Since 2005, contestants on Hell’s Kitchen have competed for fame, glory, and the validation of the series’ notoriously critical host, chef Gordon Ramsay. But is signing up really worth the risk of being publicly humiliated on national television? After 19 seasons, it’s clear that viewers tune into the Fox reality competition for Ramsay’s tirades more than they do for the food.
The objective is to survive the season with poise and undeniable skill. But here’s the rub: many Hell’s Kitchen winners who’ve endured Ramsay’s brutal behavior have found that there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Multiple victors have been denied the grand prize that is advertised on the show, either due to minor technicalities or blatant bait-and-switch tactics.
Find out which Hell’s Kitchen winners didn’t exactly celebrate their success on the series. If anything, it looks like Ramsay still managed to devastate them in the end.
What Do The Winners Of Hell’s Kitchen Receive?
The premise of Hell’s Kitchen is simple. Contestants, who are split into two teams, must compete in various cooking challenges and survive nightly service at a mock restaurant led by Ramsay. After weekly eliminations, the last person standing is promised two prizes: a $250,000 salary and an Executive Chef position at a highly-regarded restaurant.
Unfortunately, the grand prize has often turned out to be a carrot on a stick. Hell’s Kitchen has a terrible track record of denying winners what was promised to them. Its bad rap started as early as Season 1, when the winner was offered an alternative award that was not at all on par with running a restaurant (more on that below). Learn about the series’ questionable history and how the fine print has managed to doom its former contestants.
Season 1 – Michael Wray
Talk about a twist ending. In 2005, Colorado native Michael Wray defeated fellow finalist Ralph Pagano to become the first winner of Hell’s Kitchen. During this season, the prize was a bit more unique. The $250,000 prize money was supposed to be going towards the funding of a new restaurant to the winner.
“I think that I really earned the right to be the head chef that I know that I am… that’s for sure,” Wray said of his win. But just as he began taking a victory lap with friends, family, and cast mates, Ramsay burst his bubble.
“As Michael was celebrating the win of a restaurant, I realized an individual of Michael’s talent… I didn’t want to let him get away,” Ramsay said in a voice-over.
The celebrity chef put Wray on the spot in front of the Hell’s Kitchen film crew. In place of offering a restaurant or an executive chef title, he asked Wray to move to London and work for one of Ramsay’s famed restaurants. Watch the high-pressure moment in this clip at the 1:17:25 minute mark:
It was an opportunity that many novice cooks would jump at, but it wasn’t at all equivalent to the reward that was promised. Wray said yes on camera, then changed his mind after the show wrapped.
However, it wasn’t out of spite. In a May 2020 interview with the BBC, Wray revealed that he had prioritized an opioid addiction over career growth.
“It was already taking half my mental energy just to keep my addiction in check just so I could work and live a normal life,” said Wray . “[Gordon] probably got a little miffed that I didn’t go… He’s offering this young chef to move to London to mentor, to show how this is all done, and I had to turn him down.”
Wray remained in the States and became the Executive Chef of the now-shuttered L.A. restaurant, Tatou. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. Within weeks of opening, his first daughter died during childbirth.
“It put me in a tail-spin for the next couple years,” he said. “It was all starting to crumble around me.”
Wray’s marriage fell apart and he began living out of his truck. By day, he taught culinary classes at the cookware store Sur La Table; by night, he was doing drugs in an underpass.
Wray eventually entered rehab; since becoming clean, he remarried and returned to cooking. He occasionally keeps fans updated on his life via Instagram. However, the producers of Hell’s Kitchen seem to have cut all ties with him. He told the BBC that multiple attempts to reach out to them were met with silence.
“I think that because the way my life went right after Hell’s Kitchen, I think they’re more interested in having success stories,” he said.
Season 2 – Heather West
Throughout the entire second season of Hell’s Kitchen, the series’ intro informed viewers that the ultimate prize was “the coveted title of Executive Chef of a luxurious fine-dining restaurant at the brand-new Red Rock Casino Resort Spa in Las Vegas.” So imagine Heather West’s surprise when she was crowned the champion and told she’d be “senior chef” at one of the property’s eateries.
West wound up working under another food and beverage staffer at the resort. She was also placed at an existing restaurant, Terra Rosa. This means she didn’t have a financial stake or any say in the design (two bonuses that were alluded to on the series.)
The Culinary Institute of America graduate left the gig after one year. She spent the next few years bouncing around the country, then returned to her hometown of Port Jefferson, New York. Today, the mom of two describes herself as someone who “was on that show with that guy a very long time ago”.
She doesn’t have any regrets about participating in the series, even if producers didn’t make good on their original offer.
“Honestly, they’re really not going to completely trust someone they saw on TV with a multi-million dollar restaurant,” she told the New York Post in 2009. “But I did work at all the restaurants in the resort, learned a huge amount, and a lot about promotion and marketing.”
Season 4 – Christina Machamer
Another winner, or another sucker? Hell’s Kitchen had already established itself as a show that reneges on its prizes, but that didn’t stop Christina Machamer from signing up—and winning—Season 4.
Machamer was promised “the most important prize in the history of Hell’s Kitchen: an Executive Chef position worth a quarter of a million dollars.” Instead, she was given the title of Executive Sous Chef at Ramsay’s newest restaurant in West Hollywood. (For those unfamiliar with the hierarchy of a professional restaurant kitchen, this meant a significant downgrade in status and influence.)
When Entertainment Weekly asked what her job would entail, she replied, “Not sure yet. I doubt I’ll know until I get there.” She couldn’t even tell the publication her start date, because she hadn’t been told yet.
Machamer was undeterred by the change of plans. She spent ten months working for Ramsay before she relocated to Napa Valley and became a certified sommelier. Today, she works as a private chef, catering to tourists who visit the popular wine region.
Season 5 – Danny Veltri
Given that Danny Veltri was only 23 when he entered Hell’s Kitchen, few people expected that someone so young could walk out as a winner. Alas, he beat out Paula DaSilva in the final episode and prepared for a bright future ahead. The prize for Season 5 was the same as previous seasons: a $250,000 salary and an Executive Chef role—this time at Fornelletto, an Italian restaurant inside the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
“It’s just the most amazing experience I’ve ever been through,” Veltri said through tears of joy. “I love my mom so much and it’s just so sad that she had to go before her time, but I know that she’s looking down crying with me saying, ‘That’s my boy man, I knew he was going to make something of himself.'”
“Danny won Hell’s Kitchen because in a very short period of time he grew more than any other chef I’ve ever seen,” added Ramsay. “He now has the talent, the maturity, to become a great head chef. Borgata Resort should consider themselves lucky. I know I would.” Watch the emotional finale below (skip to 33:55 of the video for the start of the finale):
You can probably guess what else it had in common with previous seasons. Upon arrival at the New Jersey casino, Veltri was informed that he would be serving as a glorified sous chef. He then packed his bags after a couple of months and returned to his home state of Florida.
“I came back to Florida for no other reason than I love it here,” he told the Orlando Sentinel. “I love the weather and the beaches and the lifestyle. It’s part of who I am.”
Veltri has since hopped between jobs. He opened the catering company Back from Hell, but it was short-lived. And in 2011, he was the general manager at Gnarly Surf Bar & Grill near Daytona Beach. His last known gig was at the now-defunct Vince Carter’s Restaurant.
He also made headlines for an unfortunate run-in with the law. TMZ reported in 2012 that Veltri was arrested for DUI. His blood-alcohol level registered at .12—well over the limit of .08.
Season 6 – Dave Levey
When Dave Levey won the sixth season of Hell’s Kitchen, the odds were stacked against him. Almost immediately after he was awarded the prize of “Head Chef” at Araxi Restaurant in Whistler, British Columbia, Araxi’s Executive Chef made clear that he would remain in charge.
“You know, Gordon might have seen something different than what I would,” chef James Walt told the Vancouver Sun. “[Levey] is going to have to work hard, that’s for sure, when he joins us. I have high expectations. Obviously, he won, but now he has to produce because we’re banking on this person being here during a busy time.”
Levey, who essentially worked as a glorified line cook, resigned a few weeks into the job.
Season 7 – Holli Ugalde
Holli Ugalde was promised a six-figure award and a chef role at Ramsay’s London restaurant, Savoy Grill, for her performance on Hell’s Kitchen Season 7. But half of her prize was taken off the table before she could even cash in. Unfortunately, her visa paperwork submission was unsuccessful.
“Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to obtain a work visa for Holli,” said ITV Studios America, which was responsible for the visa application. “In accordance with the terms of her contract with ITV, Holli has been paid the cash prize instead.”
“Winning Hell’s Kitchen was a great experience but I cannot go to London,” Ugalde said in a statement. “I have been so fortunate in all the opportunities that have come up since winning Hell’s Kitchen and I am excited about my future career as a chef.”
On the bright side, she saved herself the trouble of relocating and immediately being demoted. So while this wasn’t exactly the fault of Hell’s Kitchen, it still qualifies as a contestant not getting the full prize.
Season 9 – Paul Niedermann
It took a while, but people finally caught on to the fishy behavior of Hell’s Kitchen’s producers. In July 2011, multiple outlets reported that the prize for the ninth season was basically an imaginary title.
Ramsay promised that the winner would be “Head Chef” at BLT Steak, an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan. But once again, the job seemed to be a fancier term for “line cook.” “[He or she] will be the chef de cuisine under Cliff [Crooks],” Jimmy Haber, a partner at BLT Steak, explained to the New York Post. However, Haber was unable to define the duties of the role; he also said the existing sous chef would remain in place.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Niedermann worked for ESquared Hospitality (then-owners of the BLT brand) between 2011 and 2015. We imagine he’s much happier in his current job as Corporate Executive Chef of the Florida hotspot Salt7.
Season 11 – Ja’Nel Witt
When Hell’s Kitchen Season 11 winner Ja’Nel Witt declined her prize as the executive chef of Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars Palace, the move raised some eyebrows. According to the Houston Chronicle, Witt’s “unforeseen personal circumstances” kept her from claiming the job. In its place, she landed at Houston’s Corner Table restaurant (which has since closed).
But a 2013 report from TMZ revealed that Witt was denied the role because she tested positive for cocaine. Ramsay’s restaurant is owned and operated by Caesar’s Palace, as all job applicants must submit to a drug screen according to their regulations. Luckily, she was able to accept the $250,000 cash prize without the added pressure of having Ramsay occasionally stop by the kitchen to berate her.