Hell's Kitchen Winning Ryan Tells Ticker What's Next
Feb. 3, 2017
A secret Traverse City chef Kim Ryan has kept under wraps for more than two years was revealed before a national audience Thursday night: The 31-year-old is the grand prize winner of the sixteenth season of Hell’s Kitchen.
Traverse City family and friends packed downtown bar The Parlor Thursday to join Ryan in watching the season finale of Fox’s hit reality cooking competition. Over the course of 16 episodes, the show pitted Ryan against 17 other contestants in a grueling series of challenges judged by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. “It’s been a long time waiting for this moment,” Ryan told The Ticker shortly before the viewing party began. “The taping ended in December 2014. We couldn’t tell anyone what happened on the show, so I basically put my life on hold for two years.”
But for Ryan, the wait was worth it. In a head-to-head finale battle against co-finalist Heather Williams of Pennsylvania, Ryan served up a series of dishes – many of them showcasing northern Michigan ingredients – that impressed audience members and Ramsay. In the season’s climatic moment, Ryan and Williams stood behind transparent doors awaiting Ramsay’s decision. Family members flown out for the finale were in the audience; so were several celebrity guests. After a dramatic pause, Ryan’s door opened before the crowd, revealing her as the season’s winning chef.
“When I was standing behind that door, my hands were shaking,” Ryan says of the finale taping. “I was thinking, ‘Maybe if the the door doesn’t open, I can go home and be done with this.’ But it was also a life-changing opportunity. I worked harder on this than I’ve ever worked on anything...I wanted to win. After the door opened, all I can remember is running down and hugging Sophie (Ryan’s daughter) and my mom.”
Ryan’s win earned her a $250,000 cash prize and a head chef position at acclaimed restaurant Yardbird Southern Table & Bar at The Venetian in Las Vegas. Though contestants are not technically obligated to accept the one-year restaurant contracts, Ryan plans to take the gig and is already making arrangements to move to Las Vegas.
“I have to get things in order, find a good place to live out there and arrange child care,” she says. “I couldn’t even start looking for someone to lease my house until now, because someone on the Internet might find (the ad) and figure out I won. But I take this opportunity very seriously…I think that’s why I did well on the show. Some people were there to be a character or get screen time, but I was focused on winning this job.”
The move to Las Vegas will be Ryan’s first time living outside of Michigan. Having children as a young chef meant focusing on family instead of traveling or taking cooking stints around the country as many up-and-coming chefs do, she says. “This is my chance to get out there and learn more, to work at The Yardbird and also stage (work in a brief unpaid internship) at different restaurants and hopefully soak up as much as I can out there."
Ryan credits her Michigan training and background with helping her win Hell’s Kitchen. A graduate of Michigan State University’s hospitality program and the Culinary Institute of Michigan, Ryan trained in Traverse City under The Cooks’ House chefs Eric Patterson and Jen Blakeslee, whom she describes as mentors. Ryan has also worked for Black Star Farms and The Filling Station Microbrewery and most recently cooked in the kitchen alongside friend and head chef James Bloomfield at Alliance. In the Hell’s Kitchen season finale, she created her winning dishes specifically with Traverse City in mind.
“I asked (the producers) to get morel mushrooms, which they had never heard of before – they had to outsource them,” she says. “I did a cherry sauce with the dessert. I did bone marrow mashed potatoes, which was (a tribute to) The Cooks’ House. I really wanted to represent Traverse City and where I’m from.”
The role of local ambassador is one Ryan hopes to continue pursuing. Once Hell’s Kitchen began airing in September, the chef began participating in local pop-up kitchens and one-off specialty dinners with other contestants. “People were giving me a hard time on the show, because they said: ‘Oh Michigan, what is there, one restaurant there?’” she laughs. “I said, ‘You guys have no idea.’ So when we did these events…I took everyone out to our restaurants and breweries and wineries. And everybody loved it. I want to do everything I can to promote our town.”
For Ryan, that means eventually returning to northern Michigan once she’s fulfilled her prize contract and explored new opportunities out west. “I’m always going to be back here,” she says. “Hopefully I can learn something and bring it back to Traverse City.”