America first met chef Van Hurd on the sixth season of Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" in 2009, a 26-year-old Texan and self-described "tatted-up country boy" with a larger-than-life personality. Once the season wrapped, he continued his friendship with co-contestant Kevin Cottle, then the executive chef at the Farmington Country Club, who encouraged him to pick up and move to Connecticut for the next phase of his career.
Eight years later, Hurd prepares to grace the screen again as a "Hell's Kitchen" all-star, as the 17th season of the show, premiering Sept. 29 at 8 p.m., welcomes back 16 former contestants to once again face the irascible Gordon Ramsay's wrath. The winner will claim the grand prize: a head chef position at the world's first Gordon Ramsay Hell's Kitchen Restaurant at Caesars Palace Las Vegas and $250,000.
This time, he brings along his resume full of diverse experience in Connecticut: fine dining at the country club alongside Cottle, creative catering with the former Jordan Caterers in Cheshire and elevated Mexican cuisine at Sayulita in South Glastonbury.
For the past year, he's been heading up the barbecue operations at Middletown's Taino Smokehouse, which recently announced plans to open a second restaurant in Meriden in the former Jacoby's space.
"I was a pretty memorable character, and they brought all the memorable characters back," Hurd says in a recent phone interview. "It's just fun; it's a great experience. With 'Hell's Kitchen,' you get to do so many cool things you'd never get to do in real life."
Hurd says the notoriously snappish British celebrity chef and restaurateur pushed the contestants especially hard this season, as they're all veterans of his tense, fast-paced and demanding competition. "Gordon did expect way more from us because we are all-stars," Hurd says, laughing. "He would call us 'no-stars.'"
Q: Since you're returning as an experienced contestant, did you go in thinking, "I know what Gordon's like, I know his personality"?
A: It was way, way easier the second time, because you kind of knew what to expect, you knew kind of what was going to happen, what was going on. The first time, it's all brand new, it's crazy. It's just like a roller coaster ride. There's always little things, little tricks they try to mess you up on, but all in all, it was great. I think it was a better experience the second time for me.
This is Hollywood …TV is crazy. It's fun. I enjoy it. I feel like the camera loves me.
Q: What do you think people are going to see from you? Are you still the guy with the big personality from the first season, or have you mellowed any with age?
A: I don't know. We'll have to see how it all pans out. Everyone's going so fast when you're on TV. I remember some of it … when I got home, I had to write a lot of stuff down because I won't remember it. Every day's a new adventure, every day's a new challenge. You're really going to see my cooking skills, how they've matured over eight years, my creativity. Maybe I did mellow out a little bit, I'm not sure. I guess America's going to have to be the judge.
Q: Do you think all of your various cooking experiences in Connecticut have helped make you a more well-rounded chef?
A: I definitely think my career path, my experience just made me a way, way better well-rounded chef. It's all part of the journey. It's pretty fun. I've been able to do what I want to do, do different things, and just cook. I just have a passion for food. I love it. And I'm really trying to bring the south up here, so I'm doing the barbecue. There's not a lot of great Mexican up here, so I got to do that.
The catering was so fun, you had to be like MacGyver. You're cooking steak in the middle of a field in a tent with no oven. I always like to challenge myself. I think that's why I'm so good on Hell's Kitchen, because you have to be able to cook on your toes. This business is hard.
Q: Your fans in Connecticut have loved the story about your friendship with Kevin Cottle. The move up north must have been a major culture shock for you?
A: Oh yeah, it was so different coming from Texas to Connecticut. But that's another reason I wanted to be a chef, because I wanted to be able to travel. I was never supposed to be here this long, but I've enjoyed Connecticut. I've had good luck, nothing but good vibes here, good people. I mean, the snow's a little crazy … but I love the seasons up here, the trees, the hills, it's great. I don't have any plans on leaving anytime soon.
Q: You've been at Taino for a little over a year now. Tell us what your influence has been like there?
A: They have a good product, so I'm just trying to make it better. I changed the chili around, because you know I got that good Texas [smoked] chili. So it's really good. I changed the collard greens. I judge a good barbecue restaurant by the sides. The meat's got to be on point, but they have that down. I was just learning that – coming in at 6 in the morning, taking the brisket and pork butts out, putting the chicken and the ribs in, get the fryers going. Everything's wood-fired, smoked the right way. It's good.
With Meriden, everything's going to be better. We're going to up the game. We're doing prime, dry-aged steaks. Everything's going to step up a notch. The goal for Meriden is to be one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in America.
We did a BBQ road trip around the country, went to all the best places, took all the best things that we've seen at the other places and put that into Meriden. It's going to be huge. We're going to have an open Texas-style pit in there, so right when you walk in, you see your meat. The goal for it is going to be like Eataly meets barbecue. There's going to be a whole bunch of stuff going on, a marketplace.