Hell's Kitchen Winner Nona Johnson Talks About Her Time On The Show - Exclusive Interview

Few individuals have gone on a culinary journey like Nona Johnson. This acclaimed chef made waves when she appeared on Season 8 of "Hell's Kitchen" and ended up beating the competition to take home the grand prize. After winning it all, Johnson worked at a handful of restaurants across Los Angeles and eventually made her way to Georgia, where she currently works as an executive chef at The Local Peach, a catering company that provides delectable meals for a variety of social events and stays active in the local community.

Thanks to her appearance on "Hell's Kitchen," Johnson got a nuanced look at what really goes on during this iconic cooking competition, encountered some of the most stressful moments of her life as a chef, and learned firsthand what it was really like working alongside Gordon Ramsay, all while building her career and transforming into a chef that can take on any challenge. Johnson sat down with Mashed for an exclusive interview and dished on her experiences on "Hell's Kitchen," sharing an inside look as to what really went on during the show.

Nona Johnson's favorite memories of Gordon Ramsay

What was it like working with Gordon Ramsay?

He's really, really intense in everything that he does. You know what I mean? Casually, in the kitchen, outside of the kitchen, he's just very, very intense. So, stressful I would say is a good description of what it was like working with him. But you have to get yourself out of that mindset of being intimidated and being so stressed out about him and his presence. Because he's huge. First of all, he's huge. He is a massive, massive person. So yeah, it's a little intimidating. It's a little stressful, but well worth it.

Do you have any favorite memories of him that stand out?

So, I don't know if people know this just from watching the show or watching his other shows. He's really, really funny. Like really funny. And I know that, as a viewer watching, I'm laughing because the things he says are funny, but he's genuinely really funny and he cracks jokes and really one of the hardest things was not laughing when he would shout out in anger and frustration. There were some moments that were really funny and you're just like, "Nope. Yes, Chef. Mm-hmm. Yep."

Do you remember what any of the good lines were?

I can tell you one. And it was a really bad night. It was a really, really bad night for the guys. I think it was the guys and after the service, I don't even know if service was finished or not. And the TV audience never saw this, but he was shouting at everyone, saying how terrible the service went and blah, blah, blah, all of these things. And he said, "You guys are trying to f*** me up the a** sideways from Sunday." And we all just stood there like, "Yes, Chef that's right. That's what we're doing. Yep." Because we didn't know what to do. You just went, "Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes, Chef." But yeah, we talked about that one later.

Nona Johnson describes the disorienting aspects of Hell's Kitchen

What caught you the most off guard during that entire process of being on the show?

Probably the fact that everything is so controlled. As cast members, we don't have any control over anything. And we don't have pens, we don't have pencils, we don't have paper, we don't have anything. Nothing. No resources, nothing. And so, being in that situation where there aren't even light switches, okay? There's nothing, it's all a set, but it looks very, very real. I think probably the most disorienting thing was that there literally are cameras everywhere. And behind the walls, behind the mirrors, behind everything. They're everywhere, especially the ones that, I think they're called Robo. I don't know about that, but they're the ones that move. And so those were fun because you can hear them.

And so if you're standing there, we were obviously told not to look at cameras, you don't look at them. But there were times when it was just something to do, just to mess with the production staff and we would look at them, and then we would hear them move. And so, we would just do this kind of thing with them, and then we would hear a phone call saying like, "Nona, please stop looking at the cameras," or such and such. Like, "Stop messing with the cameras," because we would try to do little things just to entertain us and break up the stress level if that makes sense. 

But yeah, I think that was probably the most disorienting or the most unexpected thing about the whole process ... just how controlled everything is. Even when we were getting mic'd up, it was like, "Alright, come here, turn around, lift your chef jacket." And you had to have your hands out. And if you touched the mic, it was a problem. Because we knew how much they were. They told us how expensive they were. We were like, "Okay, okay."

Nona Johnson dishes on what it was like having cameras everywhere

Did any of the attitudes or atmosphere change between being on-camera versus off-camera?

The cameras are on 24/7. So, I can't even imagine what the hours of footage are like. When it's editing, there's a reason why it takes months and months and months and months to edit and to get it ready for the screen. Because, like I said, the cameras are 24/7. They don't ever turn off and they are everywhere. I mean, the only two places they're not are literally inside the shower and literally inside the toilet.

So are you always on guard the entire time or did you ever just get acclimated to it?

You got acclimated pretty quickly because the only cameras that are moving like that, that make that real sound are really inside the kitchen and they're up in the vents, the ventilation system. So, all the walls are moveable, so that's where the cameras, a lot of them are. You know what I mean? So you got pretty acclimated very quickly because you just had to. You just had to recognize and understand there are cameras everywhere. So I had to deal with it. Yeah. It was wild.

Nona Johnson's most stressful Hell's Kitchen memory

In the big picture, what do you think the hardest thing you faced was? 

I think the hardest part, for me, it goes back to ... the fact that you don't have any resources. You don't have any outlet. You can't have a book. You can't have paper, there's literally nothing. And so I think that [the] hardest part was really getting yourself ready for isolation, if that makes sense? Because you are completely away from your family and everyone. And so, for me, I had to compartmentalize, if you will. You know what I mean? You have to get your mind right and got to push out all the other outside influences or outside stuff that you brought with you, like family and things you have to take care of at your house, whatever. You have to take it all out and go, "Okay, I'm now hyper-focused on the task at hand," which is difficult. It is difficult because for us, we were around, I don't even know how many people were on our season. Eighteen, I think. You're around people you've never met, you have no idea and you don't know what's going on, really. Because you're just told where to be at certain times. So you just have to go.

That sounds incredibly stressful.

When I say it was the single most stressful thing I've ever experienced, it legitimately was mind-boggling how stressful it was. You don't even know your name when people always ask. They're like, "Well, how come you can't cook scallops?" Or, "How come you can't cook risotto?"  You can't even answer your name. 

Nona Johnson's toughest Hell's Kitchen challenge

What was the hardest cooking challenge?

The hardest cooking challenge? I don't know if it was necessarily the hardest because the challenge itself, I did really well. Me and Jillian, we did really well on our challenge. It was the sushi challenge and it wasn't the actual challenge that was difficult. It was the prep for that service that was difficult because, it takes sushi masters years and years just to properly learn how to rinse the rice. So here we are having eight hours worth of prep and we have to squeeze, in eight hours, figuring out how to properly rinse rice, sushi rice. And then we were grating wasabi, grating all of our ginger. 

Doing all of that by hand, I think was probably just, I would say the most tedious because it wasn't challenges or service. It wasn't difficult, difficult in that aspect, as far as skill level, if that makes sense. It was just more tedious work that we were just basically going, "Okay, so we just keep rinsing?" We just keep rinsing the rice, just keep rinsing it over and over, and doing fresh wasabi is crazy. Crazy. You're just sitting there scratching and scratching and scratching and scratching it to get this much. So, that's probably it, I would say.

Hell's Kitchen's impact on Nona Johnson's career

How do you think that these experiences ended up shaping your career, going forward?

Well, when I went in there, I already felt like I had pretty high standards just from my own life and my work experience and that whole thing, but being there and learning from Chef Ramsay, even the smallest little things, what would seem minute to people outside of this industry — it was instrumental in how I run my kitchens now. And it could be something just as simple as where he placed his side towel or how he stood in front of the actual range, how he stood in front of it. And just watching little micro mannerisms, if you will, and adopting those into my own daily work, if that makes sense. 

But yeah, I think the biggest thing I took from it would really be the increase in my own standards and how I bring that into my own kitchens. Probably that would be the biggest. ... Well, also the doors it opened — that was immediate and I think it really gave me the confidence that I needed. I was not in a very healthy relationship when I was on the show and I had lost a lot of who I was in that situation. And so, really being on there and seeing what I could do and what I was capable of and what I was learning, I was able to open myself up again, if that makes sense.

I was able to really find myself and if it wasn't for winning the show and moving to Los Angeles, I don't know if I would have had that courage or that confidence to be able to leave that situation. And the gratitude that I have for, yes, my career, yes — it opened doors and it shot me out there and it really did boost so much for me. I think, bigger picture, my personal life, it far, far outweighs what, career-wise, if that makes sense. You know what I mean? I was able to go back to being Nona. I was able to go back to me and find me. 

Nona Johnson's favorite memory from the show

Was there one particular favorite moment that you have from the show?

Right. You know what? It's a double-edged kind of thing because, on one hand, I was terrified because I thought I was going home. And then on the other hand, when Chef [Ramsay] pulled me back in, it was the night that I got kicked out of the kitchen and they didn't show this part, but when we did line up afterwards, after the service and everything, and they come back in and we fall back in and he's telling us we're garbage or we did something all right. I spoke up and basically, I was like, "Can I apologize? Can I apologize for my behavior during service?"

And he just was, basically, "F*** your apology." He was just like, no. And I was like, "Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God." Well, as we were leaving, and this you saw, he called me back in. And I was like, "Oh, f***. Oh my God," like, "S***." And he told me that he believed in me and he knew I could do this. And just gave me that pep-talk. To have someone of his caliber believe in my abilities and believe that I can do this and be something. And that I could offer things that my other cast members couldn't and they didn't have that ability that I have with my palette. And so, that was probably my most favorite moment, being that it was also the scariest moment for me because when that whole thing went down with the meat situation, it was so fast and it was just one thing.

A learning moment for Nona Johnson

Sounds like that was a pivotal moment for you during the filming experience.

And that's how the kitchen works. One thing could go wrong and it sets off the domino effect. And it was. One thing is I didn't drop my chicken when I heard it. And these chickens weren't par cooked. It was half chickens. They take some time, so you have to hear it, drop it and then when it's time for pickup, you just splash it, sear it, whatever, get that color. And you're good to go. Well, I didn't hear it. So then that backed me up for all of my beef and that did not go well. That did not go well. And I didn't understand what he was saying. You know, he was saying back up or whatever. I didn't realize that he was telling me to get out.

So I was like, "I am backed up," and I'm getting frustrated because it didn't happen like he thought it happened. He was like, "You're in here just throwing them all in here and steaming them." And I'm like, "No, no," it all happened within 30 seconds and it wasn't translating. And you can't explain yourself. He's just like, "No, get out!" And it's like, "Yeah, but, but," and there is no time for that. You just have to eat it and go out there. And man, I flew out of that kitchen and flew open doors the whole way back and just crumbled. Just all my emotions were just raging. They were just coming out and for a lot of people, if they get angry or frustrated, they cry, and I was just balling. Just totally freaked out. Like, "Oh my God, this is it. This is it. Oh my God." And to have that at the end of the service, for him to come back and be like, "Yeah, you know what? We all have bad times. We all have bad nights, whatever. You have that jewel that no one else has. So you have to keep going." And so, yeah, it was an up and down all at the same time.

Nona Johnson says she would do it the same way again

If you could go back in time and do anything differently, would you do anything differently if you had the chance to do it again?

No, because for me, I've watched the show since Season 1. I was going to say something, but it doesn't need to go into this, but I watched every episode, right? And honestly, you can definitely tell when people are there for reasons other than cooking. The audience would know that and they're just like, "I don't get it." And seriously, we had so many conversations amongst the cast about different other cast members because we just didn't understand. We were like, "I don't understand how this person is here. This doesn't make sense to me and they're here for TV or they're here to try to be famous," or whatever. And it was obvious. And for me, I went in this and I took this as a long job interview, straight up. That's what this was for me.

I wouldn't do anything differently because I would still go in there taking it as seriously as I did and even I wasn't going to get caught up in the drama of it all. Does that make sense? Because the producers definitely, when you do our confessionals and you go in your little room and they're asking you questions, you can't see them, there's just a camera and they ask, "Well, what did you think about when such and such did that to you," and try to be like, "Didn't you think that she was kind of a b**** for doing that?" And you're like, "Look, okay." There were multiple times where I would say what I would tell them like, "Hey guys, I know what you're doing. Like, I know what I know, what you're trying to get out of me, but that isn't who I am. I'm not trying to get caught up in a tit-for-tat or the drama of it all because I'm trying to win this. I'm trying to get this job." So, that was important. Honestly, I don't think I would do anything differently.

How Hell's Kitchen edits reality, according to Nona Johnson

Do you think that the editing was fair or do you think the editing skewed what actually happened?

There were definitely some editing moments where I was like, "But that's not how that happened." And it's some of the little tweaks that they would do or the little edits that they would do would be to sensationalize a moment that really wasn't that big just to make it bigger than it was. Man, it's hard to really remember because the things that were edits, they were so minute. 

For me, anyway. And I can only speak from my experience because for instance, on the guys side, we had no idea what was going on over there. We had no clue. And so, for me, okay, I think there was one moment where I was like, "I didn't say that, though." And it was when we lost a challenge and it was one of the only challenges I didn't want to lose. Because I think we only lost two in our whole season, the women's side. And it was the one when all the inventory came in, all the food comes in.

That was a nightmare. And I remember one of the things, it had a voiceover and it was saying, "Oh, I hate running," as if I said it and I was like, "I never said that!" Straight up, 100%, I was like, "I never said that ever. Never, I never said that." So, maybe that kind of stuff would be added just for production's sake. But for me, there was nothing noticeable ... where I was like, "Oh no, that's not right," at least for Season 8, if you will.

When I went back, because I was there on [Seasons ] 8, 9, and 10. And I think 10 was when we came back with some other winners and we competed against their black jackets. And that was definitely edited to a point where I was like, "Yeah, I did seem kind of like a b**** then, didn't I?" But that isn't how it happened. That wasn't how it was, but I could see how the editing made it that way. I even remember commenting on my Facebook page about it. Because I didn't see it when it aired and then I saw it later and I was like, "Ew, I promise that's not how it happened."

Do you still keep in touch with the other contestants from Season 8?

I talked to Gail probably the most. We remained friendly and we saw each other after the show, she came out to LA. I talk to Russell. I talk to him mostly through Facebook and we keep in contact with each other. And I talked with Melissa. Probably like once or twice a year, we'll say hi or whatever. And I don't have any animosity towards any of them. We all have our lives, we all do our things. And so, we keep in touch as much as we can.

Nona Johnson dishes on her favorite food to cook

What do you enjoy cooking the most right now?

I like when someone cooks for me. The meal that I like the best is the one I don't have to cook. But I like to pull from my Cajun roots and I really enjoy cooking Cajun because it's a lot of layering upon layering, upon layering and I love that. As someone who really, really embraces training their palette and really working their palette and doing the things necessary to keep your palate fresh and open and clean and receptive to all the different flavors. To me, I love any sort of cuisine that you take and you're like, "Here's the first level," or, "Here's the first layer." And then you build on it. Here's another one and it keeps changing as you go. And Cajun food is like that. And Creole food, that's like that. It's so much labor and love that goes into it.

And I hate to use that stupid cliche of like, "Oh, my secret ingredient is love," but it's cool. It is. It's very cool because it says you take these ingredients and you have to first get them all perfect before you add that next layer and you just keep tasting as you go. And that's probably my most favorite, just because it feels the best for me. And it does feel like home. And to have the smells, there's something about it when you walk out and you have the air, you cleanse your palette, you cleanse your senses and then you walk back into it and it just fills you up. It's something special about it.

But probably that. I'd probably say Cajun food is probably my most favorite thing to work with and play with. But I was classically trained, which is in French cuisine. Oh my God, are you kidding me? I love French food. I love all French cuisine. And it does tie into that. You're talking about Creole and Cajun. It so much comes from French cuisine that I would say probably those two would probably be my most favorite. Come on, you can't really go wrong with some butter and some cream thrown in there.

What Nona Johnson eats in a day

So, in your daily, regular life, one would imagine you're probably not doing French and Cajun every single day.

No, not at all. Today, for instance, for breakfast I had sauteed spinach and sauteed zucchini with tater tot. And we pretty much eat potatoes or tater tots in some form or fashion, most every day, almost. And for lunch, I had leftover white bean and rice soup with corn bread. So, I eat regular stuff and yesterday or the day before I had oatmeal for breakfast, so it's just whatever I've got around that I can throw in a pan or I can throw in the oven or whatever, I'm going to, I'm going to get it in.

And seriously, you can ask anybody and we don't eat the greatest because our hours are not conducive to really a healthy lifestyle. Now me, I have gotten out of the restaurant life, when I started my own businesses. And, but even just the kitchen life in general, it's very difficult to maintain healthy eating habits because you are working. And for me, and I think this is probably common for a lot of chefs, is that because you're around the food all day constantly and you're tasting and tasting and tasting and tasting, you're not hungry for meals. You don't want the food. We don't typically eat our own food because we've tasted it the whole way through. So, by the time it's time for a meal, we're pretty sick and bloated, we're like, "No, I'm good. I'm good." But yeah. And when we get off work, the only things that are open are garbage. It's fast food and we hit up Taco Bell and we hit up these places because that's what's open.

Nona Johnson's favorite cooking show

Do you have a favorite fast food place?

All right. So, I had to stop eating Taco Bell because of the horrendous heartburn it gives me, so that's out. ... When was the last time I had fast food? Honestly, it would probably be if I had to pick like ... maybe my favorite burger and I don't even eat meat anymore. I'm a vegetarian. So, we'll go back to the previous life of eating meat. I would probably say In-N-Out, but ... I lived in Texas for 12 years and it's probably going to upset all the Texans out there that I didn't say Whataburger.

If given the opportunity, would you do another cooking competition show again?

Yeah, I think I would probably do maybe "Chopped" because I just always thought that was a fun one and I liked the concept of it because that's how we all learn. .... Some of the best cooks I've had didn't go to school, but in school or on the job, like when we weren't busy, if we were slow that night, I would pull out a mystery basket for my cooks and just go and pull random things and say, "Go. Create something." That's how we learned. We had those all the time in school and it would be just like a pop quiz, if you were in school. That's what it was like. You just ... showed up and there was a basket with a towel over [the] top of it. So I'd say, yeah, I'd probably do "Chopped," just because I think that would be the most interesting. And I think it pulls you out of the, "Okay. All right. All right. Shallot, garlic, uh-huh (affirmative), uh-huh (affirmative)." You start off building and with the mystery basket, you're like, "Well, I need to get out of that box and really just expand." So I think I'd probably do that one.

If you're in the Atlanta area and need catering services, be sure and give Nona Johnson a call at The Local Peach. And in the meantime, you can follow her on Twitter.