Sommer Sellers Tells Us What It's Really Like Competing On Hell's Kitchen - Exclusive Interview

Few things seem as anxiety-inducing as competing in front of millions of viewers while having your food judged by a tough critic like Gordon Ramsay, but Chef Sommer Sellers makes it look easy — she has proven that even at a young age, she's a force to be reckoned with. The 24-year-old has demonstrated her cooking chops on Season 21 of "Hell's Kitchen: Battle of the Ages," showcasing dishes that combine her Jamaican and Southern roots. The often hard-to-impress Ramsay has even said that her jerk chicken taco flavors were "spot on."

While Sellers has remained steadfast throughout the season, it hasn't come without a few obstacles along the way. The chef told us in an exclusive interview how difficult it is to get a place on the hit series, what the show and Ramsay are actually like behind the scenes, and why she thinks her story has resonated with fans.

The audition process to get on the show takes months

Congratulations on being on this season of "Hell's Kitchen." What made you want to be on the show, and what was the audition process like?

I've always been a fan of the show, and I've always been inspired by it. Before I started cooking — before I started my real job in the kitchen — I watched the show to prepare me [for] what I was to expect working on the line. The audition process was a very long one. It lasted four months, and it was constant casting videos, meetings, and psych evaluations. It was a lot.

Wow — I didn't realize it was four months. That is a long time.

It really is, and you never know if you're going to be on the show until right before we start filming.

What did it feel like when you were told you would be on the newest season?

I was so excited. I couldn't believe it, but I was stressed out because I'm like, "Okay, this is a big deal. I have to prepare myself. I'm about to meet Gordon Ramsay. I have to get my stuff together." It doesn't feel real. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to be one of the people that get to experience it, it's such an amazing feeling.

How has your upbringing influenced your own cooking style, and what do you think makes it unique compared to the other contestants on the show?

My mother was born in Jamaica, and I grew up eating a lot of Caribbean foods because of that. My father's side of the family [is] from the South, so I also grew up eating a lot of comfort foods. My cooking style is a mixture of both of those things, and I feel like that sets me apart from the other contestants because you don't see that a lot.

That's very true. When you made your version of tacos that featured jerk chicken and mango salsa, Gordon Ramsay said the spice of it was "spot on." What was it like to receive that type of compliment from him?

It felt amazing, especially at this point in the competition. In the beginning, I tried to make a stewed salmon. He didn't enjoy it that much, and I scored a one for my signature dish. This time, I wanted to redeem myself and show him, "Listen, I can show you how to make my cuisine, and I could make it right for you." I was really happy.

What Gordon Ramsay is actually like on the set

Gordon Ramsay has a reputation for being brutally honest. What was it like working with him on the set of "Hell's Kitchen"?

It was amazing working with him. I was stressed out because I didn't want to let him down. But he's really there in your corner. He cheers everybody on, and he has one-on-ones with you when he sees that you're not being true to yourself or he has higher expectations for you. He was always a great support system.

Is some of what you see on TV maybe not as accurate in showing how supportive he can be?

I feel they don't show that side of him. They show whenever he's fed up with you, because what you don't see is the amount of chances he gives, the amount of times you mess up before he's yelling, "Hey, I showed you how to make this." If you're doing the same thing, if you're making the same mistake, he'll walk over to your station and show you how to make it correctly. A lot of people don't see behind the scenes, but he's there for us.

What would you say is the most challenging part of being on the hit show?

The most challenging part is hearing other people's opinions about things that you personally experience. Millions of people watch the show, so not everybody's going to like what you've done. Not everybody's going to agree with you. It's hard sometimes accepting other people's critiques, but it's also a growing experience in itself because they're not there and they're not living my life, so why should it matter?

That has to be so tough. Was there anything that happened during the competition that surprised you?

I surprised myself during the competition. I didn't know how much criticism I could take and [that I would] be able to have a positive mentality every single day. I grew every single day, and that surprised me because I tapped into a part of myself that I never knew existed.

You're also so young, which is incredible that you're able to do this and be on this kind of show.

It's tough when you're young, especially when it's 20s versus 40s. You're dealing with people that have double your experience in life and in cooking, and you have to be able to match that with dedication and hard work.

How she feels about her issues with competitor Abe Sanchez

As an audience, we see snippets of what you go through, but what is it like for you guys behind the scenes?

Behind the scenes, it's fun. What a lot of people don't see is we're like a family. We're trauma bonded. Every day we deal with a chef who's like our dad, and we get yelled at and we go back to the house, we make dinner, and we sit by the pool and talk. It was things that they didn't show either. I had my birthday in the house, and they surprised me with the cake they made for me. We had a little talent show and we told jokes. It was fun.

I'm sure it's hard to compete all the time on camera and then go back home. Do you guys leave it all there once it's done?

For the most part. I feel like the time when everybody isn't stressed out is after elimination. When you're not going home, you know you don't have a challenge, so everybody is not tense. But in the morning, you can feel the tension — every day, it resets.

Can you tell me more about what happened with Abe Sanchez?

There was a situation with me and Abe a couple episodes ago. People on Twitter ... a lot of people had an opinion about it. We had a little back and forth because I got switched out with an elimination pass, and he tried to shake my hand and I said, "Not right now." He got upset at me, and then we had a conversation in the dorms. But what I want to say about that is that me and Abe are cool.

Sometimes in a competition when you're not doing as well, you can take anything out of context, and it's stressful. It's a stressful environment and you're all on 10. You never know how another person is going to take your reaction to things. Every day, everybody had something going on, so I wouldn't be too hard on him. I feel like people are a little hard on him about the situation, but we're all humans.

It's a stressful situation you're going through. So you guys are on good terms now?

Yeah. Everybody is a big family, so we talk every day.

Was it kind of similar to how siblings fight?

A little — it was tense. [It was like], "I'm not happy right now, let me have a second." The thing was, we won — our team won — but I got switched out for punishment. I had to take it for my team. It sucked. I was hurt. But after that, I was not playing with anybody anymore.

Why she thinks viewers are resonating with her story

How would you say the experience of being on "Hell's Kitchen" has changed your life?

It's changed my life a lot. It's given me a lot of notoriety behind my name. It's one thing to be a line cook; it's another thing to be on a show, on one of the most popular cooking shows in the world. It's given me a lot of opportunities to get my story out there and to tell people about my cuisine [and] the things that I like to make. It's helped me out a lot and it's gotten me this far. I'm excited to see what else it has in store for me.

What part of your story do you think people are really resonating with?

I am the only Black female on the show, and for a lot of people, that is an inspiration to them to say, "Okay, I have a chance to be on that show too. I can pursue my dreams; I can be young and still be able to make it." I have a lot of people that I went to high school with that are cheering me on, that are proud of me. It makes me feel good that I have that impact when I'm just trying to follow my dream.

What can viewers expect to see during the rest of the season?

Expect to see some more VIP. I'm going to not give up, and I'm going to give them that Sommer flavor that I've been giving the whole season.

Catch new episodes of "Hell's Kitchen: Battle of the Ages" every Thursday at 8/7 p.m. CT on FOX, or stream episodes on Hulu.

This interview has been edited for clarity.