When Louis Petrozza flew to Hollywood to film the reality television series "Hell's Kitchen" last fall, he lost his job at a Charlotte catering company.
His employer likely is regretting not keeping him on the payroll since Petrozza, now a Winthrop University catering chef, has advanced to the finals of the Fox program.
"When I asked my boss if I could interview for the show he said, 'I don't think that's necessary, Lou. Will it drive sales?' ... Honest to God that's what he said: 'Will it be good for sales,'" Petrozza gushed Friday. "He just didn't want to lose me."
Hosted by foul-mouthed British chef Gordon Ramsay, the show's winner will be decided Tuesday night on Fox when Ramsay, known for his seering insults and demonic putdowns directed at anyone failing to meet his standards, will select a champion. The winner receives a head chef's position at Ramsay's new Hollywood restaurant, the "London West Hollywood."
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At age 47 and balding, it's a good thing for Petrozza this isn't a beauty pageant. His competition in Tuesday's taped episode is a 25-year-old blonde from culinary school, Christina Machamer of St. Louis. With 30 years in the industry, Petrozza has the experience factor working to his advantage, but the gutsy Christina, who Petrozza nominated for elimination last episode, has met the challenge every step of the way.
While he excels at preparation and dish presentation, the New York native is notorious for making a mess in the kitchen. He'll have to overcome that obstacle to impress the perfection-crazed Ramsay.
"Hey, I'm messy," the affable chef admitted. "But I don't mind cleanin', either."
Win or lose, Petrozza, a non-stop talker who lavishes praise on his fellow contestants, may have recorded the craziest moment of the show when he made Ramsay a special dish in the first episode: a cornish hen baked inside a pumpkin. It's a dish he loves and claims he learned as a young chef working on Long Island.
His down-to-earth, talkative style on the show prompted Entertainment Weekly this week to hail him as a "lovable pumpkin stuffer and the most redeeming character on reality TV in a year."
The Brooklyn-born Italian said he grew up around his uncle's restaurants in New York. After high school, he enrolled in community college where he planned to become a lawyer. But the only class he passed, he says, was a backpacking course. So, he eventually transferred to a culinary school and never looked back.
"My Uncle Joe never had a lot of money, but he had this huge Cadillac, and it seemed like a pretty cool lifestyle, ya know," Petrozza said. "I just lived in an Italian family. We all love to eat, and we love to talk. We eat and talk all at the same time."
At 28, Petrozza moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where he opened a deli and catering business. He made his way to Charlotte a few years ago to work for an upscale caterer. He started working at Winthrop a few months ago.
Watching one of their own on national television each week has been a big hit with the catering staff at Winthrop. Co-workers have been following Petrozza's journey from the beginning, leaving messages about his performance each week on his bulletin board. Everyone's crossing their fingers for a Petrozza win on Tuesday.
While most viewers perceive Ramsay, the show's host, as arrogant and overbearing, Petrozza said he grew to respect the colorful chef.
"I'll give it to ya straight, if I got kicked off in the first few days, I'd tell you he's an a--," said Petrozza, who almost quit the show on the second episode after a Ramsay tirade. "But after the fifth or sixth episode, he grows on you. He's a guy with a heart that cares about his fellow man. He's a really cool cat. ... Just don't try to slip one past him in the kitchen."
Petrozza, who has been sworn to secrecy even among family members about the show's outcome, plans to host a party for the final episode with Winthrop friends and family, he said.
"I can tell you this," he said, "All I am is Lou. I'm a regular guy. But I attacked it. I gave it my best shot.
"And I think it would have been good for sales."