We hear the phrase “Hell’s Kitchen” tossed around a lot, whether it’s describing a place, a television show, or even an experience. But every so often, when we’re not in Hell’s Kitchen, we stop and think, ‘Where did that name come from?’
There are actually a lot of possible ways the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood could have gotten its name, so we may never know the full truth of why it’s called that. We also haven’t heard much about why Gordon Ramsay’s Fox television series Hell’s Kitchen got its name, but we have some educated guesses. Here’s what we know about why Hell’s Kitchen is called that.
The term “Hell’s Kitchen” was first used by Davy Crockett.
In the early 1800s, when one of the main groups of immigrants were the Irish, several of New York City’s slums were filled to the brim with Irish people looking for a reprieve from their home country. One of the most notorious slums in Lower Manhattan was called “Five Points,” which was reportedly so famous for its poverty, corruption, and debauchery that tourists would go to visit it.
One of those tourists was Davy Crockett. He described the people in “Five Points” in his 1834 self-published book A Narrative of the Life of Davy Crockett, “I thought I would rather risk myself in an Indian fight than venture among these creatures after night. I said to [my friend] ... these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell's kitchen.”
This is the first recorded use of the term “hell’s kitchen” but not the only use. As the decades travel onward, more and more people picked up the term to describe nefarious and vile situations.
The neighborhood in New York City, “Hell’s Kitchen,” was called that due to journalists using the term.
Journalists like to pick up on colloquialisms, and in 1881, a New York Times reporter used Davy Crockett’s “hell’s kitchen” term to describe a tenement at 39th Street and 10th Avenue. He described it as “probably the lowest and filthiest in the city” and the name stuck, expanding to the surrounding area. Hell’s Kitchen is now considered the block of Manhattan from 34th Street up to 59th Street, and from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River.
Just to get a full picture of the grittiness of the old Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, this reporter also described the building as filled with a “horde of vagrants, petty thieves, and utterly depraved prostitutes.”
Some other people trace its name to a German restaurant called Heil’s Kitchen that was in the area, which was just named after its owners.
However, the most popular story about the origins of Hell’s Kitchen’s name and why it’s called that comes from a tale called “Dutch Fred the Cop.” Basically, a veteran policeman was with his rookie partner, observing the small riots on West 39th Street. According to legend, the rookie said to his partner, “This place is hell itself.”
Fred replied, “Hell’s a mild climate. This is hell’s kitchen.”
Nowadays, Hell's Kitchen is quite a lively neighborhood. Although it was once easy to find cheap apartments close to Hudson River due to its distance from any subways, Hudson Yards has changed that. There are now two new subway stops closer to Hudson River than ever before in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood and tourist attractions galore. Hell's Kitchen is now filled with luxury stores, delicious pre-Broadway show dining options, and theater that's not quite Broadway.
Gordon Ramsay’s television show is called ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ for similar reasons as the neighborhood.
Based on the story of “Dutch Fred the Cop,” and Hell’s Kitchen other etymologies, we understand that “hell’s kitchen” literally means a place even worse than hell. Kitchens, especially those in restaurants, are exceedingly hot. So if hell is so hot that it’s unbearable, hell’s kitchen is even worse.
For Gordon Ramsay, Hell’s Kitchen is a play on the phrase’s literal meaning. Gordon is notoriously a difficult person to work for, to say the least. (That’s what makes his show so fun to watch, though!)
Gordon spews insults at his pupil chefs, dropping f-bombs left and right, and throwing insults like “Right now, I'd rather eat poodle s--t than put that in my mouth” and “My gran could do better! And she's dead!”
Although there’s no record of why Hell’s Kitchen is called that, we can connect the dots based on Gordon’s rageful temperament. Anyone who wants to cook in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen should be prepared for something worse than hell.
Catch Hell's Kitchen at 8 p.m. EST, Thursdays on Fox.