Whether on the field in her former days as a high school athlete or in the kitchen on Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” chef Christina Wilson is a self-proclaimed natural competitor.
Wilson is a Temple alumna and South Philadelphia resident. As of last night’s episode, she is one of three finalists competing for a head chef position at Ramsay’s restaurant, Gordon Ramsay Steak, in Las Vegas.
The former Owl attributes her edge to time spent in high school in Phillipsburg, N.J.
“You work and you play sports, and that’s basically all you do. I think it really encouraged and nurtured the natural competitiveness I have inside of me,” Wilson said. “There are so many rivalries, it’s just how that town is. You have to be the best at everything you’re doing.”
The transition from hometown athlete to urban chef wasn’t immediate, nor extensively preconceived. Wilson, who originally attended Westchester University on a basketball scholarship, worked at a country club and an American continental restaurant in Conshohocken, Pa., to help pay for college.
“It wasn’t until I was taking classes at Temple. I bartended and I worked in kitchens to pay for school, and I loved it,” Wilson said. “I really just fell in love with the kitchen.”
Working at places with such extensive menus allowed Wilson to get her “hands in a lot of different things,” an experience that proved valuable by her landing a position at the popular Lolita on South 13th Street.
South 13th Street, between Chestnut and Sansom streets, was an avoided area of the city until Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney opened a handful of restaurants and boutiques on the block. Although a decent portion of the block’s reconstruction had been completed when Wilson joined staff at Lolita, she recalls witnessing the development of fellow popular restaurant Barbuzzo.
“It was really fun to see [Turney] and [Safran] research for Barbuzzo and go to Italy and Spain, and go to Lancaster and look for driftwood for the tables,” Wilson said.
Although Wilson has had a large hand in the Philadelphia food scene, her loyalty lies in New York.
“I think that, maybe in just the way the cities were settled, there’s a much purer influence on ethnic food specifically in New York than there is in Philadelphia,” Wilson said. “New York is so big. There are so many more options. To me, Philly’s great in that you have your 25 solid, strong restaurants with really strong chefs behind them and changing menus and that kind of innovative approach to cooking and how it’s evolving. In New York, I feel like that happens in restaurants every day.”
Working at one of those influential Philadelphia restaurants gave Wilson the experience and confidence she needed to compete with the country’s best young up-and-coming chefs for a position at Ramsay’s restaurant.
“Coming off of working at a Top 50 restaurant that was busy every night, I actually felt ready,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who is admittedly more of a fan of Ramsay’s other shows “The F Word” and “Kitchen Nightmares” than “Hell’s Kitchen,” experienced the often overlooked difficulty of reality television – keeping her new gig a secret from many friends and family.
“It’s very weird, because you can’t tell everybody right away,” Wilson said. “That was a really difficult process – trying to decide. You have to look at your family and close friends and really put them under a microscope, and really try to decide who you can truly trust and who you can’t. It’s harder than I think most people realize.”
Although Ramsay is seemingly portrayed as a near villain on television, particularly on “Hell’s Kitchen,” Wilson speaks of him with nothing but admiration and respect.
“He is wonderful. He has really high standards in an intense kitchen,” Wilson said. “He is really funny and charming and encouraging and just kind of like your cool uncle that you don’t get enough time with.”
The atmosphere of “Hell’s Kitchen” was trying, but not without its benefits for Wilson.
“I learned more in those six weeks of filming than I did in the previous five, six, seven years of cooking,” Wilson said. “He sets us up for success. He gets mad when we do bonehead things and don’t execute.”
Ramsay’s high standards weren’t the only factors that made “Hell’s Kitchen” utilize her tough mentality.
“There are cameras literally everywhere,” Wilson said. “You’re kind of forced to deal with it right away. And it’s hard, because you don’t get private time to relieve. And chefs — we’re crazy. We’re nuts. After work, you need to be able to get on the treadmill or go have a beer with your friends, or whatever it is that is your release. It has to happen. And you don’t get that. You can’t grab a minute of privacy, there’s always somebody watching you. And you get used to it. It’s like the military or any other kind of camp — either you adapt or you go home. So, I got used to it.”
In addition to privacy, Wilson also missed what she considers a very important element to a pleasant kitchen — music.
“I love music and I love it in the kitchen,” Wilson said. “I think it gives a different energy and keeps you happy and excited and it kind of sets this really great pace, and you put more love in the food.”
Wilson’s taste in music is as eclectic as her cooking experience. She loves Drake, Nicki Minaj, Ray Lamontagne, Coldplay, Rihanna and Otis Redding – just to name a few. When it’s suggested that she should consider putting out a cooking playlist, Wilson’s voice beamed with excitement as she proclaimed that she has truly considered it.
In addition to a potential cooking soundtrack and hopes of owning a seasonal restaurant on the Jersey Shore, Wilson has a career goal that would please the palates of all Temple students — she hopes to one day own a food truck on Temple’s Main Campus.
“Honestly, when I made the decision [that I was] going to pursue this career, the first thing I ever wanted was a food truck on Temple’s campus,” Wilson said. “After all the years of going there, there was never really anything healthy to eat, and it would drive me nuts. I wanted to have a nice smoothie truck, with vegetarian options and things that people should be eating when they are trying to be in an environment when they need to be active and open and ready.”
Jenelle Janci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.