It’s not every day that a young chef wins a reality television show, walking away with a title, a job in the bag, and a $250,000 prize. But that’s what happened when Ja’Nel Witt won Season 11 of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen.
As the sixth female winner of the competition, Witt, who received an AAS degree from the Art Institute of Houston after completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Houston, was supposed to take a job at one of Ramsay’s restaurants in Vegas. Citing personal reasons, however, she ended up not taking the job, returning to Houston instead to pursue other options.
On June 16, Witt accepted a new role as executive chef of popular River Oaks restaurant, Corner Table. In a press release, Michelle Coopwood, co-owner of Corner Table, said, “Corner Table has had a tremendous first year, and with Ja’Nel’s help, we are confident the restaurant will be elevated to the next level and offer an even better experience to our customers.”
Houstonia caught up with Witt for an interview about what she intends to do in her new position.
How did this opportunity come about? Were you a patron of the restaurant? Did you know the owners?
I was approached by the owners. I’ve eaten here; I’ve been here several times. So, when they mentioned the opportunity to me, I thought that it was a really good fit for me. I think the restaurant itself is really eclectic, the clientele is really diverse, and it’s a booming area in Houston. I mean, you’ve got West Ave here, there’s residential, you’ve got Rice Village, and the Galleria is close. I just think it’s a very interesting concept with the Paleo [part of the menu]. It’s something that I haven’t been that familiar with, but I love a challenge, so I can’t wait to get my hands on that part of the menu. I think the clientele is going to be really receptive to a new vision and new flavor profiles on the menu. So, I thought it’d be a great fit.
Are the owners giving you a directive in terms of where they want you to take the menu, or is it all you?
It’s all me. I know for sure they’ve got a really large following of people who come in specifically for Paleo, and there’s also not really—that I know of, at least—specifically another restaurant that has such a variety of options on their menu. The only thing they’re concerned with is losing that audience, and that’s something that I’m concerned with as well. It’s a little niche that they’ve taken advantage of, and I want to continue to do that. Other than that, the menu is completely in my control.
For people who are not familiar with your food, or your style, what do you envision as what you’re going to bring in terms of style or menu change?
As far as style, I would just like to call my culinary point of view as global cuisine. I grew up on a military base, so I’ve always had access to different foods from different countries. Houston is incredibly diverse also, which is why I really love it here. I was executive chef for a Spanish tapas restaurant [Tinto’s, in River Oaks], so that’s definitely a strong point. I spent some time in Thailand. I love the food and the flavors there. I grew up with a lot of Korean and Vietnamese flavors in Houston, and I just like to eat different things and use the flavors that I like with things that people are familiar with. Give you a different experience. You’ve had meatballs before, but maybe you’ve never had meatballs with harissa and dates and figs. I just like to use things that are comfortable for people with things that they’ve never had.
Do you envision the menu taking on more of a fusion or a global ethnic direction, then?
It’s going to be global ethnic, for sure. There’s going to be Thai flavors, there’s going to be Mediterranean, there’s going to be Spanish and local flavors — there’s going to be something for everyone.
Are you tasked with completely revamping the menu?
How do you see this happening? Because it’s a huge menu.
It is a huge menu. I’m going to reduce the menu slightly to make it a little more focused on what I want it to be. I’m going to slowly introduce the menu so that the staff can get adjusted, the front of the house can get adjusted. I don’t want to slam everyone with everything all at once, but I do want to make sure that when I’m completely ready, that it’s going to be perfect.
Are you going to be part of the front of the house?
Oh, for sure. Especially as the menu is in transition. I know there’s a lot regulars and repeat business. I’m really excited to get in and meet everyone. I’d love to talk to tables and see what they think of my culinary point of view, and make this my new home.