by Michael Fagan, Staff Writer
Jason Zepaltas takes another anxious sip of his beer when a well-wisher walks up and asks, “Round two, are you ready?”
The well-wisher is joined by a small but vocal crowd at the Driftwood bar to watch the debut episode of the 12th season of ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ Gordon Ramsay’s reality cooking show. Zepaltas, 31, is one of 20 aspiring chefs competing to win a position at one of Ramsay’s restaurants with a $250,000 salary.
Unlike the other contestants, however, Zepaltas is making his second appearance on the show.
Three years ago, Zepaltas was cast on the show’s ninth season. A bout of dehydration forced him to the hospital and off the show, earning him the distinction of the fastest elimination in the show’s history.
It’s a story the bar patrons are clearly familiar with, and they laugh when Ramsay asks Zepaltas on-screen, “Do I recognize you?”
It’s clear why ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ producers would want to bring Zepaltas back. He’s a physical presence – tall and barrel-chested, he sticks out among a crowd, even at the boisterous Driftwood, his regular neighborhood watering hole. His fiery red hair and beard are matched by a loud, gravelly voice, one whose accent betrays his Chicago upbringing.
By the end of the episode, Zepaltas, who was unable to be interviewed formally, is jovial. The anxiety from earlier in the evening has washed away, replaced by slurred thank-you’s and choice comments for cast-mates yelled at the television above the bar.
There’s a good reason for the high spirits: Ramsay eliminates Gaurav Navin to close the show, and Zepaltas lives to see a second episode.
Driftwood is located at 1021 W. Montrose Ave., and ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ airs every Thursday at 7 p.m. central time on FOX and at the bar’s viewing parties.