UPTOWN — For Jason Zepaltas, competing in season 12 of the Fox reality show "Hell's Kitchen" — and again facing the notorious wrath of acclaimed chef Gordon Ramsay after he dropped out of season nine — was about redemption.
Zepaltas was one of 20 chefs on "Hell's Kitchen" competing for a $250,000-a-year head chef position at one of Ramsay's restaurants. The chefs are divided into male and female teams.
Zepaltas, who lives in Ravenswood and has ties to Uptown and Edgewater, said he wanted to prove that he could really cook three years after a bout of dehydration landed him in a hospital and forced him to leave season nine of the show — on the contest's first day.
"It was a huge chance to redeem myself," said the 32-year-old, who was raised in northwest suburban Lake Zurich.
Zepaltas wouldn't say how far he gets in this season's contest, or if he is eliminated during Thursday's episode, the third of the season. He did dish on his Uptown connections, his "Hell's Kitchen" competition, Ramsay's "little soft spot" and more.
Zepaltas, a tall, burly man with fiery red hair, worked as a mechanic and carpenter before graduating in 2011 from culinary school at Kendall College.
He lived in Uptown in 2007, moved to Edgewater in 2008 and just moved to Ravenswood with his fiancée last week. Zapaltas, a meat lover with an affinity for Charcuterie, said he worked at Uptown's gourmet-to-go restaurant Real Kitchen, 1433 W. Montrose Ave., in the winter of 2012, and is a regular at the Driftwood Inn, an Uptown bar at 1021 W. Montrose Ave.
The acerbic Ramsay, the big name carrying "Hell's Kitchen," is famous for his culinary prowess — and for blowing up on chefs who fall short of his expectations and dismissing them with a terse "f--- off!"
Ramsay is as intense when the cameras stop as he is during filming, Zepaltas said, adding that "it's for a good reason."
"It is what you see and it's real. But he also does have a little soft spot where he does want everybody to succeed at the end of the day," Zepaltas said.
"Hell's Kitchen" is known for its clashes between chefs that have left some contestants screaming in rage and others in tears.
The first episode of the current season aired two weeks ago and showed a plethora of culinary fails by both male and female chefs. There were communication (and mental?) breakdowns in the kitchen, and nobody appeared able to make risotto or scallops that weren't overcooked — or as Ramsay put it, "rubber."
Ramsay ultimately booted chef Guarav Navin from the show after catching him taste test a pan of risotto with his finger.
Chef Nicole Rut, responsible for some of episode one's scallop mishaps, was ousted in episode two for what Ramsay called her lack of passion and cooking ability.
Zepaltas said a lot of the mistakes in the premier happened because the chefs "were under the pressure of the cameras."
"I don't know why they were so stupid," he said of some of his competitors. "It's just the way some of these peeps are, they can't hack it. And you'll see some of them slowly get kicked off."
Zepaltas doesn't escape Ramsay's fury: A bland risotto in episode two earns him a rebuke from the celebrity chef, although he eventually gets his act together and evades elimination.
"I would love to say I was perfect, but that'd be a complete lie," he said. "Everyone has their moment when Ramsey rips 'em a new one."
Zepaltas said he's made mistakes "but not nearly as often as these other dumb ass kids."
"Some of these people had no idea what they were doing, and I just had to laugh at 'em," Zepaltas said.
Fans of the show might be able to catch some of Zepaltas' commentary live and in person in Uptown. He said he plans on being at Driftwood Thursday nights while the show is airing for weekly "viewing parties." He likes the bar, he said, because it's dog-friendly, meaning he can bring his pooch Ralphie, a shar-pei Labrador mix.
"If anybody ever wants to come in" on Thursday, he said, "we'll be there having fun."