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Crunch Time for Tennille on 'Hell's Kitchen'

Tennille gets yet another earful from Gordon Ramsay during an episode of "Hell's Kitchen." She is one of just four remaining cheftestants. Will she go home tonight? (Fox)

Watching a photo of your face go up in flames on nationwide TV has got to be unsettling. Whether that will happen to Tennille Middleton tonight is a secret she won’t divulge.

She can’t, of course. Cheftestants on Fox’s "Hell's Kitchen" and other such shows practically agree to be boiled in oil if they spoil the suspense. But Middleton, the executive chef at Sweetwater Tavern in Falls Church, can discuss some things about the show. And what she most wants to talk about, it seems, is her personality.

“I’m a pretty lovable person,” she insists.

That brash, foul-mouthed, f-word-slinging Tennille we see during the interviews on the show?

Not really her, she says. (How about the brash, foul-mouthed, Mean Chef host Gordon Ramsay? Well, that IS really him, she says. But enough about him.)

Middleton, 28, is aware that she’s a polarizing force onscreen. “You either love me or you hate me,” she says. That a lot of viewers do seem to hate her is clear from message boards and blogs, which she reads: “It’s been the worst part about doing the show.”

The best part, she says: Watching how Ramsay runs a kitchen has taught her how not to run hers. “Being in that environment … made me a lot calmer in the kitchen. I’ve set the tone in my restaurant to just chill out.” She realized that her crew of mostly Hispanic workers had been taking negative cues from her face and body language. “Now, I try to be a little more lighthearted around them,” she says.

Middleton, who recently moved from Fairfax to Oxon Hill, squeaked into the show’s final four last week despite a fairly dismal performance. Fortunately for her, other cheftestants had an even worse night. At the end of the evening, Ramsay hung Suzanne’s chef’s coat on a hook, igniting her picture. Tonight at 8, the TVs on the wall at Sweetwater will be tuned to the show so diners can follow the action and watch her command her own restaurant’s open kitchen.

The Middleton you see on the show is about 100 pounds lighter than before she graduated from culinary school at Johnson & Wales. At 276 pounds and with regular dieting not working for her, she had gastric bypass surgery. Now, “I kind of go up and down,” she says. “It’s hard, being in this profession. I’m always quality-checking, eating something. So it’s difficult.” But “I’m a lot healthier.”

The Middleton you see on TV is also just clowning around, she says. Those expletive-laden interviews are pretty much theater, just blowing off steam to break the tension of the show: “If you know me, you understand that I’m being comical. That’s definitely not my intellectual side.” She claims to be puzzled by viewers’ negative reactions to it. “The surprise of it all,” she says, is that “people actually do think, ‘She just used a bad word. What kind of chef is that?’ They are judgmental about it. But it’s all in fun.”

-- Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  October 6, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags: Hell's Kitchen, Jane Touzalin  
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