Wickedly Fine Design – “Hell’s Kitchen”
It’s a misconception to think a reality show does not require a strong production designer who can fabricate the series’ perfect set, whether it be enhancing an existing structure or designing an entire area. For the past seven years, John Janavs has been turning empty space into a restaurateur’s dream for the Gordon Ramsey starrer “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“Unlike a normal set, what we’re creating is a real restaurant, and we built it very much like anyone would build a restaurant, it’s steel studs and drywall,” said Janavs. “It’s not built like a set; it has to function like the real world. The biggest challenge is first finding a place that can accommodate an environment like that.”
The locations team finds buildings with at least 25, 000 square feet of floor space that can be completely modified. During the course of the past seven seasons, three different buildings have been utilized. Janavs, a licensed architect, must not only be concerned with the design of the kitchen and dining areas, but also with incorporating an electrical system with multiple breaker panels, fitting gas lines needed to operate the numerous stoves, a fire extinguishing system that fits over the grills, and adding roughly 80 tons of cooling to the building that removes the extreme heat from the cooking equipment.
In addition to the safety regulations and basic needs of a kitchen that accommodates multiple contestants, Janavs must also be mindful of camera placements that capture all the show’s action.
“One of the things that bothers me about other shows is that it’s really obvious where the cameras are. I tried, in the designs of the kitchens in particular, to create an invisible camera isle,” said Janavs. “The mirror that runs around the kitchens is actually a camera isle where you can literally stand two feet from the subject you’re taping and be invisible to them.”
Robotic cameras are also utilized in the design of the kitchen and dining room area. Roughly eighty robotic cameras are positioned along the rents, the pass and other discrete but essential hiding places to obtain reaction shots without having a camera directly in the subject’s vision.
Although practicality and functionality are important production design elements for “Hell’s Kitchen,” the aesthetics are equally as important. Janavs worked with the producers and Gordon Ramsey to establish the visual tone of the set.
“It’s interesting because our producers and Mike Darnell at Fox had particular visions for the show,” said Janavs. “Mike had an idea of the tone and character for season one. Gordon had a certain expectation of quality; he was more concerned with the dishes, the silverware, and the presentation. Between all the different visions, we pull it together into a cohesive whole. From season to season, it’s evolved partly as we changed locations, partly with the challenges in the show. We have things coming out in season eight that evolve the entire design.”
Some aspects that have changed include backgrounds and materials used in the booths, the floor plans, lighting, and additional equipment needed for the kitchen and specific challenges.
“For example they had a shrimp challenge a few years ago,” said Janavs. “We had to create a way to dump 300 pounds of shrimp through the ceiling. During the finales we have to differentiate one half of the restaurant from the other. There’s always an episode to episode art component that’s quite involved.”
When making these changes to the set, Janavs will sometimes have only a day or two advanced notice. Working on the tight schedule and making the areas function are as equally important to him as maintaining a tone and theme to the environments. Janavs has incorporated change through the seasons not only by reconfiguring floor plans but utilizing different materials. Hand-stitched leather has covered the walls behind the booths as well as gold leaf and glass tiles. Janavs prefers utilizing real material instead of simply treating the set to create a seamless experience for outside diners invited to participate in the episodic challenges.
“It’s a seamless experience which is one of the things that makes ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ unique,” said Janavs. ”Sitcoms, episodic, they have stand alone sets that are experienced as a contained room. On ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ you drive up, the valet takes your car, you walk into a formal entrance, you reach a reception desk, and you walk into the restaurant. You’re never off set.”
In addition to the restaurant and kitchen, “Hell’s Kitchen” also includes a living area where the constants stay during the series, and a patio that is frequently used prior to and after challenges, as well as the dressing of any offsite locations the teams are sent to. To create this abundance of locations, Janavs works with a team consisting of two art directors: one that works on the restaurant and one that works on concepts around challenges and episode-specific design work. There are also two assistants, two decorators, a variety of office staff and three construction crews working on the sets
“We have a general contractor that’s experienced in restaurant construction, and he builds the core kitchen,” said Janavs. “We have a set shop that builds the sets and our own construction crew that ties all the loose pieces together. We are really running three different construction groups to get it done in the time frame.”
For the past four years, “Hell’s Kitchen” has received Emmy nominations for Production Design as well as nominations and wins from the Art Directors Guild. To help educate individuals interested in understanding the construction of the set, Janavs assembled a website dedicated to the show’s production design, complete with before and after photos of the kitchen, dining area, and dorms. While Janavs feels the design team has done outstanding work over past eight episodes, he’s particularly fond of one detail that completely sets the tone.
“The kitchen, the dorms, Gordon’s background which is the bar and his office, those are the punctuation marks in the design,” said Janavs. “When I got hired on to do the job, the first thing I said was I want to make that logo in the front of the restaurant on fire. We’ve evolved our front fire sign: it’s now a flaming ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ sign against a water wall. To me, that is maybe the smallest icon of this whole show that has this unusual character to it.”
To learn more about the set production behind “Hell’s Kitchen,” visit:
“Hell’s Kitchen” is series produced by ITV Studios . ITV Studios is a major international television production and distribution company that has production centers in the U.K., Germany, Australia, and an American branch called ITV Studios, Inc.
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