Mary Lou Davis Reveals All About Her Experience On Hell's Kitchen - Exclusive Interview

For "Hell's Kitchen" fans, the Season 19 finale was a real nail-biter as Mary Lou Davis battled it out with Kori Sutton. In the end, Sutton won, and Davis was runner-up. "Hell's Kitchen" showcased Davis, but there was a lot that wasn't revealed. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Davis opens up about her life before, during, and after "Hell's Kitchen." She's as bubbly, personable, and funny in person as she was on the show. Davis's "Hell's Kitchen" experience was transformative, not only career-wise but also emotionally. The show built up her confidence as each week her leadership was tested. But it also made her aware of the undercurrent of inequality in the restaurant industry for a Black female executive chef. When Davis got the call from "Hell's Kitchen," her bosses at Whiskey Cake Kitchen and Bar dissuaded her, essentially telling her she was being scouted not for her skills but because she was "interesting." 

Fortunately, Davis listened to her intuition and was cast, but she suffered consequences for her decision. Season 19 was shot in 2019, but due to delays caused by COVID-19, it didn't begin to air until January 2021. During the interim, Davis couldn't speak to anyone about "Hell's Kitchen," and people started doubting she was even on the show. And then, she was furloughed from her job as Executive Chef at Whiskey Cake. But Davis had the last word and triumphed by earning Gordon Ramsay's admiration and respect. Our interview with Davis is eye-opening, as she gives a detailed insider's perspective of "Hell's Kitchen" and how Ramsay changed her life.

Mary Lou Davis had a culinary degree but started out as a dishwasher

You attended the Culinary Institute of America. What inspired you to apply?

I actually went to a couple of different schools, because I didn't really have the money for CIA. I knew I wanted to go to culinary school, but I'd been told it's not really about the school, it's about the education. So I went to a couple community colleges. I went to the Arts Institute. I went to Le Cordon Bleu, but I went to the CIA and I just loved everything, and my dad looks so at me and he's like, "Oh man." And I was like, "This is it." So, luckily, they do a really good scholarship program, so I ended up getting almost 50 grand just in scholarships.

When did you start cooking? When did you feel this was your passion?

I had been cooking for a couple of years. I think I had maybe... not started, but you're cooking yourself small meals. I was doing it when I was like 6 or 7, but it wasn't really for me, it was for my grandma, because she's like, "Go in the back and then go make me this and this and that." And my grandma's cooking is like, I'd make fried bologna and egg sandwiches, or I'd make the crab nachos with imitation crab meat, or just little things like that. And I just knew I liked it because it was fun, but it wasn't until I was about 16 when I actually thought about it as a career, because I was in home ec[onomics] and I'm like, "I forgot I really do like cooking. This is really fun." And then, we're watching this video about "What should you be when you graduate?" And I'm like, "Oh, I could work in a restaurant. I forget that this is an actual job." So once I decided on it, I went all in. I never looked back.

And then after culinary school, you worked at several restaurants?

My first job was actually at a horseracing track, and I was a dishwasher. So in the morning they'd let me prep, and at night I always had to do all the dishes. And in high school, all of my friends are servers and banquet servers and restaurant servers, and they would all come back and they'd drop off all their dishes and they're like, "Hey, Mary." And it would just be me and this one tall guy who I'm pretty sure did meth. So I started as that, and then I moved on, and I worked at a catering company in college, because I have two degrees: one in hospitality management and the other one from the CIA.

And so, when I went to just a regular university, I worked at a catering company just so I could get more practice and do more things. And even to get that job, I just was in the school hall applying for jobs, and I see two guys in chef coats walk by, and I just followed them. I was like, "Hi, my name's Mary, and I do this." And they're like, "Do you want a job?" And I said, "Yes. Yes, please." So that's how I ended up getting that one. And it wasn't until I graduated from the CIA four years later that I actually got a job cooking in a restaurant. I was actually doing serving in a lot of the restaurants. It's just a faster way for me to make money and it worked with my schedule for school.

Mary Lou Davis had challenges as a female executive chef

And then you moved on to Whiskey Cake Kitchen and Bar as a sous-chef?

I did what's called "kitchen manager," so you're not fully a sous chef. You're just managing kitchens, doing sous chef things, but it's not really the title, and you're not really contributing to the menu. And then, I did that first and then it was sous chef, and I ended up getting promoted maybe eight or nine months later to executive chef, and I was there for about four years.

What was it like being the youngest chef and the only female chef?

It was exciting and also intimidating. It was just exciting because it was a new experience, but I mean, even for me to get the job, they had talked to me and they were like, "Mary, I don't want to put you in a job that we don't think you're ready for, because it's not like you get a bunch of chances. No, it's like, we have to either fire you or demote you." And the last thing you want to do is get demoted, but I already knew that I had to work twice as hard being the youngest and the only female chef, trying to make sure that I can get everybody else's respect.

In my restaurant, they'd all seen my work ethic. They knew who I was, and they all respected m. But there are six other locations, and I don't want anyone thinking, "Oh, Mary is just pretty, and she sweet-talked her way to this position." No. Don't look at the way that I look. Judge me by my performance. So that's one thing that I had to go through, and it's something that I didn't really notice until I started to get higher up into my career, and I started realizing, "Oh, I am the only girl right now. I am the only one that's not in their 30s." It was just a really big eye-opener.

"Hell's Kitchen" pursued Mary Lou Davis to be on the show

Why did you apply to "Hell's Kitchen"?

Actually, I didn't apply. They found me. I got a message on Instagram. I had recently started posting pictures on Instagram of me cooking and my restaurant. And so, I think you're seeing those pictures, and you see my different hairstyles, and you see me cooking, and somebody sent me a message like, "Hey, Mary. You look like you'd be perfect for Hell's Kitchen. Would you like to have a phone call?" And I thought it was a joke. I was like, "Somebody's messing with me." So I Googled this woman to figure out if she's real or not, and yeah, she was, and we ended up doing a Skype interview a week later. And after about four months, there I was on the show.

Did you have to go through a process? A long application, an interview, a psychological exam?

Oh yeah, we definitely had to do all that. I did my Skype interview and after that, maybe a couple of weeks later... because I believe I was actually the first person that they were talking to, which is why my process took so long. So I did my Skype interview, after that, they were like, "Hey, can you send us videos of you cooking? Can you send pictures of your stuff?" And that was really hard for me. Not the pictures, but the videos, because I don't like people recording me when I'm in the kitchen, because it goes back to that mentality where it's like, "I'm not here so that I can stand out and be that pretty person or that person doing social media. I'm here to work." And so, it really brought me out of my comfort zone for me to ask my staff, "Can you record me cutting this and taking these?"

So I submitted that. And then I was in Florida, opening up another Whiskey Cake, and they're like, "Hey, can you be here in like four days? We need to show you in front of all the producers, and you need to go and talk to all of them." And I told them "Unfortunately, I can't do that. I'm here, I'm trying to open up this restaurant, and it's myself, the other chefs, as well as our CEO, our corporate chef, our director of operations. And if I leave here, they're going to think that I don't take it seriously because I'm trying to go be on a television show." And so I told her, "I can't do it. Maybe next year." And I think the next day, her boss calls me and is like, "Mary, you need to come out here and talk to these people. What is it that we have to do?"

How did your bosses at Whiskey Cake react?

So, I go and I tell my bosses, and each one of them is giving me just a laundry list as to why I should not do this, and how I'm going to look a certain way, and how they're only putting me on there because I'm interesting and not because I'm talented. They didn't say it in those words, but that's what they meant. What my GM (general manager) had told me was, "They're going to put you up against people that you're going to lose against because you're interesting." So, that made me feel a certain way.

But my friend who was there, who was another chef opening the restaurant, he's like, "Mary, just f*** all that. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and if they don't understand it, then they don't understand it." So I told my corporate chef, "Look, I get two days off. And on those two days, I'm going to go over here and do this." And he goes, "You have two days off; it's your business." 

What was the interview process like for "Hell's Kitchen"?

So, it was doing something that was supposed to take five days, I had to do it in a pretty much a day and a half. So they flew me down there. And I think I only got like four hours of sleep, because as soon as I get there, they put me inside the hotel room, and then I'm in one interview and then other interview. And then, I had to take some type of blood test, and then we go to sleep and the next morning we're doing two more interviews, and the psychological tests, and they're asking me a bunch of things on a bunch of questionnaires.

And then, I got on a plane, went home, got back at like midnight, and then had to go to work at like 5:00 AM. And I was like, "Well, it is what it is." And that whole process was... it was a lot. But then after that, it was pretty much over. I didn't hear from anybody for like a month, so I just assumed, "Hey, I didn't get it." And I messaged the lady. I sent her an email and said, "Thank you so much for considering me. I appreciate it." And she messages me back immediately. "Mary, we're not allowed to talk about it before getting everything done, but I'm pretty sure you made it on there, so please don't make any plans for the next month." And I waited, and I think about a week later, they're like, "Hey, we're filming in three weeks, so get ready to come back." So as soon as I got back from Florida, two weeks later, I had to go to LA so we can start shooting this, and it really did impact my career with Whiskey Cake later on down the road.

Mary Lou Davis says her first day on "Hell's Kitchen" was terrible

Tell us about your first day on "Hell's Kitchen".

Oh, it was terrible. We ended up getting there, and everybody is arriving one by one, and this is going to be the night before. We're all in our own rooms. Nobody knows who's where and you don't know who to talk to anyways. And the whole time, I'm panicking, because the last thing that anyone was saying to me, for my GM and my managers and stuff, they were just like, "You're only there because you're interesting," and so then I just was questioning everything about myself, and I just felt like I wasn't good enough. And I remember I called my mom, and I was in tears. I was bawling.

I was like, "Mom, I can't do this. I'm going to get on...a plane tomorrow, and I'm not going to embarrass myself out here. This is stupid. I don't know why I'm here." And my mom rock. She's my everything. She raised me. It's just been her and me my entire life. And she was like, "I cannot believe you right now. Why are you acting like this? You need to buck up, and you need to be better. I've never been more disappointed in you. You're so great, and I can't understand why you don't see how great you are." And I left there feeling kind of confused, because she kind of hurt my feelings a little more, but also made me feel really silly for what I was thinking of. And I called one of my other friends, and he's like, "Look, Mary. Don't let anybody's resume ever intimidate you. You can't judge yourself based on somebody else's resume."

And the next day, I have to give my phone up, because we're all sequestered, so I gave my phone up. And I am on the bus with everyone, and when I get really nervous, I shiver. But luckily, it was also very cold, so you just see me shaking the entire time, because I'm terrified. I didn't know what to do. And all these people are on there, you see how they're all really excited. They're all talking about their cool tattoos that they have. And like, "Yeah, well, I do this and I do that." And I'm just in the corner. Small. I'm already only five feet, but I usually have a big personality that makes up for it; but it's just me sitting there in the back with my purple hair, not saying anything. And we get to the actual set and they brought out the champagne, and I was like, "Thank God," because champagne's...that's my energy drink.

So then, I took two of those, and then Chef Ramsay comes out, and I immediately just started panicking, because you know what's going to come up next. It's like, "All right. Now it's time for your signature dish." And I was like, "I can't remember how to cook anything. This is where I go home." 

And it was pretty much me panicking for the first, I don't know, maybe 10 episodes. I'm just in my head. I'm nervous. I'm not thinking I'm good enough. But once I started to stop comparing myself to everybody else, that's when I started getting recognition. That's when he's just like, "Mary, that's really good," or, "This tastes really great." It definitely gave me so much confidence when I left. And I think that's another reason why things were different for me at my job, because I was more confident in myself, and I was more outspoken like, "Hey, this isn't right. Let's do this."

Gordon Ramsay never yelled at Mary Lou Davis

Why do you think Gordon Ramsay never yelled at you?

When I look back at it, I don't think he yelled at me at any time. I know he definitely would talk to me and he'd give me that stern look where it's like, "Man, I got it. I won't do it again." But I think that's because he saw the fact that I would own up to any mistakes that I made. I was never about myself. I was always about the team, because that's just how I was brought up. There are a lot of people there that were like personal chefs and private chefs, and when you do that, your care and concern is on you. But I'm working in all these kitchens, and we succeed as a team, we fail as a team. And I believe that he just saw that in me and was like, "I like this. I like the way that she's working. She's got good work ethic."

I was really good at communicating. Whenever we do our solo challenges, then I'd be really nervous, but when we're on the line, I'm great on the line. So I'm in my own natural habitat. I wasn't talking. I was just vibing. I was going, "Are you good? Do you need help? How is everything?" There were actually plenty of times where I wouldn't be in my station anymore because I'd finished, and I'd go on somebody else's station and help them. And I remember one time where he's upset because something came out wrong and he looks and he goes, "And there's Mary, not at her station." I was like, "I got to go. Okay, I'm going to go back over here and shake some things, because you got to do this by yourself now."

Was he different off-camera?

No, he was the same on- and off-camera. He's just different in and out of the kitchen. That's when things would change. So whenever we would have any of our challenges, I'd always look at his shoes, because that's how you could tell what challenge was going to happen. So if he's wearing sneakers, we're not in the kitchen, but if he was wearing his kitchen shoes, that means he's doing things in and out of the kitchen. So I'm like, "Oh, okay, we're leaving. Don't panic, Mary. Everything's going to be fine." And you watch his other shows where he's putting on makeup to change his identity. He's really playful. But when he is in the kitchen, that's his bread and butter. That's his name. He's like, "Let me know beforehand." He just doesn't like surprises. And who likes those in the kitchen?

Mary Lou Davis didn't expect to lose

What was it like competing with Kori on the final show?

The whole time we had been on the show, Kori and I were just getting closer and closer every time, and she would always tell me, she's like, "Mama, it's going to be me and you in the end." And I would just nod, because I didn't see myself making it to the end, but I didn't want to be rude. And also, I didn't want to tell everybody like, "Oh, I'm going to go home." I just wouldn't say anything. So I'd nod. And it'd be like, every elimination, I'm still there. Every day, I'm still there. And then, finally, it's just myself and Kori, and I never really felt like I was battling up against Kori or going against Kori.

She had always been my teammate. She'd always been nice to me. When I would have trouble with something, I'd ask her, and she'd never make me feel bad about that, so I do appreciate she's like, "No, let me show you. It's like this." So, her and I going against each other, I didn't feel like two rivals. It just felt like two people were just working in two separate kitchens. If anything, I was more focused on making sure that everything in my kitchen can at least go smoothly. But the last day was definitely...I don't know. I feel like I was kind of numb to it at the very beginning.

I was like, "You know what? There's nothing else past this point. You either win or you lose, but I've already proved who I am to the rest of the world. The best chef in the country, the world, just knows that I'm good enough to be here. I'm not just a pretty face. I'm somebody that gets things done." So I already felt great, and we're going in, and now we're prepping my menu, and I'm good in the kitchen. I'm like, "You know what? I can get all this s— done. Don't worry about it." I could have worked all the positions and been just fine. But trying to show myself off as a leader, I've been already doing that for four years, so I'm like, "I got this. Don't worry about it." Did I expect to lose? Not so much, but it's okay. It's okay.

How Mary Lou Davis felt when she lost

How did you feel about losing?

When I lost, I was devastated. Just for maybe about a good 20, 30 minutes, because the whole time, I'd been afraid that I wasn't going to make it, and then all of a sudden, when we had that last service, I had already known. This could have been better. And I don't want to blame anybody on my team, but my team kind of let me down a little bit. But the captain always goes down with the ship, so at the end of the day, it's still my fault.

And I remember sitting there on the couch next to Kori, and we were eating fish and chips because we hadn't eaten that entire day, and it was really nice because we were just two people talking. I had my head on her shoulder, and she's rubbing on my arm and we're just talking. And then, we get up and we're walking up the stairs so that we can go into Gordon Ramsay's office, and the whole time, I'm just like, "What do I do if the door doesn't open? Where do I go?" You know how when you're watching Maury and they're like, "You are not the father," and the girl runs? I know why she runs now. You just got to get out of there.

And so, we're there. He's like, "Open up the door. Turn the knob." I wish the knob just wouldn't have turned, but it turns, and it just doesn't open. I just felt terrible. I was like, "I couldn't do it." I just felt like a giant failure.

And I remember turning around because I was about to run, and Chef Ramsay just grabs me by my shoulders, and he puts his head on mine. He's like, "You're great. Don't feel like you're not great. You're doing such a fantastic job, and you're only going to go farther and you're only going to get better. And I can't wait to work with you. You can work at any of my restaurants." And after that, I just felt so validated. I was like, "You really think so? You think that I'm good enough to do this?" Obviously, Kori won, and she deserved to win, but I definitely know I can go to any of his restaurants and work anywhere, so I feel worthy. I feel great.

"Hell's Kitchen" might have cost Mary Lou Davis her job

Earlier you said that "Hell's Kitchen" impacted your career at Whiskey Cake.

Yes, in a negative way. So after we had shot the show, we shot in 2019, and so in 2020, COVID was running rampant and we were laying off people. And you would think of me, as the executive chef, I'm not the one that's going to get furloughed, but I definitely ended up losing my job. And my GM was telling me, "Hey, you and I are the only ones that make the most money. One of us has to be furloughed so we can pay for everybody else." And so I took it as I'm sacrificing my job so everybody else can still keep theirs, or at least all the managers. And I took my furloughing graciously, and I said, "Thank you for this opportunity."

They're like, "Hey, don't worry. When we start hiring people back, we'll call you." And I was in the car and somebody else calls me and says, "Mary, I'm letting you know that I just got furloughed." And I said, "No, you couldn't have gotten furloughed because I got furloughed so that nobody else had to get furloughed." And she goes, "Well, they furloughed me." And I couldn't understand it, so I'm calling the other restaurants, my other chef friends. I said, "Did anybody at your restaurant get furloughed?" They're like, "No." So they were just using this moment to furlough me because they're thinking as though, I guess, I'm thinking that I'm better than everybody else because I was on a TV show, and that's not how I act at all.

I am a very humble person. That's not how my mom raised me. And the only thing that myself and this other girl had in common were the fact that we were both ladies and we were both the same skin color. That's the only thing. Because she worked in the front of the house, and I worked in the back. And it was just such an eye-opener, because I'd always felt like I'd been treated like an equal when it came to my restaurant, and I didn't appreciate the fact that this is why I'm being taken out. My numbers weren't the best, but my numbers weren't the worst. If you're going to get rid of somebody, whoever's food cost is the highest, you should get rid of that person. Whoever's labor is the highest, you should get rid of that person. But I'm constantly maintaining. My morale is great. My staff is working. We're doing everything we're supposed to, but then I ended up getting furloughed, and it broke my heart.

Couldn't you tell management about how well you did on "Hell's Kitchen"?

Couldn't say s—. And my mama knew because she was there with me, so she's like, "Nope, I'm not going to tell anybody. This is our secret." But I wanted to tell everyone. And then, after a while, because it was waiting so long to air, people were like, "Were you even on that show?" And I was like, "Who really knows?" So when it finally starting to air, that's when things started to get different around my restaurant. I had been furloughed, but after two weeks, they brought me back. And then, I actually found out this Saturday...I was in Houston talking to one of my friends, and then he was like, "Yeah, your GM's the one that let you go. And he said that after he had done that after two weeks, he knew it was like one of the worst decisions he had made in his life."

Because my sous chefs and everybody weren't as organized because I wasn't there, and morale's all the way down because I'm not there, and everyone had already felt s—-y because I bring a lot of the light in energy into the restaurant. I'm just a happy person. So they brought me back, and it was very weird at first, and it took me a while to get over the fact that I had been let go. But once the show started to come out, I felt like my company wasn't as excited. I'm excited for what's going on, and you would think...They didn't know how far I'd gotten it because it hadn't aired at least overseas yet, so they didn't know what was going on, but they knew I didn't talk about it because I wasn't allowed to.

And anytime I would mention it, nobody else would talk about it. Or I'm like, "Hey, the show's coming out. Do you guys want to have me on something saying, 'Hey, this person's actually on "Hell's Kitchen" and talking about it'?" And they said no. And around January, I think it was around January, our corporate chef and our CEO ended up getting fired. And then, we got a new corporate chef and a new CEO, and that's when everything really started to change for me. He made me feel like I was great. He was just like, "You know what, Mary? You're a graduate of the CIA. You've been here for this long. Your labor's like this. Your food cost is like this. You're on a television show." He's like, "I don't understand why you're not getting more praise."

And I said, "I don't know why either. This is how it's always been here, and I've just learned to keep my head down and do my job." Because one, I couldn't leave to get another job at that time because of COVID. Who was really hiring in the restaurant industry? So I'm just like, "Keep your head down. Finish this. 2021's just starting, and I just need to get out." And he's like, "Please don't feel that way. I want you to know that we appreciate you and we're going to start promoting and talking about you." And I'm like, "That's all I want. I just want people to acknowledge that I've done something." So the marketing team starts working with me, and then we started having actual, little "Hell's Kitchen" parties. And I thought they were really nice."

Mary Lou Davis mixes cosplay and cooking in her YouTube show

Your YouTube show "Geeks and Grubs" combines cooking with cosplay. How did that come about?

I've been cosplaying for a while. I just didn't know what it was called. My aunt would take me to Renaissance fairs, and I used to love it because she'd been taking me since I was 16. I'd get dressed up and I'd go. Or when I went to college, I was an RA (resident advisor) in the dorms, and so I would dress up as different celebrities on days I couldn't leave, and I would just walk the halls as different celebrities because I thought it was fun. And it wasn't actually until 2019...that I actually started going to conventions and cosplaying. And I was like, "That's fun." I love meeting other people that cosplay, that watch anime, that do all just fun, nerdy stuff. And now, actually nerd culture is very big, and I see it coming out everywhere...

But it's just something that I love to do, and it was a fun way to express myself. Same way with my hair is changing colors. I'm wearing the same uniform, same outfit every day like everyone else. I can't change it. But I can change my hair, and I can change my makeup. And I just really enjoy transforming into another character. I like building the armor. I don't know how to sew, but I'll learn how to do that. It's fun. And I just loved the fact that I could start my "Geeks and Grubs" and bring my love of food and my love of cosplay together. I mean, haven't you been watching a TV show or a cartoon you're like, "That looks good. I wonder what that taste like." And I was like, "I'll make it. I can make that. I know where the inspiration came from that."

Will you be doing more episodes of "Geeks and Grubs"?

Yes. So I'm actually going to start filming more episodes next week. I have somebody...I can't edit for s— and I also don't like to, so now I have a friend that's going to edit the rest of the photos, but they're also going to help me shoot it. It's so hard shooting all these things by myself, so I'm like, "I just need somebody else here." And honestly, we're recording the whole things on our iPhones, and then I would upload everything, and they're working on it. But I have a lot of good episodes coming up, and honestly, they're just fun. I'm just doing it because it makes me laugh. And it's like the whole saying where they're always like, "If you do something you love, you're never working a day in your life." 

What does the future hold for you?

I know I have some more things coming up in the works, but I can't talk about them yet until I'm 100% sure that they're going to happen. Right now, it's just hearsay. 

To learn more about Mary Lou Davis's continuing adventures in the culinary world, follow her on Instagram. You can watch all episodes of "Geeks and Grubs" on her YouTube channel.