Ja’Nel Witt: A Journey from Hell to Hell

“Don’t let fluffy delicious pancakes take us down!” Chef Ja’Nel Witt on Episode 4 of Hell’s Kitchen Season 11

Not all knives are created equal. At $500 an inch, the Kramer Knife is one of the most exclusive and premium kitchen cutting tools you can buy. The Japanese Katana a.k.a. “Samurai Sword” is another blade whose craftsmanship is unrivaled by most standards. What do both of these blades have in common asides from their ability to effortlessly slice through flesh, bone and anything else in their way?

Heat.

Temperatures above 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit are required to create such indestructible razor sharp steel. To put it into perspective, this level of heat is near a quarter of the temperature in some parts of the Earth’s core. If heat can turn iron and other elements into the most revered and deadly cutting blades on the planet, what can heat do for a person?

Can heat in the form of pressure applied to a person also transform them into something as capable and legendary as the Katana sword or the Kramer Knife?

For a living example of such a transformation I looked to Ja’Nel Witt of Houston, TX. She is a chef and culinary artist who’s literally defied the old maxim, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Not only has she proven she can stand the heat in the kitchen; she’s raised the thermostat beyond tolerable for most, but cool by her standards as she blazes a trail in Houston’s culinary scene and nationally as well.  She is featured on Hell’s Kitchen Season 11 where she is a contestant competing for the ultimate prize of $250,000 worth of cash & opportunities. You can also see her Wednesday mornings on Fox News and listen to her live on Cleverley Stone’s radio show on AM 650 on Saturday mornings.

If she wins this competition, she will be everyman’s dream. She can cook, she is cute and she will be a quarter of a million dollar’s richer. So let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope that she does well!

But who is she and what kind of pressure has she had to endure to claim her spot in the national spotlight as America’s sweetheart chef?

Inspiration.

A small-town girl from Copperas Cove, TX, Ja’Nel credits her mother, Brenda Dogget for sparking her lifelong passion for cooking by always keeping her nearby as she’d prepare daily meals for her 4 other children. Her mother is also an excellent baker and Ja’Nel fondly recalls the thrill of being able to lick the cake batter clean off the bowls and spatulas her mom would use to make cakes, breads and other oven toasted treats.

Although her mother inspired Ja’Nel to cook and laid the foundation of her success today, it was her Nana (great aunt) who showed Ja’Nel the wonder variety can create with food. During a visit from St. Louis, Missouri, her Nana prepared a Sunday brunch spread that consisted of homemade crepes, jams and meringue. This was a bit different from her mom’s typical brunch, but equally delicious. Exposure to the idea of culinary variety would later influence Ja’Nel’s ability to create recipes that are always fresh and different; never dull and boring.

Asides from having a magnetic smile and the ability to feed an army, she is also very smart. In fact, she received 14 academic scholarships upon graduating high school which she parlayed into a full-ride at the University of Houston where she earned her BS in Health & Human Performance. Prior to college, Ja’Nel graduated 3rd in her class, was the President of the National Honor Society and Captain of the Academic Decathlon.

Ok, maybe America’s sweetheart chef is not the right title. America’s first geek chef maybe?

Decisions.

Initially her family wanted her to pursue culinary arts right out of high school, but Ja’Nel knew she had to take advantage of her scholarships. So she moved to Houston with the ultimate goal of entering the medical field as a doctor of optometry.

However, upon graduation she had a moment of introspection on what to do next. And no matter how capable she was as a future doctor, her heart was returning to her culinary roots. By this time her siblings joined her in Houston, while her mom stayed back home. The result was Ja’Nel assuming the cooking duties for all major holiday festivities. This led to years of unofficial practice cooking for a large number of people. And she enjoyed it so much that she decided to explore culinary arts as a career option after completing her bachelor’s degree.

After a tour of the Art Institutes of Houston, she was sold on the idea of one day becoming a chef. So she did an about face from the medical field and entered the world of culinary arts.

Dreams vs. Reality.

Every dream has a beginning and for Ja’Nel it wasn’t as sweet as it is now, in fact she had a hard time even finding a job in a restaurant because all of her previous experience was in the medical field. And just a few months into her culinary arts degree, she did not have enough educational training to carry her very far.

Luckily Chef Michael DeiMaggi who was the Executive Chef of a popular wine bar / restaurant in Houston took a chance on Ja’Nel, albeit as a sandwich prep cook. It did not take long for Ja’Nel to quickly move up the ranks however. Within two years she was promoted to Sous Chef. This was the result of Alberto Alfonso, the Operations Director of the same restaurant believing in Ja’Nel’s pedigree.

In fact, he saw so much talent in her that he tapped her to be his Executive Chef at a Spanish tapas restaurant he was opening in the upscale River Oaks neighborhood of Houston, TX. After a bit of convincing, she took the leap of faith with Alberto to start his restaurant which she successfully led for over 3 years.

The opportunity afforded to her by Alberto led to Ja’Nel being recognized by Cleverley Stone who is the cornerstone of Houston’s Restaurant Week. She invited Ja’Nel to share one of her recipes on her Fox Morning News segment. There Ja’Nel shared her recipe for beef cheeks to much fanfare.

Pressure.

Unfortunately Alberto’s restaurant hit a rough patch and he had to abruptly let Ja’Nel go. This sent Ja’Nel’s life into a tailspin. If losing her job wasn’t bad enough, she also lost her uncle shortly after. Her relationship at the time also ended and like many American’s in this post-recession economy, she faced difficulty finding another job willing to compensate her fairly for the skills and experience she brought to the table.

This ultimately led to her packing her bags and heading to Los Angeles in pursuit of her life goal of having her own cooking show. With nothing to lose and a blank canvas ahead, she took the solo trip to LA where she was again either turned down for jobs or offered wages not aligned with her value.

Then one day while still fighting to bounce back from the mess her life had become, she got a call from a producer of a cooking show. This was exactly the break she needed from an otherwise worsening situation. She went to the audition and was ultimately cast for the show. That show turned out to be Chef Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen which is on Fox’s national primetime lineup. The prize that she’d compete for was a $250k salary and a job at one of Chef Ramsey’s restaurants in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Now that’s more like it!

Ja’Nel has survived 4 episodes thus far, and it’s unknown how far she will go. One thing is for certain, Ja’Nel didn’t back down from a life turned to hell, instead she kicked down the door and marched right into Hell’s Kitchen in pursuit of her ultimate dream. Luckily for her, the hotter it gets the bigger she smiles!

To connect with Ja’Nel directly, you can find her on Twitter, Facebook and on her blog: