Kori Sutton Reminisces About Her Time On Hell's Kitchen - Exclusive Interview

If you take a look at her LinkedIn page right now, you'll see the LA-based, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico-raised Kori Sutton lists her current job as "Private Chef," a title she has held for several years under the auspices of her own company, Chef Kori Sutton LLC. Browse through her "About" and "Experience" sections some and you'll read about her decade and a half (and counting) of experience in the culinary world, including work at an Aspen resort, a Mexican steakhouse, a French bistro, and on it goes.

What you won't see listed on Sutton's professional page, however, are a few bits of past experience that may have involved less day-to-day work in kitchens but catered to a whole lot more food-minded folks: her multiple appearances on televised cooking shows, including winning season 19 of "Hell's Kitchen." It's not much of a surprise that these parts of the chef's resume are omitted from her professional bio, and for two reasons: first, anyone who pays any attention to the TV food world already knows who Sutton is, anyway.

And second, as audiences have seen from her many hours on screen, and as confirmed during a recent interview with Mashed, while deeply passionate about food, Chef Kori Sutton is a lot more even-keeled and chilled out than a lot of other chefs you see screeching about on TV. Her MO tends to be more about just getting great food prepared than talking it up — or stirring up drama. But don't take that to mean she doesn't think there's not the need for the occasional bout of shouting or a thrown spatula when a chef is underperforming. " You kind of have to have that tough skin," she said at one point. 

How Kori Sutton's passion for cooking grew into a career

What first got you into cooking and how did you know it would be a career and not just a passion or a hobby?

I started actually watching my grandmother and my aunts and my mom in my grandma's kitchen, just cooking and enjoying and laughing. And it was just an experience to watch them just float around the kitchen making all these amazing dishes. And then that joy that food brought to the table and to actually see them do that was just like, wow, food actually brings this amazing stuff to the table.

And then when I started eating it and then the joy that brought to everybody, and then I realized, well, shoot, that's kind of cool how something as simple as a small dish can bring so much happiness and joy. And then when I went into the kitchen at 15, it became a drug to me, to where it was ... I wanted more, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to do more stuff, and it just flourished from there.

What role did the diverse culinary scene of your hometown of LA play in your culinary development? And then, how about the food in Puerto Vallarta?

Well, living in LA, it's so cool, because you have such a diverse of ... not only people, but also the culinary world. You've got Thai, you've got Filipino, you've got Ethiopian, you've got all these different nationalities, and they're all just kind of thrown in their own little cities. And you almost get to travel the world without even leaving your city. So that was really cool to see the farmer's markets and all this other cool stuff. That just really brought out just a whole new world to the culinary.

And then also living in Puerto Vallarta, seeing how simple ingredients were used and how much flavor was put into them with spices and herbs. And then also being able to see the fresh fish from the fishermen, from the actual ocean, flopping in front of their boat. And you're sitting there, and they're selling it. And you're eating it fresh. Or the chicken live one second and then dead, plucked, and in your kitchen the next.

It really opened my eyes and kind of humbled me in a way. We don't always have grocery stores — we don't always have Gelson's and Postmates and Instacart. In Mexico, you don't have that stuff, when I was growing up. So being able to see all that and realizing that you basically work with what you have at whatever moment, it just kind of opened my eyes even more to how to be always creative and always on your toes creating different dishes.

Kori Sutton talks misconceptions about Mexican cooking

What do people in America tend to get wrong about Mexican food?

It's funny because Mexico has so many different regions. For instance, the Northern reason uses a lot of meat, very heavy on meat, very beef, cattle, goat heavy [there], so they're very meat-heavy. I mean, compared to Texas it's pretty close to the same quality. And then the inland parts of Mexico, you get a lot of vegetables, a lot of game, a lot of like moles and sauces. And then the coastal tip is all seafood. So you get an amazing array of fruits, vegetables, meats.

It's not all heavy cheeses and sauces. Mexican food is very light and flavorful and very refreshing. It's just from meats to veggies, to seafoods, to cheeses. I mean, it's just a huge plethora of amazing vegetables and fruits and flavors, more than anything.

Kori Sutton on her various TV cooking appearances

In addition to "Hell's Kitchen," you've also appeared on "Cutthroat Kitchen" and "Top Chef: Mexico." Out of all your experiences on TV so far, what has been your favorite competition and why?

I'd have to say between "Top Chef: Mexico" and "Hell's Kitchen." "Top Chef: Mexico" was a huge honor to even be invited, because it was supposed to be all national Mexican chefs from Mexico in Mexico. And when I got called upon it, I honestly thought it was a joke. I thought it was like a mishap. And I was like, "I'm not Mexican, I'm American." And they're like, "No, you've been in Mexico so long. Your whole career is in Mexico. So we consider you part of the Mexican chefs elite."

And doing that, being able to travel, go through those experiences in Mexico and compete with some of the top Mexican local chefs was such a huge honor. And to go so far, I mean, I left fourth place overall. So it was pretty big and a huge honor to even be a part of this. And then obviously, being on "Hell's Kitchen." One reason being my age, I wasn't one of the younger girls there. I was one of the oldest. And to be able to go through that, to have that experience, to be so focused, to learn so much, to meet such amazing chefs and then actually walk through that door and be able to say, "Wow, I did this, I accomplished this. I actually conquered 'Hell's Kitchen' and I walked through that door." That was pretty amazing.

How Kori Sutton learned she'd be on Hell's Kitchen

What was it like learning that you'd be on "Hell's Kitchen"?

I was actually at the grocery store with my son when I got the phone call. And I'm like, "Who is this? What is this about? What?" And they're like, "Oh yeah, this is 'Hell's Kitchen.' You submitted your resume years ago, long while back. And we just totally forgot about you. And we wanted to see if you wanted to come on the show." And I'm like, "Sure, why not? I mean, at this point, I mean, what is there to lose?" And they're like, "Cool, great. Your interview is tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM." I was just like. "It's 7:00 at night."

So it was the whole whirlwind of having [to] finish doing grocery shopping, going home with my son, making dinner, getting my outfits ready and what I was going to do, and all my stuff ready for [the] interview the next day. It happened so fast, and I didn't quite set in until I was on the plane to Vegas to do the show.

How did the experience differ from your expectations?

I honestly thought it was going to be a lot harder. I mean, it was an extremely hard competition, don't get me wrong. But I think that I was in such a good mind state of just stay focused, be strong, study, keep your head down. Don't get in all the drama, don't get involved with all the other s–t. Just stay focused and cook your a** off. I think once I got into that mindset, there was nothing stopping me.

Kori Sutton discusses what it's like working with Gordon Ramsay

What was it like filming with Gordon Ramsay? Was he like you expected based on his perceived personality?

I mean, Chef Ramsay is considered one of the best of the best in the culinary world. He is so diverse, from his multi-Michelin star restaurants to his fish and chips spots in Vegas to his television shows that he does. He is such an amazing and talented person as it is. And working right next to him, first of all, he's 8,000 feet tall. So no one really realizes how big, not even a personality, but as a person, how big he really is. And when he's sitting there talking to you, he's not always a yelling, screaming asshole. If he's yelling at you, it's because he's told you twice how to do it, and you're still not listening. You deserve to get yelled at.

When he's there teaching you and talking to you, like one-on-one, it's really a fatherly moment. He's truly sees something in you. And he's giving you the time of day because he knows you can do it. And it's such an amazing experience to even be in his kitchen, to have your name even be in his vocabulary at some time. And when he praises you on something, it's like, wow, this is a huge compliment that this multi-Michelin star restaurant chef is saying, "Good job. This is amazing."

Kori Sutton dishes on the competitive nature in Hell's Kitchen

Were there surprises during the show, and is the competition just as sort of cutthroat and dramatic as it seems sometimes?

Off-camera, it's still competition, because you're trapped in an almost dorm-type setting with 18 or 16 chefs that are all of the very same mindset. "I'm here to win and I'm going to win. I'm going to knock everybody down." So you have some of those guys there that were just cool and just hang out and just be at least cordial. And then you have some [who] are just like, "I don't care if you fall on your face tomorrow, I'm kicking you out."

You always kind of had to be on your toes at all times. And even when you were sleeping, when you're brushing your teeth, when you're just eating breakfast in the morning. So it was one of those things — you kind of always had to have your guard up. Obviously, being a mom, I kind of ran into a mom position in the house, where I was always cooking for everybody and making sure people drank enough water, ate food, all that. So I was kind of fortunate to not run into a lot of drama. I mean, we all had a little bit, but I was able to kind of stay out of it by just being that mama bear in the kitchen.

Beyond the show, do you think there is too much aggression and attitude in professional cooking in general?

I mean, I grew up very old school in the kitchen. I grew up with being yelled at. I grew up with stuff being thrown in my face because I didn't properly put it out at the exact same time as somebody else. So I grew up in that very aggressive, angry, old school, "Hell's Kitchen" type restaurant. The kitchen industry itself and being in a restaurant and being on that timeframe is extremely stressful as it is. It's not a, "Well, it didn't come out right this time, I want to take a few more minutes!" Or, "I need more time!" So you kind of have to have that tough skin.

Don't get me wrong, being yelled and screamed at is probably not the best for everybody. But at the end of the day, it's still a very hard industry to be in. And you kind of have to have that thick skin. And every once in a while, you need to be just kind of snapped at or yelled at, just a little bit, to kind of pop you out of that, well, "be nice to me" moments.

Life after Hell's Kitchen for Kori Sutton

How has your life changed since "Hell's Kitchen"? And if given the chance, would you want to compete again?

Since "Hell's Kitchen," I've actually taken a little bit of time off. I work as a private chef here in LA, doing some work-in-home cheffing, but I'm taking a little bit of time. I'm actually starting to launch myself a salsa company, [Mama Kori Sala] which will launch on September 15th. So I'm working on that right now, to kind of focus on more me and my brand. ... I'm kind of focusing on that right now, and just to kind of see where it goes from there.

Would you want to cook on TV again?

Absolutely I would. To be honest, I would probably do "Hell's Kitchen" again, kind of an all-stars, or like a competing against other contestants maybe. And then also, in the other culinary shows, like maybe even ... "Chopped" or "Guy's Grocery," those kind of television shows. I love competitions as it is, and I love going on competitions. So I think any of them would [be great]. Any of them want to bring me on, I'm here.

Chef Kori Sutton's tips for home chefs

What are some of your tips for home cooks who want to improve their cooking?

Experiment. Google a recipe, watch the video on how to do it and just have fun in the kitchen. Bring your kids into the kitchen, bring your husband into the kitchen, bring your sisters, your mom. Jump into the kitchen with your friends and family and just destroy your kitchen and just have a good time. And then just enjoy food. Go to the farmer's market, pick up vegetables and fruits, you have no idea what they are. And just throw them in a pot and just see what happens.

Are there any common mistakes that amateur chefs tend to make that, if they could avoid, their cooking would be improved?

Yeah. Good quality knives and pots and pans. People think that, "Oh, I'll just buy an inexpensive knife and an inexpensive pot or pan or whatever. And it'll be okay." Buy the good stuff. Buy the All-Clad pots and pans. Buy the Shun knives. Because they will last you longer. It lasts all that time and lets you cook stuff properly. And it's low and slow. Take your time in the kitchen. Don't always have your pots on high all the time, have that medium-low heat and just enjoy. Take your time. Cooking isn't a rush. It's not a competition in your kitchen. It's take your time, enjoy, have a glass of wine and just enjoy everything you do.

Kori Sutton's favorite dish to prepare (and one she hopes to never make again)

What is your favorite dish to prepare?

Ooh, my favorite dish to prepare! So my grandmother used to make enchiladas. And I love to make just like a seafood enchilada or a chicken enchilada, something with just that sauce on the tortillas. It just brings back so many home memories. And then obviously I still have my little clay pot that my grandmother gave me, that I make my beans in. And I'll have that pot of beans on the stove and then my enchiladas, and I'm good to go. 

Is there a dish you'd be happy to just never make again?

Oh, what dish never to make again ... I don't think, wait! You know what? A turducken. I've had to make a turducken a couple of times, and it's such a pain in the butt, for just a quick slice and you're done. I probably wouldn't make one again if I could avoid it.

You can keep up with Kori Sutton by following her on Instagram, and be sure to check out her new salsa company Mama Kori Salsa.