Merlene Davis: Harrodsburg chef takes on 'Hell's Kitchen'

Natalie Blake of Harrodsburg competes in season nine of Hell's Kitchen on Fox TV.
Natalie Blake of Harrodsburg competes in season nine of Hell's Kitchen on Fox TV.

Natalie Blake of Harrodsburg is a lot braver than I am.

Blake, 23, is a member of the newest group of contestants to endure the cursing, humiliation and blistering criticisms spewing from Chef Gordon Ramsay on his wildly popular Fox TV program Hell's Kitchen.

A sous chef at Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Blake will join 17 other cooks on Hell's Kitchen, scheduled to premiere at 8 p.m. Monday. She is the youngest contestant on the show.

Blake has successfully faced many challenges in her life, so a reality show should be a breeze. Or so she thought.

"I had watched Hell's Kitchen before, and I would say, 'How could they mess that up?' They messed up things you cook every day," she said. "But being on the show was different than anything I had ever experienced."

And that comes from a woman who has survived the U.S. Navy Reserve boot camp. Even that did not prepare her for the drama of a television reality show.

"The combination of physical and mental pressure of Hell's Kitchen was tougher for me than the Navy was," Blake said. "You couldn't talk with your family for six weeks, so there was no support system. You are living with people you don't like. It was just a combination of things that was tougher for me."

The selection process for the show began last fall, when Blake attended the first of a series of auditions, including one in California that included 60 people vying for one of the spots.

"After the last audition, they called in April and said I had been selected," Blake said.

Cooking is not her only talent. In 2008, she won the title of Miss East Kentucky and competed in the Miss Kentucky pageant, with singing as her talent.

A graduate of Mercer County High School, Blake attended the University of Kentucky, where she studied psychology in the pre-med program, hoping to become a psychiatrist.

Her love of cooking grew when she was living in her own apartment and cooking for herself.

"I was like halfway through, a junior, when one day I decided I really hated what I was doing," she said. "I really wanted to cook."

She enrolled in the culinary arts school at Sullivan University and she later became a sous chef, or the second in command of the kitchen, before she graduated this spring.

Chef William Hallman, an associate professor of culinary arts at Sullivan, said restaurant kitchens are pressure cookers in which teamwork is a must in order to produce a product. Blake has that toughness and the talent to succeed under that stress, he said. But occasionally, he had to push her to live up to her potential.

"There were days when I would see flashes of brilliance and days when she was not giving it 100 percent," Hallman said. "I told her once that she was one of the two best students I had in a class but she was not proving it to me."

Hell's Kitchen provides a glimpse of the inner working of a kitchen, he said. It is a team balancing act, complete with unlikable characters.

Still, "I'm anxious to see the show," Hallman said. "She has the chutzpah to be in the kitchen, and she's the kind of person who can take some criticism and stand up to Chef Ramsay."

Part of that ability might have stemmed from an early life in which her mother abused drugs. "I was always such a happy kid," she said. "I never let anything affect me."

Blake didn't want to be one of those children who act up because of a negative home life, she said.

"I have a wonderful grandmother who helped me along the way," Blake said. And she's not afraid of challenges.

May Blake, her grandmother, said she raised Blake primarily from the age of two. "It was a shock to me," she said of her granddaughter's appearance on the show. "I am so proud of her."

Her specialty is lamb chops, and she will prepare lamb rib chops with vanilla-scented parsnip purée and red wine jelly mint sauce in a locally filmed food demonstration that will air with Monday's show, she said.

"In the demonstration, I use local lamb and local jelly," she said, adding that some of her recipes are on the menu for Beaumont Inn.

Despite her skills, we might not see her on another reality show, Blake said.

"I don't think I'm made for reality TV," she said. "I'm not made for the drama."