DULUTH — For the past two years, Duluth-raised Matthew Francis has been sitting on a secret: What is the meanest thing that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay ever said to him in the course of recording Season 20 of “Hell’s Kitchen”?
With the answer on the horizon, he’s still not budging.
“I don’t know if I can say specifics,” Francis said in a recent phone interview from Maryland, where the young chef is now working for the prepared-meal delivery service Freshly. “There were a lot of mean things. He’s not shy in dealing out insults.”
Francis is in the cast of chefs who were 23 and younger at the time of filming the upcoming season of the series starring Ramsay, the notoriously lippy British chef. “Hell’s Kitchen: Young Guns,” set in Las Vegas, premieres at 7 p.m. May 31 on Fox.
There is no coddling in a trailer for this season.
“We’re running a kitchen, not a kindergarten,” Ramsay says in a clip that also shows contestant tears, flung towels, tossed food and the chef’s meaty growl “GET OUT.”
It's Francis standing next to Ramsay in a scene where the host says, "You talented 18 are the future."
Francis, now 26, is a 2013 Denfeld High School graduate who went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. While in school, he discovered that in addition to preparing food, he enjoyed food media and storytelling. He has been pairing dinner and cameras for years.
“By the time I graduated, I had made 300 videos on YouTube,” he said.
Buzzfeed noticed. Francis was hired to create food videos for its recipe-centric branch Tasty. Among his biggest hits on the site: frozen lemonade, chicken cordon bleu, one-pot chicken-bacon-goat cheese pasta and DIY rolled ice cream. He went on to do the same thing for Los Angeles food bloggers and restaurants, in addition to companies like Viacom, Nickelodeon and MTV, he said.
Francis said he realized that he had the ability to live anywhere and came back to Duluth just before COVID-19 hit. While sheltering-in-place, he continued to create freelance videos for companies and work on his own creative projects: “DinnerViews,” a two-season YouTube series that includes interviews with friends with sidebar videos that show the preparation for their dream meal, and the first novel of a six-part sci-fi-fantasy series.
“I’m someone who always has creative energy,” he said.
While living in Los Angeles, Francis pulled friends, including some familiar faces from Tasty, into an intimate home setting — small table, paintings, white lights, wine — for a conversation and quirky questions.
His guests tell their life stories, show off freaky body tricks, encourage viewers to look inward, reveal that their nutritionist isn’t going to like this dietary splurge and, alongside sharing their own hotdish, deep-dark secrets, are ultimately presented with their dream food dish: spinach salad with strawberries, candied walnuts and poppy seed vinaigrette, Nutella crepes, apple Manchego toasts, maple pork shoulder-collard greens-mashed potatoes with wild mushrooms.
The hourlong episodes of “DinnerViews” — there are 24 — have engaging guests with authentic conversations ranging from theories on love to a story about a time a woman’s brother accidentally drugged himself when he used his mother’s weed oil to make chicken.
The pandemic’s downtime also gave Francis space to write the book he had been thinking about for years: four genetically evolved teenagers learn how to be time-travel agents. “Prax and the Hazardous Countdown” is a YA science fiction-fantasy with LGBTQ+ themes and set in Duluth.
The cover art is by artist Megan McNamee, a native of Duluth and, Francis promised, “There’s a ton of food in there.”
While he has created so many videos for other entities, Francis maintains that it is important that he also has work that belongs to him.
“If I can create the story myself, people will come to me,” he said.
In the kitchen
Like his gig with BuzzFeed, Francis' social media brought scouts from “Hell’s Kitchen” and even though he had never seen the show, he signed on.
“I’m always saying yes to opportunities,” he said. “I did an audition, that was fun, then boom: we shot the show. I will tell you, it was a crazy experience with a lot of good and a lot of bad.”
“Hell’s Kitchen” isn’t Francis' first food-related competition. In 2015, then still in culinary school, Francis and classmate Cullen Folks (who appears in his “DinnerViews” series) were part of a contest to create Super Bowl party fare using PepsiCo products. Their Pepsi-marinated chicken and cabbage slaw simmered in Sierra Mist won them tickets to Super Bowl XLIX — best known for “Deflategate” and the dancing shark — and $5,000 in scholarship money.
This time, he can’t yet reveal specifics, though he will offer generalities. He’s proud of some of it, not so proud of other parts. This show is bigger than him, he said, and next season, there will be all new contestants.
“It’s cool to be two years wiser,” he said, adding that he plans to watch it and cringe. He’s relatively new to Maryland, where he lives near an international food market that is influencing his self-described veggie-forward meals like a recent Korean dish, Tteokbokki: spicy stir-fried rice cakes.
He plans to invite his new friends over for the screening.
“Make fun of the show, make fun of me, have some wine, laugh,” he said.