By Jeff Bahr
The thing that struck me most during my recent meeting with “Hell’s Kitchen” finalist Justin Antiorio was the downright ordinariness of the man. This is in no way a knock. Quite the contrary. Antiorio is without pretense and very down-to- earth – quite refreshing for a young man who has sampled a healthy heaping of TV fame.
I had made the trip to Newark’s Hell’s Kitchen Lounge (how apropos!) last Monday to join the chef/ contestant and his supporters for a “viewing night” of the wildly popular reality show. A feeling of suspense hung in the air. Would Antiorio make it into the next round and move that much closer to the coveted grand prize? Or, would his long journey come to a sudden end? Since the show was taped, Antiorio and his clan already knew the answer, but, much like good poker players they weren’t throwing out any hints to reporters. Drat!
A Lyndhurst resident until his early teens, Antiorio, 29, lived in Franklin Lakes and Hoboken for a spell before returning to Lyndhurst. While his mailing addresses were in occasional flux, his passion for cooking was always rock steady.
According to Antiorio, his love for the cooking craft grew from watching his father – a respected chef in his own right – as he worked his culinary magic in the kitchens of prestigious hotels. During these early days, the boy would often ape his dad’s movements, pretending that he, too, was a chef.
At home, things were much the same. Antiorio and his mother (also a committed “foodie”) would concoct different recipes and dream up different dishes together. If food seems central to this family’s DNA, hang on for the rest of the story. Justin’s older brother also works as a chef!
Not too surprisingly, Antiorio decided to turn his love for food into a career. After completing high school he enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC where he beefed-up his already prodigious cooking skills. After graduating he apprenticed at some of the city’s most prestigious restaurants before taking a job as a line cook at the Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange.
But it was Antiorio’s next job as a line cook at the renowned 21 Club in NYC that provided just the right ingredient for his budding career. Through toil and will he became one of the youngest sous chefs in the restaurant’s history. Five years later, he tackled a different challenge when he performed sous chef duties at Sterling Affair – a highend caterer that counts the Rockefellers (yes, those Rockefellers) among its clients.
With these tasty accomplishments under his belt you might expect that it was the ambitious man himself who applied for a spot on the nationally televised “Hell’s Kitchen.” “Not so” according to Antiorio. “My father actually sent my audition (application) out for me,” he explained. “And then it was a couple calls, back and forth, and we went out (to Hollywood) to shoot. It was nerve wracking.”
Antiorio’s “Hell’s Kitchen” odyssey got underway in June when he and 17 other cooking hopefuls entered Chef Ramsay’s kitchen. Since then, the original group has been pared down to five remaining finalists – a battle-tested club of cuisine elites that includes Antiorio. “It’s an amazing accomplishment… my mother is ecstatic!” gushed Antiorio on making it into the top five.
If you’ve never seen the show, here’s the gist. Ramsay’s over-the-top putdowns and scream-fests keep adoring fans transfixed to the screen, while the cooks laboring under his tutelage try their best not to crack.
Antiorio seems to understand Ramsey’s heavyhanded persona and takes it all in stride – a considerable attribute that may just take the Lyndhurst cook all the way to the finish line.
“In the kitchen Chef Ramsay is all business – he’s the boss,” explains Antiorio in a respectful and accepting tone. “But outside, he’s a regular guy.”
If Antiorio should go on to win the competition, he would work for Ramsay as head chef at a Las Vegas restaurant. It would be nothing short of a dream come true for the chef.
For that to happen, however, Antiorio would need to survive the cooking challenge being aired at Hell’s Kitchen restaurant on this evening: “Italian Night.”
As family and friends watched the show on a giant screen while nibbling on victuals supplied by the restaurant, the nail biting began. Not surprisingly, Ramsay was underwhelmed by the performances of the five and let them know it in his ribald way. “We’re cooking like idiots! Get a grip!” he scolded.
As the elimination process placed the white-hot light of scrutiny on this week’s lowest performers, the unlucky pair stepped forward to plead their cases to Ramsay. It would soon spell curtains for one of them. Where was Justin Antiorio during this heart-wrenching phase? Standing relieved beside two other contestants in the safe zone. He had made it into the top four!
This week the foursome will take turns running a kitchen as rigid taskmaster Chef Ramsay looks on. Will Justin Antiorio of Lyndhurst – the local boy done good – survive another round and move ever closer to his dream? That’s up to a higher power and Chef Ramsay to decide. But not necessarily in that order.