make a food truck so he can take his food around the country; he promises to take it up here to PNW as well.

We all hear about how COVID-19 is tearing through the food industry, but Wray surprisingly had said that it has brought him inspiration to new ideas such as takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. These adaptations have even led Wray to design a new outdoor kitchen and restaurant where there are plans for live music. He also plans to take his work overseas to places like the Philippines; he says that the other countries treat food spiritually. Wray says that there are a lot of spiritual elements at play in the kitchen. An example that Wray said was that when one accidentally cuts themselves that is in fact a blood sacrifice.

During the interview Wray shed some light on some miscellaneous questions. One that I was fascinated with the most was whether or not a master chef ever eats simple food like a hot pocket. The answer was surprising, Wray just about lives off of cheese and bagels after a long day of cooking and has no desire to come home and cook a New York steak. Wray also says that it is okay to eat the brown part of the banana. Micheal believes that we should value every part of the food we eat, especially to meats as it is a sign of paying homage. His favorite color is black and says that while on “Hell’s Kitchen” he hated that he was forced to wear white.

With the interview closing I asked Wray if he would like to say anything to the youth that this might reach. Wray said that kids should learn to cook. He says that it’s a vital life skill and that even if you choose not to pursue a career as a cook, it can help you at home and turn your girlfriend into your wife.