Taking the Heat in Hell’s Kitchen

Steven Paluba
Although he’s a popular chef in Montauk, Steven Paluba was the first voted off this season’s “Hell’s Kitchen” with Gordon Ramsey, which started on July 18. Janis Hewitt

    Steven Paluba learned how to cook at 14 by watching his mother prepare dinner for the family and was soon adapting her recipes to suit his own tastes. But the one meal he created for Gordon Ramsay, the villain of culinary TV, on the Fox network’s “Hell’s Kitchen” did not meet with Mr. Ramsay’s taste and made the Montauk chef the first contestant to be told to remove his chef’s coat on the show’s July 18 airing.
    “Your time is done,” Mr. Ramsay said after he tasted Mr. Paluba’s signature dish — seared diver scallops over mushroom risotto with a splash of truffle oil and a garnish of caramelized hen-of-the-wood mushrooms.
    A self-proclaimed nice guy, the proprietor of the Atlantic Terrace Cafe in Montauk, said he thinks he may have been the first to go because he didn’t create enough drama, which, he said, the show’s producers encouraged. “I didn’t stab anyone in the back. I was thrown to the dogs.”
    Because of the show’s strict confidentiality agreements, Mr. Paluba has to watch what he says about it. “I signed my life away,” he said of the stacks of legal agreements he added his signature to. But he did say that he believes one male and one female chef on this run of “Hell’s Kitchen” really stand out from the rest.
    He auditioned for the show, which is initially cast by talent agents, four years ago, and made several cuts but not the finals. So he continued to cook —it’s the only job he’s ever had — but a guest at the motel last year urged him not to give up. “ ‘Follow your dream,’ he told me.” He contacted the Manhattan talent agency and they agreed to give him another go at it. “I was the office favorite,” he said.
    “I wasn’t as nervous the second time,” he said. He made all the cuts and passed a background check. He isn’t permitted to share the timeline, but did say that the process started last November and that he filmed in Los Angeles in the spring, and was there for only about a week and a half.
    The 18 contestants live in a dorm-like space above the show’s set, which was made to look like a restaurant, complete with seating. When they are first taken to the kitchen they all scramble for a work station and must equip themselves with the cooking tools they need. “All I needed was a spot with a cutting board,” he said, adding that the kitchen is especially hot. “They turn off the exhaust fans. It was about 140 degrees in there.”
    The Montauk chef had hoped to meet Mr. Ramsay in advance, but was denied the opportunity. In fact, the contestants don’t meet him until the filming begins and they don’t get a chance to fraternize afterward.
    There were cameras on the competing chefs 24 hours a day, Mr. Paluba said. “They hear everything.”
    The contestants received a small stipend to appear on the show and their travel arrangements and accommodations (such as they were) were all paid for. The winning chef receives a $250,000 prize.
    On the first show, the contestants were told to create a signature dish in 45 minutes that would be considered a unique treat to one of the hottest restaurants in L.A. Mr. Paluba said he felt doomed from the start when he realized he was given small diver scallops for his first dish rather than the “monster” sea scallops he had ordered. Mr. Ramsay also screamed at him for being the first to offer to wash a sink full of dirty pots and pans.
    Mr. Paluba’s contract doesn’t allow him to discuss Mr. Ramsay, but he inadvertently made a face when asked about him. “It’s his show but that doesn’t mean he’s always right,” he said.
    Mr. Paluba chose to prepare a scallop dish that received four stars from The New York Times when the paper’s critic reviewed Tellers, an Islip restaurant where he was the sauté chef. “I wasn’t the head chef, but I executed the dish,” he said, adding, “The head chef gets all the credit.”
    For the past four years he has run the cafe at the oceanfront Atlantic Terrace Motel with his wife and four of his five children. It’s a cozy little spot with a big menu and beautiful salads. He makes breakfast and lunch, and offers a lobster bake special, with a minimum order for 10. He’s also a caterer and hopes to focus more on that side of the business someday. He was one of the top three winners for the past two years in the Montauk Chamber of Commerce’s annual chowder contest for both his New England and Manhattan blends.
    Mr. Paluba admitted that he was embarrassed to be the first one kicked off “Hell’s Kitchen,” but, he said, “Hey, nice guys finish last; that’s probably me.” The kids who grabbed stuff off his cafe shelves after it was closed and yelled, “Hey Steve, I’ll pay you tomorrow” would probably agree.