Fresh and innovative describe both the food and the environments of the high-end cooking competition shows HELL'S KITCHEN, MASTERCHEF and MASTERCHEF JUNIOR. They all share two top-of-their-profession aspects, the demanding and discerning chef of international acclaim, Gordon Ramsay, and his equally talented and dedicated design and decor team. These are not only visually stunning sets, they are real workspaces and, in the case of HK, living spaces! At the end of the day, one of the biggest challenges for the competitors is that the food has to taste as good as the sets look! And when you start to look beyond the glamour and design, you discover that even the behind-the-scenes functionality is top level.
Set Decorator Heidi Miller SDSA does just that as she describes for us her work on all three of these dazzling reality challenge series...
Karen Burg, Editor
From Heidi Boyle Miller SDSA...
Production Designer, John Janavs, asked me to decorate the first season of HELL'S KITCHEN. We had done multiple seasons of the MAN SHOW together and were doing JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE at the time. I was also pregnant with my first child and I didn't think I would be able to swing this rigorous reality show that he was about to take on. So I turned him down. It wasn't until Season 5 of HK* that he was able to sway me to come over.
Little did I know at that time what a huge role Gordon Ramsay would play in my life. I have now completed a total of 13 seasons of HK, 8 seasons of MASTERCHEF and 6 seasons of MASTERCHEF JUNIOR, equaling a whopping 27 seasons in total!
Thank God for Gordon Ramsay! He has employed a lot of grateful people over the years.
HELL'S KITCHEN and MASTERCHEF are completely different beasts and each has their own unique challenges.
HELL'S KITCHEN is a massive undertaking. Each season (or couple of seasons as we often shoot two back to back), we build a fully functioning restaurant from the ground up.
Our team (lead by our PD John Janavs, Art Directors Robert Frye and Kevin Lewis and our amazing Construction Coordinator John Shearer) creates 24,000 square feet of four-wall, fully experiential space, which is covered from every angle by 78 stationary robotic cameras and dozens of manned cameras hidden within the set walls.
When a guest arrives at HK for dinner, they do not perceive it as a set. From the valet stand and the grand entry to the dinner service for 110 seated patrons, through two fully functioning commercial kitchens, to the living quarters that house up to 18 contestants at a time, the set functions as a seamless "real" environment. All areas are heavily designed and everything within the set walls is seen by camera.
We also do lots of location shoots in and around Los Angeles for the Challenges and Rewards segments. John, Robert and I design all of the built sets together. We have a fantastic, collaborative relationship and I feel like we get better each time we build a new season. My background is in Interior Design and it is fun for me, coming also from the scripted world, to design expansive commercial spaces.
Our "character" is a well-known celebrity chef. Gordon Ramsay has a restaurant empire with dozens of eateries and has been awarded 16 Michelin Stars over his career. He is more than just a reality star—he has a reputation of excellence, and we try hard to build a space that he is proud to stand in.
Everything that we do is dictated by the stage we are to shoot on, and it can vary greatly each season. The biggest challenges for us, often, are the living quarters. It is also an opportunity for us to really run wild and mix things up. We have done some dramatic design shifts over the years!
We just finished filming Seasons 17 and 18. For the first time ever, we shot in an old Costco. Our living quarters were constructed in what was formerly a tire center. We needed to generate architecture in this empty space. My buyer, Nancy Garber [SDSA Associate Member], found some fabulous salvaged columns at Old Good Things that transformed the central corridor and served to inspire lots of other design choices. When we opened the set, Gordon walked around with me to survey everything. In true GR style he exclaimed, "This is F@#*ing amazing! What a sophisticated space! Wow! I can't believe that this was once a F@#*ing Costco!!!"
[Editor’s note: Check back in September when Season 17 airs—we’ll have set photos that we’re not allowed to reveal right now!]
Aside from the Challenges and location shoots, we purchase pretty much everything seen on camera. We use a tremendous amount of wallpaper and I am eternally thankful for the supportive patience of Aaron Kirsch and his team at Astek Wallcovering. There are some days that I am there more than I am at my office. F&S Fabrics is another favorite stop. Eric has saved me more times than I can count. Some of my other favorite vendors include HD Buttercup, Floorplan and Arte Fina. When I cannot find what I want, I often reupholster with updated fabrics that match our new theme.
My crew is the best of the best! They have a lot of set dressing to manage and keep organized. From our enormous floral world to our expansive silver room, they have a lot to keep track of besides doing the setup and wrap!
MASTERCHEF and MASTERCHEF JUNIOR...
MASTERCHEF and MASTERCHEF JUNIOR are my beloved "babies". I am so incredibly proud of what we have done. Our Executive Producers began with a true vision, and our Director Brian Smith takes it to a whole new level with his keen eye for detail. Nobody shoots sets like Brian. The man makes magic out of every jib shot. We are blessed that we have had him from day one to celebrate every inch of our sets.
MASTERCHEF is composed of many spaces, including a primary competition area, a spectator platform, a large equipment room featuring just about any kitchen gadget you can imagine, a cook's library, a restaurant, and on and on. We also shoot a great deal on location.
Over the last year, we have shot 4 back-to-back seasons of MC and MC Jr, and during that time we did multiple weddings, pop-up restaurants, and cooked for Veterans, Firefighters, Lifeguards and Boy Scouts. We went to locations in Las Vegas, Big Bear, Palos Verdes, Malibu and beyond. Designing weddings is especially nerve wracking, because this is REAL. Thankfully, we have never had an angry bride chase us at the end of the day.
Our Challenge Art Directors, Kevin Lewis and Erin Vizcarra are truly the best at what they do. They are constantly juggling so many different things and I am always amazed at what our team can produce, day in and day out. MASTERCHEF JUNIOR Season 6 is currently airing on FOX, and every time I tune in, I am reminded of just how much we did each week! We rely heavily on our vendors, including Lennie Marvin, Omega|Cinema Props, Town and Country Event Rentals, Greenset, and Jackson Shrub.
We also shoot in our own “back yard”. Our patio set serves not only as a dramatic entrance to the MC stage, but also a hang spot for contestants and their families during on camera auditions. It is very layered and lush. Most of the plants and trees are real, except for anything that is creeping up a vertical surface like the ivy and bougainvillea. Greenset builds the branches for us and then we hire Greensmen to install and maintain everything throughout the course of the season. It is a tremendous amount of work, especially because this is an exterior set that is vulnerable to weather conditions. Wind is our enemy. Because the wood deck sees so much sunlight, we often will stain it and seal it multiple times throughout a shooting cycle.
John, Robert and I collaborate on all of the built MC sets. Every season, we seem to find ourselves on a new soundstage. We have been at Paramount, Disney, the Howard Hughes Hanger and most recently, Occidental Studios. Every time we rebuild, we tweak and perfect each space, as much as our Supervising Producers will allow. This year, I am especially proud of a chandelier that we designed for the Cook's Library, adjacent to the primary competition space. It is a fun mix of red and purple hues, made from hexagonal pieces of plexi. It took two of my set dressers the better part of a week to install it.
One of my favorite things about working with John is his desire to push things from a design perspective. He is never satisfied with what is easy, and that is a very good thing. In searching for the unusual, we often discover the exceptional.
MASTERCHEF USA has become the flagship for all of the international versions that are produced around the world. We frequently get MC teams from all parts of the world coming to tour our sets to find inspiration for their own versions. It is a very strange thing to turn on MC Canada and see a twist on what we once created on a soundstage in Los Angeles.
Both of these shows have expansive union crews. People are often shocked when they find out how many set dressers we have in our employ at any given time. The same goes for John Shearer's construction crew. We also have a massive team of Local 44 food stylists on both shows. On MC, they source all of the food that can be seen in the pantry and in cooking competitions. For HK, they are preparing ungodly amounts of stock and sauces that the chefs use in the restaurant.
Both shows have folks who are constantly recipe-testing and working alongside Gordon to execute his culinary desires for the contestants. A big part of what Robert Frye does is generate many off-camera spaces for them to do their work... prep and test kitchens are hidden, essential components to both shows' success.
I do not know how I would get through each day without my buyers, Nancy Garber and Laura Smith. They are tireless and exceedingly patient when things change, as they frequently do. I am also deeply indebted to my crew who makes all of my visions a reality. Leadmen Joshua Thomas and Christopher Littleford are my rocks, and my MC On-Sets, Sean Grimes and Johnny Davis, are trusted eyes and ears when I am out prepping the next day. We also work closely with our Prop Master, Scott De Santis and his team on every single challenge.
It is a wonderful collaboration between departments and I feel blessed to get to work with such a talented and dedicated group, season after season.
*Editor’s note: Additional HELL’S KITCHEN Set Decorators over the course of the series:
Shauna Aronson SDSA
Stephen Paul Fackrell SDSA
Sarah Sprawls SDSA