Hell’s Kitchen has it all: competition, suspense, bleeped-out cursing, and a sense of satisfaction that lets you, dear viewer, know that you can do a much better job of it than they can.
It’s impossible to know how a show is going to go when it starts out. Does it seem even more impossible that the first season hit televisions way back in 2005? It did, and the winner was Michael Wray. He was just 27 years old at the time, and when he won, he had this to say (via the BBC): "For the first time, I feel like I’m in control of my own future. I’ve proven myself to myself, and that’s important."
That’s tear-jerkingly lovely, right? It’s everything we wanted to see — a young, talented chef being given the chance that most of us can only dream of. So, what happened? Unfortunately, Wray’s path hasn’t been an easy one, and that optimistic young chef was on the verge of some insanely difficult years.
Michael Wray had to make a tough choice
Michael Wray was familiar with Gordon Ramsay’s reputation long before they met on the set of Hell’s Kitchen: he spent two years in London, training to be a chef, at the same time Ramsay was coming up through the ranks and making a name for himself. He even spent a year trying to get in to work at one of Ramsay’s restaurants, but told the BBC that it was super exclusive even in 1999.
His audition for Hell’s Kitchen came as a way to try to do what he hadn’t been able to do on his own: get close to the chef. And it worked — he was selected.
Knowing that bit of back story makes the choice he was presented with even more meaningful. Originally, when he walked through the door as the winner of the very first Hell’s Kitchen, he thought he had won $250,000 to go toward starting his own restaurant. But Ramsay offered him something else: a job, working alongside him.
In that moment, Wray agreed — but he never went. Later, he’d say: "It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I regret it all the time. I was in Hell’s Kitchen with a drug problem. I was deathly afraid of going to London with his giant addiction."
Michael Wray has been open about his addiction to opiates
Michael Wray’s struggle with addiction started well before his time on Hell’s Kitchen, and he told the BBC that it all kicked off when he had back surgery — for scoliosis — a few years before. Doctors inserted metal rods into his spine, and later, when he had a seizure, the screws broke. Doctors prescribed him opioid painkillers, and he was still taking them when he was on the show. Some he smuggled in, some he gave to producers to keep tabs on. Still, when it came time to fly to London and get a glimpse of the life he could have, he couldn’t do it.
In 2019, Wray spoke with Spectrum News for their piece on the opioid crisis, and said he was never warned of the possibility he might become addicted — he was just given more pills. In addition to what he was prescribed, he says he was also given hundreds more pills "to try, to see if I liked it."
He says he considered himself a "functioning addict" at the time of Hell’s Kitchen, and it wasn’t long before taking pills didn’t work, so he started injecting — and his doctors were happy to prescribe them.
"They had to have known, beforehand, what the impact was, you know what I mean? Just like the tobacco companies."
Michael Wray suffered some terrible personal tragedies
After turning down Gordon Ramsay’s offer of a job, Michael Wray did open his own restaurant. But what should have been a happy, exciting time quickly turned tragic.
He and his wife, Lola, were expecting their first child. But when Lola went into labor just a few weeks after his restaurant opened, the birth didn’t go smoothly, and his newborn daughter passed away.
Wray told the BBC, "We had some complications at birth where she lost her breath for seven or eight minutes. She lost too much oxygen to her brain, and died. It put me in a tail-spin for the next couple years. It was all starting to crumble around me."
He stayed at the restaurant for around the next six weeks; at the time, LA Eater was speculating on where he was. The high-profile Hell’s Kitchen winner had been the face of Tatou, but by June of 2007, the restaurant confirmed that while he was still involved with the restaurant, he was no longer executive chef. It wasn’t revealed until much, much later that he’d simply walked away, finding odd jobs in restaurant kitchens and living in his truck. His relationship with his wife fell apart, and it wasn’t long before he was homeless, sleeping beneath an LA underpass, and getting his meals from homeless shelters.
Michael Wray’s addiction nearly got the best of him
Finally, doctors told him that they weren’t going to be giving him his medication anymore, and Michael Wray told Spectrum News that suddenly, he knew it was the end of the line for him as an addict — one way or the other.
"Like, I’m the frickin’ winner of Hell’s Kitchen, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu London, and I’m like this skuzzy dude living in my car, begging my doctor for drugs."
His doctor refused, and hospitals wouldn’t admit him to see him through his withdrawal, so Wray broke into his local pharmacy, stole what he needed, and headed out into the desert. He lived out there, on his own, with nothing to eat and only the drugs to sustain him, for weeks. After trying to cut his own throat, he realized that he needed to do something. He tied his backpack to his leg and crawled to a nearby road. Fortunately for him, a passer-by not only found him, but stopped, called 911, and got him the help that he needed.
But Michael Wray is getting his life back on track
There’s good news, though: that good Samaritan who stopped to help Michael Wray up from where he lay at the side of a New Mexico desert highway saved his life — and he’s making the most of it.
He told Spectrum News that when he woke up in the hospital, the first thing he was offered was help. He knew he had to do whatever he could, and was introduced to another drug called Suboxone, used for the treatment of opioid addiction. The drug allows those with addictions to level out — they don’t get the high they get from opioids, and they don’t go through withdrawal.
Four years after that day, Wray was still taking it. He also still had the knife he’d used to try to commit suicide, and the scars. But it’s a reminder: he was also happily married, and living in San Diego with his new wife.
"I am absolutely in love with where my life is right now. Like, my levels of happiness are off the charts." The best part? "To have my son back in my life, and not having anything in my life that comes before him. This is the prize I’m holding onto as tight as I can."
Michael Wray has started a GoFundMe
Michael Wray hasn’t given up, and he’s still chasing his dreams. Those dreams just look a little more different than they did when he walked through that door on the set of Hell’s Kitchen — he told Spectrum News that he was hoping to start his own food truck… but, he added, it was going to be more than just a food truck.
Wray wants to use that food truck to travel back and forth across the country, serving good food and, at the same time, reaching out to those who have found themselves in the same position he was in for so many years. With food as the vehicle, he’s hoping for the chance to get out there and let addicts across the country know that there is a way out, a way back, and that he knows: he found a way.
Wray started a GoFundMe page to try to raise the funds, which he says will be matched by a single donor. He wrote: "I’m truly asking for another chance to make a difference. I have a mission."
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).