Season 3 Winner Rock Harper Looks Back At His Hell's Kitchen Journey - Exclusive Interview

"Hell's Kitchen" just wrapped up its 20th season, and as any longtime viewer of the show can attest, things sure have changed since the Gordon Ramsay vehicle first aired in 2005. Suffice it to say, it's been a long time since the hot-tempered chef compared the contestants' food to poodle poo or a bison's reproductive organ. True, Ramsay's telltale ire still occasionally steals the show, like in a recent episode, when raw lobster inspired a string of his signature bleep-bombs, but those antics might feel tame to anyone binging the show's O.G. episodes. And no one is more aware of this shift than Rock Harper, who won Season 3 surrounded by considerably more emotional carnage than the show's more recent victors.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Harper, who, since his 2007 victory, has written a book, hosted a podcast, and most recently opened Queen Mother's Fried Chicken, explained how Hell's Kitchen" has changed since his season — and shared how those initial experiences shaped his career. Harper also offered insights on the problem with fast food chicken — and tips for home-frying your own delicious bird.

Rock Harper reflects on how Hell's Kitchen has changed over the years

What was it like to win Season 3 of "Hell's Kitchen"?

Winning felt incredible at the time. I went there to win, and it was fulfilling. It was, at the time, the biggest professional accomplishment that I achieved. I said, "I'm going to win. I'm not going here just to be on TV." And I did it! It was overwhelming, but incredible at the same time.

Do you think that "Hell's Kitchen" has changed a lot since you were first on it?

Yes, "Hell's Kitchen" has changed, I think, as a viewer, a bunch. [It's like] they're on season 50! And they're doing some incredible things with the show. And when I say "they," Gordon Ramsay is the driving factor of this. But when you look back, he was much more brutal, I believe. I think he's still really tough, but the way that it's presented — certain things that he doesn't say anymore, whether they be catchphrases or just things that [would] probably get him canceled today ... Also, the dynamics of the viewer changed, so they had to either grow with the viewers that love "Hell's Kitchen," or get new viewers.

I don't know much about TV, but I've seen that the approaches, even from the contestants, the casting, it's all changed. They've changed the sous chefs. So it's pretty cool to see how it evolves and to see it on Season 20 or whatever they're on.

You returned to "Hell's Kitchen" in some recent seasons. What did it feel like to be back?

To go back to "Hell's Kitchen" is really cool! It's an honor; it's fun. I remember the first time I went back, it was all so humbling because as a diner, you're like, "Man, this is pretty intense." And I felt for these guys — I understood what they're going through. They're fighting for their lives, their professional lives! So seeing it from the dining room side, it was really, really cool. I was honored to be asked back, but just to sit there and not have to worry about getting kicked out of the kitchen! Actually eating a Wellington sitting down, or a risotto, was really cool.

What would your advice be to a future contestant on the show?

Oh, it's pretty simple. You can only be you. Many people go on reality TV and try to be something that they're not. And I don't know all shows, but I know "Hell's Kitchen." You have to be the best you. Just show up and be you.

The one thing about Chef Ramsay is that he honors authenticity and honesty. And if you just look at the show, the people that run into the biggest problems, they're not honest and they're not authentic. So honesty could be: one minute to the pass. How long for that? And you say one minute and it takes three; he can't trust you!

Honesty being: Julia [Williams], Waffle House cook, not saying that she knew about truffles or lobster: she didn't! She was honest with herself and everyone else, and this is why she worked really hard and she made it to the top four. So the advice is, be yourself and work like you've never worked. Appreciate the opportunity. And if you're going to win, you might as well win as yourself, instead of losing trying to be someone else.

What Rock Harper learned from being on Hell's Kitchen

Your career has taken off since your "Hell's Kitchen" days. How has what you learned on the show shaped the trajectory of your career?

There's so many things, if I think about "Hell's Kitchen" shaping my career. The one thing is that: you have a choice every day, you have "a chance and a choice," someone recently said. And I think that you got to wake up and go at it — make your choice. What is today going to be about? What effort are you putting forward? So that's one thing is, just go hard on "Hell's Kitchen" — you've got to go hard, and you have a choice to do that.

The other thing is, there's a parallel between [the] 10 million people who watched the finale that I was on. That's a lot of folks! And so many people, even now, 14 years later, people have been inspired. You never know who's watching. As a matter of fact, someone is always watching ... in the TV sense, of course, millions of people are watching, but in real life, act like people are watching you.

And that reframes for me, how I move about, because you can make decisions in the public eye that are hurtful and damaging, or can influence in a way maybe you didn't intend. But you can also inspire and help to change someone's life. So work like millions of people are watching you.

How have you made a difference in people's lives? Is there one particular story you can share with us?

That's such a good question. There's so many stories. One is recent ... There's a mom, I don't know what part of the world she's in, but her son wants to be a chef, and they watched my season of "Hell's Kitchen" and he was really inspired. And I'm going to leave him a video. He has autism, so I get requests like that all the time. And I think that when the young chefs or the young aspiring chefs reach out and ask for advice or a word of encouragement, that really is uplifting to me, and I get that often enough. So I'm excited to record this video and possibly even speak to the young man pretty soon.

Why Rock Harper opened Queen Mother's Fried Chicken

What inspired you to open Queen Mother's Fried Chicken?

A friend of mine was opening a ghost kitchen in D.C. and he called me and he said, "Let's open a restaurant, a collaborative restaurant." And it's the middle of a pandemic, [the] restaurant industry [is] crumbling — why not open one? Seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. And it was, it was a great effort — or, it is.

So Queen Mother's: I love frying chicken, I think I'm the best at it anywhere, and chicken sandwiches are really hot right now. People love chicken, they always have, but they are having a "moment," the past few years ... So it just made perfect sense for me. I even fried chicken on my season finale of "Hell's Kitchen." That was one of my signature dishes, so it just made sense. I've been talking about doing this thing for a long time.

And Queen Mother's is a nod to my mother ... and all Black women and all of the creations that were made since Black peoples' arrival in America. Fried chicken is probably the most polarizing and emotional, so I wanted us to begin to own that. Black people push away from fried chicken — not all of us, but many of us. So I want us to, at least with Queen Mother's, reshape the narrative. It's nothing to be ashamed of; as a matter of fact, we should be proud of it. So we're telling a little bit of story in there too, but none of this works unless I'm frying the best chicken, and I got that down pat.

Can you tell us the secret to your fried chicken?

Yeah, I can tell you a couple of secrets. One, you've just got to use great ingredients. So we fry in duck fat, which is premium fat and it makes the chicken taste way better. You have to fry at the right temperature. I'm a chef. I'm a chef-chef! So we just execute the same way we would at a fine dining restaurant.

You have to have more care to the actual oil. When people think, "oh, you throw it in the deep fryer and that's it." That's not it! There's a science and a technique to deep frying. So proper oil, proper ambient temperature, proper oil temperature, and we use a little bit of rice flour in our mix. So what that does — this is another secret, exclusive right here on Mashed — we use the rice flour because rice flour is lighter, crispier ... but also, it absorbs less oil. It helps with the oil, it doesn't stay in the chicken.

So the one thing about fried chicken or any fried food, [it] should not be greasy. It should be deep fried, and when you pull it out, it should drain off and that's it — it should be moist. Too much fried chicken is greasy and that's [due to] a number of factors. But that rice flour really helps retain some of that light and airy crisp on the coating.

Could a home cook make fried chicken using this technique, or is it too complicated?

Oh, no, you could definitely do it at home. Everything that I do at the restaurant, you can do at home. The only thing is the temperature. That's the one thing I think most folks get wrong at home, is frying at the incorrect temperature because we're usually frying on the stovetop where it's harder to control. ... My grandmother used the flour to test to see if the oil's hot, but "hot" is 375 degrees, which is too hot. Or 325 might be hot, but it's too low. So you can do all of this at home, but the biggest mistake I see folks making at home is incorrect frying temperature.

Here's what's wrong with fast food fried chicken, according to Rock Harper

What do you think of fast food fried chicken? Do you think people should eat it? Or do you think it's just garbage?

Well, if there's a choice between Queen Mother's and fast food, then all fast food is garbage! If anybody needs to make the choice! But no, here's the thing, we call it "junk food" for a reason. So I'm not revealing anything breaking, but it has its place and too much definitely of anything is bad.

Here's one thing that separates us from fast food, and any restaurant really. Fast food uses a bunch of chemicals and stuff that is not necessarily "real food." So what we in this nation, we think we know what something may taste like and it's the chemicals. So we don't use chemicals in anything, so there's something in some of these other restaurants that are flavor enhancers. They're color enhancers and that stuff has a certain taste or a mouthfeel to it. So I don't think it's bad, it's just ... know what you're eating. Go to the nutrition facts and if you could pronounce it, if you understand what it is and you're fine with eating all of those 12-syllable words in your flour then have at it. But, we don't use any of that stuff at our restaurant.

How is the mouthfeel of Queen Mother's Chicken different from fast food fried chicken?

It tastes like fried chicken! It's crispy. So for instance, I won't say any names ... I'm like, "Okay, well, I'll go to this restaurant." And man, this stuff is super crispy, by the time I get home, it's in a box. If you put something hot and steamy in a box, it's not supposed to maintain its crisp. So I'm like, "How does this happen? How are they doing this?" And I researched these ingredients and they got this chemical that tastes like salt or salty stuff, but also helps maintain that crisp for a 30-minute ride home. It's a pretty dangerous chemical, but it tastes really good and it helps crisp.

So ours, we don't use that. This is where the rice flour comes in; chickpea flour I use as well. And just a really, really good artisan flour and the proper temperature, it helps. But 20 minutes after sitting in a box, it's going to maybe get a little softer.

Why food integrity matters to Rock Harper

The food that you serve is non-GMO and additive-free. Why is that important to you?

I think we just want to serve — I don't like using the word "clean" — we just want to serve as much whole, uninterrupted food as possible. Again, I'm not a food snob. I wrote a book on healthy cooking. There's eating this way and then there's also business. There's a balance. But I just believe that there's a market for it, and people, when they understand what's in their food, they will pay for it, and they want a different option.

Listen, Queen Mother's is the first high-end chicken sandwich restaurant that I'm aware of in the country. So you have burger restaurants that are fast food, you have mid-tier, and then you have these top-tier burger restaurants that use non-GMO and organic and all this stuff. Before Queen Mother's, it didn't exist. So I think there's a market for it and people want it, it just took us to create it.

You wrote a book, "44 Things Parents Should Know About Healthy Cooking for Kids," why do you think we should be having more conversations about the way children eat?

To quote Whitney Houston: "they are the future. Teach them well and they'll lead the way." But I think, as we're seeing now, that underlying health issues or underlying strong health can make or break a lot of things. And we just have to teach kids. I eat fast food, but we have to teach them that there's a time and a place for everything.

And it has so many rippling effects. It's not just the food, it's not just our bodies. And this is going to sound big and worldly: it's not just the environment and the planet; it's political, it has to do with the local economy. So many of those things, I believe, have come to light. But it's our connection, I believe — it's spiritual, it's our connection to the Earth.

So to answer the question, it's important because food is at the center of it all. If we understand that our connection, our association with food, and the impacts it can have on their lives, then they'll carry that into the future and we'll be better as a result.

This is one kitchen tool no home cook should be without, according to Rock Harper

If you could recommend one kitchen tool that every home chef should have, what would it be?

If I had to choose one, a wooden spoon. A wooden spoon is super versatile. It's cheap, you can go to Ikea and probably get one for 38 cents. You can do so much with it — you can fry with it, you don't have to check it in your luggage ... it's lightweight. I think I grew up seeing a wooden spoon! And it stays with you forever if you take care of it. It's easy to maintain. I think that it's the cheapest, most versatile piece of equipment. And you can eat off of it, if that was the one thing you had in your house, you can actually eat off of the wooden spoon, if that was the only utensil you had.

Do you fly with a wooden spoon?

You know what, I should! I'm going to now. Just so I can have some interesting conversations with the TSA, I might have it in my carry-on.

What's next for Rock Harper

What's the next chapter in your career?

The next chapter is making Queen Mother's more successful, so opening up more of them, possibly franchising. But what's really been on the forefront of my mind for years now, and we're about to bring it to fruition, it's really educating and empowering folks in the food business. We're excellent artists, but I'd love to be able to pass on what I know and what other folks know. I know the power of collaboration.

But just more about the business of food. We don't learn about that in culinary school. So the mindset you have to have in mental health within our industry. So what I'm focused on next, is really bringing that in a structured way so people can consume that sort of content.  And I want to get back into TV, this is sort of the same thing, I want to get on somebody's screen. So I'm going to get on my own screen and then get back into entertainment as well. ... Stay tuned very soon, we'll be announcing it. We're going to have a program launching really soon over the next month or two, just on my channels, on rocksolidfood.com. And maybe, I don't know, Mr. Ramsay, he's got a global network, so we might be a global television network now. So we might be popping up on his radar, too!

Keep up with Chef Rock Harper by following him on Instagram, and the next time you're in Washington D.C., be sure to visit Queen Mother's Fried Chicken.