Gordon Ramsay previews the twist-filled new season of Hell's Kitchen

Walking onto the set of Hell's Kitchen is a real mind trip, especially for anyone who used to shop at the large Burbank, Calif., furniture store that once occupied its building. What used to be row after row of items you had to assemble yourself, a kitchen full of Swedish meatballs, and a concession area where are the aroma of cinnamon rolls lured you in is now an elaborate kitchen and dining space fit for a king… a culinary king, at least.

In this case, it's Gordon Ramsay, who is back for the 21st season of this uber-popular culinary competition, the first one to film after the pandemic. "Everybody in our industry, like many, have suffered greatly," Ramsay tells EW after filming an episode's first challenge. "So there's a level of earnestness that I've never witnessed before in this show."

Hopefully the new contestants won't suffer too much, though Ramsay has certainly earned a reputation for being strict with his chefs. But for good reason. "I run a restaurant, Fox runs a show," he says of the production, produced by Emmy nominees A. Smith & Co. "If I can continue to run a restaurant, I'll continue doing it. So I keep it real, oh my God, and I play real, and I work hard at it. And they see me in a real chef's light."

For the first time in the show's history, the 18 contestants are divided into two teams for a "Battle of the Ages" that sees a team of 40-somethings go up against a team of 20-somethings. A veteran in the kitchen, Ramsay says he probably would not have handled the pressure of the show as well as some of this season's younger chefs.

"I would've s--- myself," Ramsay is quick to admit. "I was just obsessed with cooking [at their age]. I never wanted to be interrupted whilst learning. I had a massive upset in soccer around the age of 19, and my parents were going through a s----y divorce. So I couldn't think of a better escape [than] to go and plot myself in Paris on my ass and learn some of the best cuisine anywhere on the planet. So how would I have done? …. I think I would've got through all challenges and the service. I just don't think I would've been good at the interviews and the aftermath ... because that journey climbing to the top is a very selfish, focused mind, and you never want to be broken."

Nor do these contestants, who are competing for a head chef position at Hell's Kitchen Atlantic City and a $250,000 cash prize.

It all kicks off Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

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