Cooking her way through ‘Hell’

Cooking her way through ‘Hell’
Alexandria native Leigh Orleans competing on the set of Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ airing tonight on FOX. (Courtesy photo)

By Dylan Jaffe |

 No one would voluntarily choose to walk through the gates of Hell, but for this chef, it was a no brainer. 

Personal chef Leigh Orleans, 28, who grew up in the Fairfax County part of Alexandria, was given the opportunity to star in the newest season of “Hell’s Kitchen” – and while some people might be nervous at stepping out of their comfort zone, challenging herself is exactly why Orleans embarked on the adventure in star chef Gordon Ramsay’s Las Vegas kitchen. 

“I’m the kind of person that if an opportunity is going to come, I’m going to at least feel it out. I would rather do something that kind of freaks me out and get to see where it goes.” Orleans said. 

Unlike some of the show’s contestants, Orleans did not always have strong ambitions of becoming a professional chef. She studied business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Durham, N.C., and worked at a bank for over a year upon graduation. Her husband, who she met in college, was stationed in the army in Savannah, Georgia, leading the couple to move. 

As a result, Orleans quit her bank job and looked to continue her career in finance in Savannah. The lack of bank jobs in her new city led Orleans to look elsewhere for a career, which landed her at Savannah Culinary Institute. Halfway through her two-year culinary school education, her professors helped her kick-start her career as a private chef, which is when she was approached by a Hell’s Kitchen casting recruiter on Instagram. 

“I was like, ‘Well, if you’re going to ask, [I] might as well,’” Orleans said. “Then I graduated culinary school, and two weeks later, I flew to Los Angeles.” 

The opportunity came with months of auditioning and tests revolving around emotional and physical capability. According to Orleans, there were “several rounds” of personality and psychological interviews and a medical screening to make sure she was physically capable of performing the required tasks. 

“Hell’s Kitchen,” a reality TV cooking show, premiered on FOX in 2005. It’s known for Ramsay’s fiery explosions of anger toward contestants – which makes for good theater – but also for a potentially damaged psyche. 

There are two teams of chefs, typically based on gender, that compete on “Hell’s Kitchen.” The teams compete for a job as head chef at a restaurant of the show’s choosing by working in the show kitchen with live guests each night. There are elimination rounds and individual challenges as well. 

Though the competition that’s currently being aired took place last year, all participants are strictly sworn to secrecy and Orleans is not allowed to reveal the outcome. 

Much of what Orleans encountered on “Hell’s Kitchen” was new to her. Prior to this adventure, she would work for herself and manage her own time while cooking. During the show, Orleans learned to value the importance of communication and the high stakes of cooking for customers in a restaurant. 

“In a professional kitchen, you have to be able to communicate to the people, you know, in front of you like, ‘I need four more minutes, how long do you need,’ because everything needs to come up at the exact same time and that was a huge learning curve for me,” Orleans said. 

She also said working in a high-stress environment affected her mentally.In many instances, Ramsay doubted her abilities of working ‘on the line,’ or with a team of chefs, and running a kitchen. 

She turned to relaxation tactics such as meditation and yoga flow to mentally prepare to be “thrown off” – as many challenges in the show purposefully challenged the contestants to see how they react under intense pressure. 

Orleans’ realist mindset also helped her get through the challenges. She kept reminding herself the set of the show is not the real world and this was not her actual job. The only stakes were that she might not win. 

“I knew that this was going to be as much of a mental competition as it was a culinary test,” Orleans said. 

Orlean’s mother, Bonnie Orleans, expressed pride in her daughter for following her passion in culinary arts and is excited to tune in each week to watch how Leigh performs on the show. 

“It was good seeing her on television and I’m very proud of her,” Bonnie said. “I had several of my friends over and we had a little Hell’s Kitchen watch party. I think they’re all hooked on the show now and we’re all rooting for Leigh – wearing our red team colors.” 

Following her time on the show, Orleans came home with new friends who share the same passion as her. She has hired multiple former castmates to be sous chefs for her private culinary company where she travels to cook for corporate retreats or dinner and club events. 

Now, working toward her master’s degree in wine and beverage management, Orleans has been able to focus on her entrepreneurial ventures in a new way with more skills from the immersive experience. Orleans said being on “Hell’s Kitchen” not only has made her a better chef, but has taught her valuable life lessons. 

Orleans encourages others to try new things and not let your mind get in the way of what you can accomplish. 

“You really don’t have that much to lose by … trying something new,” Orleans said. “The worst case is that it doesn’t go well and you just try something else. But I think that experience reminded me that I can do whatever I put my mind to and I shouldn’t ever be afraid of taking risks.” 

Orleans said the experience of going through “Hell” has boosted her self esteem. 

“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done by such a longshot that every other challenge I have faced since then seems very manageable,” Orleans said. 

For information about the new Hell’s Kitchen season, what she has learned and what dishes she’s currently making, see Orleans’ Instagram account @_chefleigh. 

New episodes of Hell’s Kitchen can be found on FOX Thursday nights.