By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 08, 2021 at 9:36 AM

A Milwaukee chef is finding out if he can stand the heat from the world's most famously intense kitchen. Adam Pawlak – owner of Egg & Flour pasta bar has taken on 17 other cooks (and infamously irritable celeb chef Gordon Ramsay) on the latest season of FOX's "Hell's Kitchen."

Airing Thursday nights at 7 p.m., the long-time reality competition pits chefs from across the country (and the globe, in this season's case) for a chance to win the head position at Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen restaurant in Lake Tahoe, complete with a salary of $250,000. Along the way, dishes and egos are broken, some contestants burn their food while Ramsay burns contestants and one chef ends up reigning supreme – and hopefully, this season, that chef ends up being Pawlak. 

So will Pawlak serve up four-star food – or at the very least four-star entertainment? Watch dining editor Lori Fredrich and me recap of the season premiere – complete with wine, natch – and be sure to join us every Thursday night at 8:10 p.m. to talk about the show and discuss if our Milwaukee chef is having a heavenly time during his stint in "Hell's Kitchen."

How'd Adam do?

Some people get on reality show competitions and just take up space. They don't make an impact. They don't cause drama or say anything funny or compete particularly well. They're just ... there, unseasoned and un-sauced pasta just sitting on the plate, taking up room. 

Adam Pawlak is not one of those people on this season of "Hell's Kitchen." One hour in, the Egg & Flour owner has already set himself up as a character – and, best of all, as a contender. 

Of course, it helps that Pawlak has a look: a big volumnous beard that stretches down past most of his neck. It certainly catches Chef Ramsay's eye, as he seems utterly mesmerized by Pawlak's facial fur when they first meet. Sure, the celebrity cook raises an eyebrow about it potentially being a fire hazard, but the look also earns Pawlak a loving nickname: ZZ Top. 

But unlike some of the other kooky characters on the show – looking at you, Mary Lou, who should focus less on her confessionals and more on learning how to cook rice – one episode in, Pawlak's cooking and competitive skills are as robust as his eye-catching beard.

For their first challenge, the chefs were split into guys and girls teams, then pitted against each other one on one, given the same three randomly selected main ingredients from a giant slot machine to make a winning dish – a little bit like "Chopped" but without ridiculous items like jelly beans or gummi snacks forcing their way onto the plate. The dishes would then be judged by Ramsay on a 1-5 scale, with the team scoring the most points earning the first W of the season. 

In Pawlak's case, the Milwaukee chef was paired against Jordan – another respectable contender – and given lamb, mushrooms and polenta as their three featured ingredients. We didn't get to see much of the food, but apparently his rack of lamb with black garlic polenta was a winner as he scored a high-end four from Ramsay, helping the guys team earn the first victory – along with a fancy dinner with the famous chef and a night out on the pre-COVID town in Vegas. More like ZZ Top of the leaderboard, amirite?

His final dish wasn't the only winning thing we saw in the kitchen, either, as Pawlak took audible command of the guys team, using his long-time fandom of the show to help his teammates keep track of the clock and focus on make-or-break details. Between his food and his presence in the kitchen, the local chef is taking a clear leadership position with the guys – an admittedly trecherous place based on what I've learned from my years of watching "Top Chef." When the team does well, it's great – but when things go sideways, the loss can fall directly on one's bearded head.

If I were Pawlak, I'd let the loud Marco take that role and meanwhile sit content making tasty food. But that wouldn't make good TV now, would it?

Speaking of good drama, late in the episode, Pawlak reveals that he apparently left his Midwestern nice at home – at least when it comes to fellow teammate Elliot and his rice-dusted, skinless salmon dish, roasting the misguided decision with fellow episode one standout Declan. We'll see if the food flies between these two as the show goes on ... 

In the end, sure, no one was eliminated on night one, but Pawlak not only survived his first day in hell('s kitchen), he thrived. I'm not a betting man, but considering it's a Vegas-themed season, I'll put all my chips in on him having a long, respectable run on the show. (Though ask any of my picks on "The Bachelor" how well my predictions go for them. My apologies in advance, Chef Pawlak.)

Quick bites

Here are a few quick bonus observations from the season premiere:

  • This is my first time watching "Hell's Kitchen," and my first impression is that it's very much a retro reality show – both in its production and its approach to food entertainment. Compared to "The Great British Baking Show," "Top Chef" or even YouTube food programs, it's not the most polished presentation, and the food is not the star, as we barely spent much time in the kitchen or getting to ogle tasty dishes. (I want to know more about this black garlic polenta, please!) It's focused on big personalities and combatative drama – which is entertaining in its own way, too. 
  • Pro tip: Beware of googling this season or looking up its Wikipedia page. Since the season already aired in Britain, spoilers are more bountiful than the amount of pasta Lauren piled on her plate. 
  • Launch smug Cody into the sun. Did he mention that he's confident? Because I think he's confident that he's confident. Considering how hard his plating got slammed by Ramsay, he shouldn't be. 
  • The show typically starts with the chefs each cooking up their signature dishes, but then Ramsay said he was going to mix things up. It sure seemed like he was going to make the chefs serve up someone else's dish ... but then it just ended up being the slot machine one-on-one battle. The competition worked, but the drama being teed up – veggie-focused chefs getting a meat, for instance – felt a little wasted. 
  • Speed kills, Kenneth. Finishing a dish in record time does you no good if the dish is trash – as was the case last night. I'm no cook, but I felt pretty confident I could've put his attempt at chicken on a plate too – plus when you finish that fast, there's no way that food's staying warm all the way to the serving table. I don't think he'll be long for this show – but I do like the hat, though.
  • The premiere set Nikki up for embarrassment as a line cook who's only been in the industry for a little more than two years. Cue her bobbling a blender and tripping over stuff in the kitchen and ... delivering an actually really solid dish? Good misdirection on the show's part – and maybe we have a dark horse candidate to win? She's got the storyline, and she proved she might just have the cooking chops too. 
  • Gordon Ramsay's done some image rehabilitation over the recent years, evolving from his infamous profane bad boy chef persona to something much softer and humane, hosting Masterclass series and other more subdued food shows. I'll be interested to see how that personal shift – and the culinary world's overall move away from promoting that aggro style in the kitchen – plays out on a show that's built so much on that punchy former persona. 
Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.