First Vegan Chef on 'Hell's Kitchen' Talks Biggest Challenges on the Show (Exclusive)

Lizzy Rosenberg - Author

Jun. 11 2021, Published 10:29 a.m. ET

Hell's Kitchen Vegan Chef
Source: Michael Becker / FOX

Avid Hell's Kitchen fans know the beloved series isn't exactly vegan-friendly. The competitive cooking show is hosted by none other than Gordon Ramsay, a longtime meat aficionado, who wouldn't be caught dead eating something that, well, isn't dead. But for Season 20, Hell's Kitchen has welcomed its first vegan chef to compete on the show, Josie Clemens, and Green Matters was able to catch up with her to discuss the challenges she faces, her dreams, and the legacy she hopes to leave behind.

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"I'm so frickin' excited about [being the first vegan Hell's Kitchen chef]!" she exclaims to us over the phone. "Just having veganism in mainstream media, and getting to be part of that, is a huge honor (and a lot of pressure!) that I’m really really prepared for, to kind of lead and have a voice in the vegan community."

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Clemens' transition to veganism wasn't necessarily conventional.

People have different reasons why they decide to go vegan — some do it for the planet, while others do it for health reasons. But Clemens had underwent some major life transitions, and a friend suggested that she go vegan.

"I was in a very deep spout of depression and my entire life was crumbling," she says. "I lost my job, I lost my boyfriend, my boyfriend took all my money... *laughs* and my best friend was like, ‘Just go vegan, it will help you.’

"I was so desperate — veganism was the last thing that I would have ever thought of because I was such a carnivore! But I was like 'fine I'm so desperate at this point I will literally try anything.' And it changed my entire life, and I was not prepared for that."

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Clemens says going vegan completely changed the way she had been cooking, too.

"I was [a chef] but I had just actually entered the corporate world, because I wanted more money — I wanted to open my own restaurant. And so I started doing sales, and I didn’t like it but I have pretty decent people skills so I was really good at it," she says. "And [at the time] I was pretty disconnected with food, I was just eating food to survive, I wasn’t being very creative at that time. So it kind of fit into my lifestyle at that moment."

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As Season 20 progresses, Clemens is prepared for hate comments.

Season 20 debuted on May 31, and as of publication, only two episodes have aired. But upon asking Clemens what it will be like as the only vegan on a very meat-centric series, she laughs.

"That is an excellent question because I’ve never done it before, and nobody has, so..." she laughs.

But, she's excited to see what opportunities will come along.

"I think that leaves me a little bit in the unknown and I’m open to possibilities. And I’m hoping for the best," Clemens says. "I’m hoping to receive hate comments so I can respond to them with love and education and coming from a grounded place. I’ve already received a lot of gratitude from the vegan community and as long as I have that support I really think we can accomplish anything."

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She hopes her being on the show will impact cooking series in the long run.

"Not to be an extremist or anything, but I’m really shooting for vegan world 2029," she tells us. "I’m hoping to have my own show that is completely vegan and more shows will naturally move toward that direction. All shows will be 100 percent vegan and we won’t even need to say, ‘It’s a vegan cooking show.’ It’ll just be, ‘It’s a cooking show’ — we won’t even have to say it’s vegan."

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As we'd imagine, Clemens receives bias from other chefs, as the only vegan.

Many chefs frown upon vegan cooking, and Clemens tells us she "a thousand percent" feels like her fellow contestants look down on her. Since she isn't able to taste dishes with animal products, they can't fathom how she could possibly be doing a good job.

"They’ve already kind of pinned me as not a good chef, only because I can’t taste things," Clemens says.

"[Other contestants] are like, 'oh, if you can’t taste things how can you be a good chef?' Or, 'how can you send something to Gordon Ramsay that’s going to taste good?' So, I’m not tasting a single thing, and I’m cooking completely from heart and instinct... It's a challenge that nobody else its going through, and I’m just silently not complaining about it," she laughs.

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Clemens is looking forward to (hopefully) winning, becoming Ramsay's protege, and opening a vegan restaurant chain.

Although many are terrified of Ramsay, Clemens sees him as an inspiration.

"I adore Gordon Ramsay," she says. "They’ve really portrayed me in the first two episodes as being absolutely in love with him — they’re not wrong — but it’s also not completely accurate, because he inspires me more than anything. I really see a more assertive version of myself in him, so I just can’t get enough of him. He really inspires me to be the best version of me, and that version of me that has the most integrity."

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And if she wins, she can't wait to get everything she can from him.

"If I win, I’m definitely going to take that time as Gordon Ramsay's protege, and absorb everything I can, and just take that into owning my own vegan franchise one day. I'll do something that aligns with my values, and the impact I want to have on the world," she explains.

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Her favorite vegan creations involve — you guessed it — vegetables!

While many chefs these days are into cooking vegan versions of traditional meat dishes, Clemens says she's more of a "whole foods vegan," and prefers just making really great things with vegetables.

She adds: "I’m really into different potato purées and different root vegetable purées. I love cooking eggplant and various Chinese vegetables as well. I’m sort of a whole foods vegan, so root vegetables and greens are home for me — and so many simple stir fries. You can put any vegetable in a pan with some hot oil, sauté it, steam it a little, mix it with soy sauce, and you have a super flavorful dish."

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The advice she would give to vegan chefs everywhere:

There are many who knock the vegan diet, calling it "extreme," and Clemens says it's important to address that — and win the haters over with some delectable dishes.

"I’d say that as a vegan chef it’s natural to be a repelling force because our diet is viewed as extreme," she explains.

"And I think it's important to validate that, that perception from other non-vegans, and that way we have a better chance of reaching non-vegans and cooking something that will reach their hearts and allow them to ease into a plant-based diet."

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