Brendan Pelley on the ‘Bizarre’ Stage That Is Hell’s Kitchen

The Zebra's Bistro chef talks his favorite current culinary trends, small-town fame, and what Gordon Ramsay is really like off-camera.

brendan pelley

Photo via Zebra’s Bistro

On March 3, Hell’s Kitchen debuted its 14th season with a cast heavy [four out of the 18, to be exact] on New England natives. One of those chefs is 34-year-old Brendan Pelley, currently the executive chef at Zebra’s Bistro and Wine Bar out in Medfield. Unlike most of the bumbling contestants who often find themselves in the crosshairs of its irritable host, Gordon Ramsay, Pelley seems like a ringer. An alum of Clio, Tryst (Beverly), and The Franklin Cafe in Cape Ann, Pelley has honed his skills in great kitchens, under renowned tutors.

I’d always assumed that the chefs who entered Ramsay’s highly publicized trial-by-fire were gluttons for humiliation. So with his type of pedigree, did Pelley just get spun around and wander onto the wrong set? If that seems overly cynical, Pelley himself admits that he had the same low opinion of the show’s annual crop of amateurs. Here, the Bedford native talks his true motivation for auditioning for Fox’s most successful cooking competition, his experience with Ramsay, and the “bizarre” time he’s had as a Hell’s Kitchen contestant.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background? It seems like you have a pretty stacked résumé

I learned the old-fashioned way, on the job. I started working in restaurants when I was 15 as a busboy. As a teenager, I found the chefs to be pretty frightening back then. Afterward, I worked as a waiter at Friendly’s and a couple of pizza shops. For college I went to UMass Lowell for fine arts and at the same time got my first job in a fine dining restaurant. I was watching a lot of Iron Chef and read Kitchen Confidential and thought being a chef was probably the coolest thing ever. So, I went that route. I just dove into the restaurant culture and started to get jobs at better and better restaurants.

You never attended culinary school?

I went for one semester, but by that point I’d already gotten my first sous chef job at Tryst in Beverly. It was a really awesome restaurant, kind of a hole-in-the-wall. But everyone who came out of there had done really great things. But anyway, I decided to try culinary school because I thought I was missing out on something. It turns out I wasn’t. I’d already learned so much on the job.

Where did you end up after Tryst?

I did a really brief stint at Clio. Everyone always mentions Clio with me, but I don’t really associate that as restaurant that I worked at because I wasn’t there for very long. Essentially, it sucked trying to park in the Back Bay, but I learned a ton in the one month that I was there. After that, I started to work in the ‘burbs, closer to where I was living. My first head chef job was the The Franklin Cape Ann.

What kind of food do you like to cook? Is there any one type of cuisine you gravitate to?

Throughout my career I’ve been all over the place, but as I get older it’s been more about simplicity. Simple is my thing right now. In the mid-2000s I was all about the molecular gastronomy stuff, and then I was all about Asian food, but now I’m just about finding the best ingredients, preparing it simply, and making it really delicious. It’s more accessible. Like lately, I’ve really enjoyed making Greek food. My wife and I are actually planning a trip there in September, which I’m really excited about. Greek food is all about elevating flavors, not masking them.

Do you think you’ll continue to explore other cultures and flavors or have you settled into a comfortable niche?

No, it’s always changing. If you stop evolving, you’re screwed. People will stop coming to your restaurant.

Did Hell’s Kitchen make you choose your “signature dish”? Was it difficult to distill your abilities down to just one item?

They do. The first challenge, you’re basically taken from a plane, put into a bus with all these people you don’t know, and thrown into the Hell’s Kitchen set with a live audience. There’s no primer. My signature dish is really a pan-roasted chicken, which we do at Zebra’s. It’s chicken, but it’s super involved, and there’s a lot of technique to it. It speaks to who I am as a cook. But the problem with that dish is that it would have taken too long since we were only given 35 minutes. So, I chose a dish that was seasonal and had tons of umami, acid, different textures, and was easy to pull off in a short amount of time.

You made a tempura soft shell crab with ginger garlic sauce and yuzu aioli. Is that something you’ve prepared before? Can people expect to see that at Zebra’s?

Yeah, come soft shell crab season you can expect to find some version of that. I usually tweak things here and there. Like two years ago it had a bunch of Japanese flavors, then last year it was more of a Moroccan dish.

On your video bio for the show, you say that you’ve always wanted to be on Hell’s Kitchen. At this point, there’s a lot of cooking competitions on television. What was it about Hell’s Kitchen that made you want to audition for it, instead of say, Top Chef?

I thought I could win! There’s some really good cooks on Top Chef and it seems like everyone who goes on Hell’s Kitchen pretty much sucks. I thought my chances were better on Hell’s Kitchen.

You also mention that you’ve always wanted to work with Gordon Ramsay? Can I ask why? Like most people, he scares the hell out of me.

I was less a fan of Hell’s Kitchen and more a fan of his original BBC programming, where it’s more about the food and cooking and less about him yelling at people. I just find him to be a really interesting character. I mean, who doesn’t want to have a restaurant empire and be world famous.

I know it’s early, but do you feel like you’re learning anything from the show?

Yeah, he’s a great teacher. And when Gordon Ramsay isn’t there, there are two super accomplished sous chefs, chef James [Avery] and chef Andi [Van Willigan], and their resumes are just crazy. So you’re surrounded by awesome chefs day-in and day-out.

After having met your fellow contestants, did your opinion change about your chances on the show or did you remain as confident as had been going in?

I’m still confident. But I was actually surprised by the level of cooks who were there. I seriously thought I was going to be the only competent cook, but there’s a lot of good talent with really solid experience in high-volume New York City restaurants and fine dining places in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. So yeah, I was surprised.

Stephen Marche just wrote an article for the latest issue of Esquire where he talks about Hell’s Kitchen and Gordon Ramsay’s place in the current celebrity chef landscape. He says that Ramsay’s “megalomaniac anger,” is something that dates him and makes him a “fading relic.” Do you feel like there’s some merit to his assessment? 

I will say that the culinary industry has evolved and moved forward and that’s not the standard in kitchens anymore. Hell’s Kitchen is not a real kitchen. It’s a television show and Chef Ramsay is playing…I don’t want to say he’s playing a part. It’s real while you’re there, but that’s not how it is in most restaurants now.

Do you think his television persona is how he acts in his actual restaurants?

I would imagine that he’s not that way. A real live kitchen is something totally different.

How would you describe your experience on the show?

The word I always use is “weird.” It’s completely weird. I hadn’t been to California until I was flown out there for interviews. Just being chauffeured and taken around was this totally different world. My entire life has been the culinary industry and restaurants, so being thrown into the production of this huge show, with tons of people working on it, it was totally bizarre. Hell’s Kitchen is less about cooking and more about surviving being locked up with 17 other contestants 24 hours a day. You’re paired up with these people and half the time you just want to choke them. Tensions run high, you don’t sleep much, you’re constantly under surveillance. And in the kitchen it’s not like a normal dinner service. It’s 150 covers all at once. You’re just crushed! It’s like being in the weeds, times 10, and you’re on camera. In the real world, you don’t let any mistakes leave the kitchen, but there the world knows when you make a mistake.

Having grown up watching Iron Chef, would you say that your newfound reality show experience has been a dream come true, or is it just surreal? 

It’s surreal. I was watching TV with my wife last night and we were going to choose a show on on-demand and I popped up in the corner for Hell’s Kitchen. I was like, “What the fuck?” It’s really, really weird. Still, I’m glad I did it.

Are you getting recognized more now that the show is on every week? 

Well, Medfield is a small town. Zebra’s is pretty much the most happening spot in town. Next door is a Starbuck’s, so when I go over there for coffee, all bets are off. I’m famous there. It’s cute.