To Hell and Back

Little-known fact: Christina Machamer won Hell’s Kitchen by accident. Literally.

“During summer break, I fell down the stairs and sprained my ankle – and I had to rearrange my schedule at the Culinary Institute of America,” Machamer said. “Auditions (for Hell’s Kitchen) were on a Monday and since I didn’t have class, I thought, ‘Why not?’”

A year later, Machamer is riding the tidal wave of press, public adoration and the pitfalls of being America’s newest celebrity chef. Oh, yeah – and she’s ruling the roost as Senior Chef at Gordon Ramsey’s new restaurant at The London West Hollywood. And it all started from humble beginnings.

Before immersing herself in the culinary world, Machamer had been in college for eight years – a double major in Political Science and Criminology.

“I totally realized that being a lawyer was not going to be fun,” Machamer said. “I had always worked in restaurants, and the chef I worked for was like, ‘Why don’t you go to culinary school?’” Machamer got her feet wet at a community college before turning her sights on bigger and better.

“I was working for a chef who was brilliant and he went to The Culinary Institute of America, so I figured if I go to CIA – I will be brilliant,” said Machamer.

In the midst of training at the Institute, Machamer got the call that would change her life. One day Machamer was a mere culinary student who hailed from St. Louis … and the next day, she was trying to get her bearings on a hit reality TV show.

“I was scared,” Machamer said. “On the first day, if the producers would have said, ‘Christina, stay or go?’ I would have gone. Tail between my legs. I would have run as fast as I could. But, after a couple of days you get use to cameras and microphones, the strange new roommates and, of course, Gordon.”

Now not only has Machamer become a media darling, she’s also an inspiration to culinary students everywhere. “Being on television has its ups and downs,” Machamer said. “But to be an inspiration to people, it really is one of the best privileges of this whole experience.”

On the day of the Career College Central shoot, Machamer’s plate was ridiculously full. She’d dart from the kitchen to do an interview then run back to continue working on one of the day’s specials, Lamb Valentino. Then she’d quickly emerge for a round of photos before more slicing and dicing. And keep in mind – this is all before 11 a.m. Most chefs are barely able to function before 3 p.m. Machamer seemed completely unfazed by the whole thing – like doing cover stories for magazines is really second nature. She didn’t even bat an eyelash when culinary commander-in-chief Gordon Ramsey showed up unexpectedly over the lunch hour. Turns out, Machamer was in charge of cooking lunch for a couple of chefs who had won a recent challenge on the new season of Ramsey’s show.

After appearing on countless talk shows and doing countless interviews, Machamer has the poise and grace you’d find in a seasoned TV veteran. And she also cusses like a sailor – which she swears (pun intended) she did not pick up from her mentor, Gordon Ramsey. “I swear. Chefs swear, yes?” Machamer said.

Ask Gordon Ramsey, however, if she picked up the %^&*$# habit from him, and he coolly replies, “She need not be swearing.” When asked how Machamer was working out, Ramsey said, “I made the right choice.” Ah yes, he’s a man of few words … and fortunately during the quick Q&A, none of those words had to be censored.

Machamer’s small-town roots are not totally lost in the City of Angels. She wants everyone to know she still puts on her chef coat one arm at a time.

“Being a celebrity is totally weird because I am just a girl from Missouri, you know,” Machamer said. “I don’t feel changed or different. When I am Angelina Jolie, maybe I will feel differently about it, but until then, I am just a cook.”

Machamer got her Associate degree in Culinary Arts from The Culinary Institute of America in February 2008. During her sophomore year she took time off to tape the show and made a semi-triumphant return to school. But she could not tell her classmates about the experience or how well she did. Everyone appearing in, on, around or near the show is required to sign a confidentiality agreement stating they will not disclose any part of the show – lest they pay a $5 million breach-of-contract fee. Yes, $5 million.

“It was the only secret I have ever kept,” Machamer said. “You know, it’s hard because the show is taped. The finale was shot six months before anyone else knew. At first you’re riding on this cloud – but over that six months you have time to deflate and become a normal person.” Machamer grins. “You can’t really be a diva when no one really knows why.”

According to Professor David Kamen, Executive Chef in the school’s St. Andrew’s Café, Machamer was not only creative, she was humble.
“With all that was going on, she never bragged about it, and was always open to feedback and coaching,” Kamen said. “Christina brought in high levels of motivation and refinement. And she’d have a completely new dish – of her own creation – every day at her station.”

Machamer has some choice and candid words for all those culinary wannabes. Her immeasurable success is definitely not the norm. She’s one of only a handful of culinary students who have seen their shooting stars go supernova. And she’s quick to point that out.

“Do not go into this industry unless you have a strong sense of self, and you really, really love it. It’s not for everyone,” Machamer said. “Don’t get into it because you think you are going to be a celebrity chef – or you are going to make lots of money – or because you aren’t going to work 60 hours a week … because you are.”

The staff at the Culinary Institute of America, however, would beg to differ. They’ve had amazing success churning out celebrity chefs. For example, Machamer outlasted fellow CIA graduate Louis Petrozza in the final episode of the season.

“We were very excited to learn that another one of our alumni had earned a spot on Hell’s Kitchen,” said Stephan G. Hengst, Marketing Director at CIA. “Our alumni have done very well on a variety of shows ranging from Iron Chef on Food Network to Top Chef on Bravo.

“Hengst went on to mention the first three winners of Bravo’s Top Chef were CIA graduates. “Our graduates are put through the most rigorous culinary training available, and it shows in their success on food-driven television reality shows.”

Machamer realizes she got where she is today because of gumption, moxie, attitude and, of course, education.

“I will always be a lifetime learner, always. If I had the time I would continue going back (to school) because there is so much to learn, to do and to see,” Machamer said. “It has wholly enveloped my life … going to college. It is really important. Not just CIA at Forest Park, but going to a little cooking class or whatever. However you can expose yourself – do it – because it is going to help you to grow.”

Speaking of growing, what’s next for Machamer? “I have a year contract that expires Oct. 13, and I am sure I will know Oct. 14 what’s next,” she said. “My boyfriend – also a chef – wants to go to Spain. Spain doesn’t sound so bad … I could think of worse places to be. I have been tossing around some ideas.” She also hinted that she misses New York because, “It’s the greatest food town in the country, but I do not miss the winters.”

For now, Machamer is happily immersing herself in all things Gordon Ramsey. Ramsey’s restaurant is located inside the swank London West Hollywood Hotel. It’s located a half block off the oh-so-trendy Sunset Boulevard. The restaurant and hotel both have a modern grandeur and tasteful splendor to them. And even though it hasn’t been open even a year, it runs like a well-oiled machine. Whatever growing pains the restaurant may have had have quickly been remedied. It’s a restaurant where celebrities come and go without fanfare. Our crew spied Thomas Hayden Church having lunch. And it’s a restaurant where deals are made and European businessmen gather. It’s also casual and unassuming enough that no one seemed to care when Ramsey shot a segment during the lunch hour.

Machamer doesn’t venture out into the dining room too often. Why would she? Her kitchen is an enormous, shiny, spotless, state-of-the-art play space. It’s like the mother ship has called her home.

“I think this is the second or third time I have been in the dining room,” Machamer said during the interview. “The kitchen is huge and it’s great to work in a space like that! The kitchen is where I live. And I get to work with some of the best products that we can get our hands on … so I am quite spoiled.”

As Senior Chef, Machamer isn’t shy to point out some of her favorite dishes that the crew must sample. It is “Restaurant Week” in Los Angeles, after all. “Have the risotto! That is a signature dish both on the show and in the restaurant. Gordon’s is fabulous. I could cook it in my sleep,” Machamer said. Italian cooking is near and dear to Machamer’s heart, but she demurs that is her specialty. “I don’t have a signature dish, but I have, I guess, a signature style.”

Machamer is hopeful that she’ll be able to give the commencement speech at her alma mater in the fall. “It’s a dream of mine,” she said. “My roommate stayed for the Bachelor’s program – and she’s graduating in October – so I’m working on it.”

Hell’s Kitchen may have made her a star, but The Culinary Institute of America helped to put her on the map. And she’s well aware that her 15 minutes of fame are ticking. She’s also conscientious to have both an education and healthy pedigree to back her up. “I can’t have an over-inflated sense of ego,” Machamer said. “Just because you have a great degree … you still need to keep that up and constantly learn. Learn to be humble because there is someone out there who is better and faster than you are.”

She continued, “School is me … School became me … School was something that I really enjoyed. I am not saying that you have to go to a university, but learn something. Get out there. There are so many ways that you can educate yourself and broaden your horizons. Go! Do! Say! Learn!”

She swears by it.

-Michael Mackie


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