DING! DING ! DING! WE HAVE A WINNER

DING! DING ! DING! WE HAVE A WINNER

We know now the three judges on "Cooking Under Fire" (Todd English, Ming Tsai and Michael Ruhlman) preferred Hagan-Welchel over runner-up Sara Lawson and were dead-set on picking her no matter how she performed on the finale. How? The final cookoff saw Hagan-Welchel turn her dishes in 22 minutes late and she didn't bother to do prepare a dessert, either. Hey, no problem. The judges declared her the winner anyway, with Todd English proclaiming her as "the next great American chef."

Throughout the show, English would carefully describe the winner's prize as "a job as chef at one of my restaurants in the culinary capital of the world, New York City." He never came right out and said which restaurant that might be.

It turns out that Hagan-Welchel got a job at English's Olives restaurant, but as a sous-chef, not as the actually-in-charge chef. Maybe English should have described the top prize as "a position with the word 'chef' in it at one of my restaurants in New York," which is what it turned out to be.

How's she doing? English's web log (Todd's Journal) says "the newest addition to the Olives team-Katie Hagen-Welchel-the winner of my PBS show "Cooking Under Fire," is hard at work in the kitchen and doing GREAT. Throughout the competition we saw how talented she is, and I am so glad to have her here." Other than misspelling her name, it's a nice compliment from her new boss.

It's no wonder she's doing a good job at Olives. Hagan-Welchel is a graduate of Western Culinary School in Portland OR. "My first job out of school was at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York," she says. "I was there when they were awarded four stars. I worked there for two years."

Four stars? You can't beat that. Maybe English should have put Hagan-Welchel in charge his newly opened New York City collaboration with Jeffrey Chodorow, English Is Italian. This restaurant recently received a no-star review from the New York Times. It's ripe for some new talent.

Michael Wray, a 28-year-old sous chef from Fort Collins, CO, emerged as the top chef in Fox reality cooking show "Hell's Kitchen." He bested a field of 12 in a competition in which the winner had to be both a good cook in a real-world restaurant setting, and also be mentally strong enough to withstand constant verbal abuse from show host and British star chef Gordon Ramsay.

True to his word, Ramsay offered Wray ownership of a million-dollar-plus restaurant as his prize for winning. But he threw in another option.

"You have impressed me so much that I want to make you an offer," Ramsay said at the show's conclusion. That offer was a position working at Ramsay's three-Michelin-starred restaurant Claridge's in London.

Wray passed on the restaurant and took the job. Was he nuts? Maybe not. It turns out that Wray had gone to cooking school in London. "I tried for over a year to work for Ramsay, but so did everyone else," Wray told web site coloradoan.com. Now he can.

At least Wray has a wild streak like Ramsay. During the show, he became semi-famous for the many colorful tattoos that run up and down his arms. They're unusual, too, in that they feature a cooking motif, depicting fish, steaks, lobsters and even chef's knives. "In Hollywood, there's a new attitude about chefs, and people like you to be showy," Wray says. "They love it when you break out the tattoos and the Mohawk." Wray didn't sport a Mohawk on the show, "but when it's all over, you'll be seeing it," he says.

You'll also be seeing a second season of Hell's Kitchen. It's already been renewed by Fox, thanks to strong rating numbers that grew as the show went along. For the finale, numbers from Nielsen Media Research show Hell's Kitchen tied with CBS drama CSI as the week's most-watched show among the 18-49 demographic. It was FOX's strongest show of the summer, out-pulling "So You Think You Can Dance."

Unrepresentative as shows like these two might seem to full-service restaurant operators, their success nevertheless underline the general public's fascination with restaurant work and restaurant life.