“If you can imagine every descriptive possibly associated with a feeling or emotion multiply it by 50,000, drop acid, put a knife in your hand and stand in a box, that might describe how difficult that environment is,” Merel said.
Despite the trauma, he said being on the show was definitely worth it. He was excited to have made the cut of the 10,000 chefs that tried out for the 10thseason of the cooking competition. Now that the show is on the air, he’s been getting a lot of feedback.
“I’ve gotten a lot of interesting calls,” Merel said. “I’ve got calls and texts from people asking if I’m married, if I’m single. I have no complaints until they show me murdering 18 orders of fish on TV. Then people question if I can cook fish.”
‘You’re meant to break’
He insists he can, but that sharing space with a bunch of hardcore personalities with a lot to prove and snoring problems doesn’t help him in the kitchen the next day.
“I made more mistakes in two days in Hell’s Kitchen than I have in my entire nine-year career,” Merel said. “You’re meant to break. Everything you could possibly use as an outlet to calm yourself down is all gone.”
Then of course there were Chef Gordon Ramsay’s famous tirades. But Merel said he didn’t mind that.
“I have nothing but respect for that man,” Merel said. “He’s amazing. He’s got extreme skills. He knows what he wants, and he’s going to get it one way or another. When he yells at me, he wants the best out of me.”
His cooking may have made Merel famous, but it’s a talent the 31-year-old took a long time to discover. Growing up in Deerfield, Merel said he felt there were a lot of expectations on him.
“There are outcasts in every community, but what you’re supposed to do is get good grades, study hard, play sports if you’re good at it. You’re supposed to go to college, get out of college, get a job, marry a woman, impregnate her and move back to the burbs.”
But that plan didn’t work out for Merel.
“I did pretty much everything you’re not supposed to do,” he said.
After graduating from , Merel spent a semester at the Madison Area Technical College before failing out. He’d loved theater in high school, so moved to New York to try to make it as an actor. While he was there he started taking crack.
“I almost died, and that was the end of that,” Merel said.
He moved back home and spent time working as a personal assistant, a janitor and a loan officer. He was fired from every job, and eventually decided to go to culinary school largely as a way to get his parents off his back while he figured out a next move.
“I wasn’t planning on being a chef, I’d never dreamed of being a chef, but it turned I out I was pretty good at it,” Merel said.
‘I didn’t want to be a statistic’
Once he had his culinary degree, Merel got a job as sous chef at Chicago’s Castaways. He worked 17-hour days, six days a week as his alcoholism worsened.
“I never drank during work but at this point, in 2007, I am at a gallon of vodka a day,” Merel said. “I never even chilled it. I would drink it warm out of a plastic bottle.”
He doesn’t remember what made him decide he needed to stop, but it was sudden.
“Something came to me that night and told me if I didn’t stop I was going to die,” he said. “The next day I went to rehab. I was there 15 days and I haven’t had a drink since. I just didn’t want to be a statistic. I know if I make the choice to touch it, I’ll ruin everything that I’ve built in the last five years.”
Merel’s bad employment streak continued and he was fired from Castaways and then again from Chicago’s Theory. After that he decided he was through with the stress and hours of working in a restaurant, which kept him from his other key priorities: his niece’s birthdays, family dinners and Phish concerts.
“In the restaurant business, you are a slave to the restaurant,” Merel said. “You can be there all the time so you miss family, you miss friends, you miss everything. All of that stuff is way too important to me. I don’t want to look back in 10 years and say I wish I had been there.”
Merel currently works as a private chef in Chicago, meeting between 50 and 100 new people every week as he cooks for dinner parties and cooking classes. Now he’s applying what he’s learned in Hell’s Kitchen to his work.
“After being there and experiencing that, nothing scares me, nothing,” Merel said.