To Hell and Back

For chef Mary Lou Davis ('13), the reality show Hell's Kitchen proved to be an invaluable learning experience.
Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Mary Lou Davis
Mary Lou Davis ('13)

For a brief time in 2019, Mary Lou Davis ('13) disappeared.

She left her job -- and her cell phone -- for about three weeks so no one could reach her.

Each day during that time, she woke up at 7 a.m. to get ready as a contestant on FOX's Hell's Kitchen, the reality show hosted by fiery British chef Gordon Ramsay.

Davis participated in a challenge, then proceeded to the reward or punishment round. After that, she put on her chef whites and ran the restaurant before the elimination process took place.

"We did that every day for three weeks," she says. "I lost 10 pounds."

But she says the experience has made her a better executive chef for Whiskey Cake, the farm-to-table restaurant in San Antonio where she has worked for three years.

"Hell's Kitchen just boosted my confidence," she says. "It made me a stronger individual. It's like my plating techniques. I'm my own individual, and I need to do what's best for me."

Commanding the kitchen

Growing up in San Antonio, other kids wanted to be doctors or lawyers. She wasn't quite so sure.

"I didn't know what I was good at," she says. "I knew I always liked to eat."

A high school culinary program convinced her that she could do the job.

But she also had aspirations to be on TV and, when she arrived at UNT on a full scholarship with the Emerald Eagle Scholars program, she majored in journalism. At the end of her sophomore year, she cried outside the building because she knew journalism wasn't right for her.

She changed majors to hospitality management in the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism, eagerly taking courses from principal lecturer Jodi Duryea.

After earning her degree, she went to the Culinary Institute of America of San Antonio, known for its prestigious program and military-like intensity -- if a student had three tardies, they had to retake the class.

"You will be there," she says. "It taught me structure, and it taught me organization."

When she graduated in 2015, she then worked at Pappadeaux as a kitchen manager, then served as sous chef for Perry's Steakhouse, Tower of the Americas and Whiskey Cake until she was finally promoted to executive chef.

"The kitchen is always super intense," she says. "I'm just this young, small girl. Most people think I'm the hostess. But, I'm in the back with these guys. I command the ship."

'Really, Mary Lou?'

That kind of leadership inspired friends to suggest that she try out for Hell's Kitchen, known for Ramsay's constant cursing and outbursts toward contestants.

"Would I ever go on the show?" she told them. "Absolutely not. He's going to yell at me, and I'm either going to cry or yell back."

But producers were intrigued by her Instagram feed and reached out to her.

"I thought it was a joke," she says. "Yeah, sure."

But it was real. Soon she was conducting an interview over Skype, and the next thing she knew, she was on the show. The season was shot in 2019 in Las Vegas, but the episodes were delayed to make up for other TV production gaps during the coronavirus pandemic.

So, did Ramsay yell at her?

"He never yelled at me," Davis says. "He hit me with the disappointed dad look. 'Really, Mary Lou?'"

If he does yell at a cook, "he's only yelling at you because he doesn't like to repeat himself. 'Mary Lou, make sure you're wiping these plates.' He's never there for sabotage. He wants you to look good."

Although Davis can't say if she won, she says she's satisfied with the season's results.

"I'm ecstatic," she says. "I couldn't be happier."

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