Danny Veltri can’t believe his luck. The 23-year-old country boy from Edgewater, Florida just became the newest winner of Hell’s Kitchen. Along with the title comes a nice cushy job at the Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City, not to mention oodles of respect. So how did such a young guy rise in the ranks so quickly? Well, he’s a prodigy, of course. Danny’s natural instincts in the kitchen paired with his simplistic style of cooking helped him knock off competitor after competitor until he was declared the winner. This morning, Danny got his first piece of fame as a guest on Regis and Kelly. (And no, ladies, he’s not married— despite what Regis said! But he did get a haircut.) Thankfully, Danny took a few minutes to call us from his limo. Read on for Danny’s full interview.
How are you feeling today? Is it all a little overwhelming?
I’m definitely living up the moment. It’s overwhelming as well. It’s so surreal to be living this. I think back to when I first started this thing and me and my buddy drove to Miami to try out, and now here I am riding back to the Borgata in a limo from New York City because I just won and I just did Regis and Kelly. So I if go back to before it even started until now, it’s just insane… all the things that I’ve done and accomplished because of the show.
Throughout the show you kept referring to yourself as a cooking prodigy. How did you first discover that you wanted to be a chef?
My family was always big into cooking. We always had big family dinners on Sunday with pasta, which was always an open invitation for anyone in the family to come over. So I was always in the kitchen with my mom and Nona (grandma), tugging at their shirts so I could help with the meatballs or whatever. Just do anything I could. I just always, always had a passion for food.
You won the final challenge at the Borgata. Was it that moment you realized you might win this?
Yeah, definitely. Making it into the final two was a huge accomplishment and I really was feeling good at that point. After I pulled of the victory at the Borgata knowing I had the first pick (for teams), I was definitely confident.
So basically you were happy you didn’t get stuck with Lacey?
Was there anyone else besides Paula that might have given you a run for your money?
She was definitely the biggest competitor. I think that Ben would be good at running the kitchen in that position. I think that Ben just kind of struggled with his line cooking. I think if he had a little bit more on the line, he would have been a competitor as well.
You didn’t actually win a whole lot of the challenges. Was that hard for you?
Yeah. When I was there I was like “man, I’m not winning anything.” But watching the show I would win one and a few weeks would go by and I would win another one. But I was always right at the cusp so it was very frustrating.
The show made a big deal about your age. Is it hard to gain that respect from your staff because of it?
Yeah, it is. Back home my guys believe in me 100 percent and will throw down for me whenever I need them to. It’s just about building trust in your guys. Being a young guy, I’ve learned how to make myself a force in the kitchen. You just have to have to be very sure of yourself. And that confidence oozes out into the guys around you and they’re like “man, if this guy knows we can do it, then we can do it.” So it’s just a matter of getting everybody up to speed and getting them pumped up. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll get on the line if I have to. I’ll scrub pots and pans. It doesn’t matter. That’s how I’ve earned a lot of respect at this age. I did start at the bottom. I didn’t get out of school and get a piece of paper and get a job. I got the job because I busted my ass to get the job.
Was it hard to keep that confidence in Hell’s Kitchen with Chef Ramsay breathing down your neck?
Yeah, it’s definitely hard to stay confident in Hell’s Kitchen. All these other chefs with these big resumes, then you have Chef Ramsay, with his friggin’ background. You go in there thinking you’re good, then you see all the competition, you see what Ramsay does, and you feel a little bit dwarfed. But you can’t let it get you down. You have to stay confident and believe in yourself.
Do you think your menu was too simple?
I think that if you’re working with a brigade that you had no idea who was cooking for you, you have to keep it somewhat simple. I mean, you’ve got to expect Lacey and those people to come back. So anticipating that, you can’t be too ambitious on the final challenge. I feel like my menu was complex and delicious, but it wasn’t overly-complex where my brigade couldn’t execute it.
Do you still stand by the fish on the walls and the name “Velvet Hammer” for your restaurant?
Absolutely. I’m still a little disappointed I didn’t get my marlin on the wall.
Because when it comes down to it, you’re still a country boy. Is it going to be difficult to move to Atlantic City?
Yeah. The hardest part is going to be the cold winter. I hate the cold. I’m not looking forward to that. Right now I’m just getting focused on getting there and getting up to speed. Just trying to get everything together so I can get focused on this place.