The format of the program is similar to the United Kingdom version, with a red team and a blue team competing in various cooking challenges for most of the season; once the number of remaining contestants is reduced to five (or six in seasons 4-8), the two teams combine to become a single black team and compete individually.
After the players are split into teams, the series begins with each chef preparing a signature dish and presenting it to Gordon Ramsay to taste. After that, each chef is presented with a set of utensils (theirs to keep), a menu and/or book to study (also theirs to keep), and a chef's jacket of their team colour.
In later seasons, the signature dish has now been presented as the first team challenge.
The benefits for contestants are not just monetary but include culinary training, and these benefits include gaining valuable experience in prepping a first-class kitchen, learning teamwork skills, and being instructed in a wide range of culinary skills.
Ramsay offers training on many subjects including shucking scallops, choosing cuts of meat, cutting a chicken into eight evenly sized parts, knowing how to prepare proteins with ingredients, filleting a whole fish, making crepes and lobster risotto, and prepping monkfish before cooking.
Each remaining episode begins with a team or individual challenge; the winning chef or team may get a reward, while the losing team or players are required to perform some form of manual labour, usually consisting of kitchen duty in preparation for the dinner service but may also be cleaning the dormitories or decorating the restaurant for a particular event.
It may also take the form of "punishment fitting the crime," meaning preparing the same foodstuffs that were used in the challenge for a dinner service. This punishment sometimes includes a lunch consisting of less palatable parts of those foodstuffs.
Often the losing team or chef(s) will have to prepare a meal for the winning team or chef(s) to enjoy during their reward.
During dinner service, teams are responsible for preparing food to Gordon Ramsay's very demanding taste and appearance requirements as well as within a limited time frame.
Ramsay does not prepare any of the foods, and only supervises the outcome, dispatching the correct preparations to the dining hall.
He may throw away an entire plate of food due to one element being off, requiring the team to re-prepare the dish or the entire table if necessary, and usually sends a barrage of insults and obscenities to the responsible player or team.
If Ramsay sees failure in a specific area in the kitchen, he may force one player to take over for another. In more recent seasons, if he sees complete failure in one or more chefs, he will kick the responsible individuals out of the kitchen for the remainder of the service, and have himself and his sous-chefs come in to finish the service.
If the entire kitchen is in a debacle, Ramsay may end the dinner service prematurely, often using his catchphrase "Shut it down!" or "Switch it off!".
After the dinner service, Ramsay will select the winning team who may get an additional reward. In earlier seasons Ramsay would name the best member of the losing team as the "Best of the Worst" and have them pick two teammates for elimination, though in more recent years the Best of the Worst is generally not used unless one of the losing team turns in an exceptionally good performance, and nominations are decided on via a consensus of all the losing team members.
Alternatively, if the service is exceptionally bad (or good), Ramsay may declare no team the winner (or name the teams as joint winners), requiring both teams to nominate someone for elimination.
Sometimes Ramsay overrules the nominations and chooses someone else entirely, and in rare cases of an exceptionally good service, will not eliminate any of the contestants.
When the game is down to a single team but still more than three people, the winning player (or "Best of the Best") will sometimes be asked to select which two are to be nominated.
Each nominated player has a chance to plead their case to Ramsay, but he makes the final decision, at which point the eliminated player hands over their chef's jacket, which he forcefully hangs up on a hook until the hook pokes a hole in the jacket and also sends an above photo of the player up in flames to symbolize their elimination.
If one of the players turns in an exceptionally bad performance, then Ramsay may eliminate them while the service is still in progress.
An additional elimination may also occur at the end of the episode as normal; usually this occurs if the already-eliminated chef's team was still able to win despite losing a member.
Often players will voluntarily exit the competition either due to medical conditions or their own free will. Depending on how well they've done in the competition overall, Ramsay may or may not let the eliminated chefs keep their jackets upon exiting.
When the competition is down to the final two players, Ramsay splits the Hell's Kitchen dining area into two sections, and each of the two final contestants runs their own restaurant; each contestant is allowed to choose the menu for his or her restaurant.
In earlier seasons, they are allowed to design a decoration and style into these dining areas. Six previously eliminated contestants return as aides to help the two finalists to prepare the meals.
Ramsay will use his observations of how the finalists work in the kitchens and with their teams; not just during the final service, but throughout the whole competition as well, and feedback from the patrons of each restaurant, to select the ultimate winner of the show.
In most recent seasons, eight previously eliminated contestants return to work with two finalists in the kitchens.
The two finalists meet in his office (which includes the hung jackets of all eliminated players, their burnt photos, and the photos of the two finalists), and each stands behind one of two doors, one of which is locked and the other of which is unlocked.
On the count of three, they try to open their doors, and the chef whose door opens is declared the winner.
Hell's Kitchen is somewhat rare among elimination-style reality shows in that all of the responsibilities of judging and eliminating fall to a single person, Ramsay, instead of a full panel of judges, or a majority vote by the contestants.
Additionally, Ramsay has the power to override the basic format of the competition, such as ignoring the losing team's nominations for elimination, eliminating contestants from a winning team, eliminating contestants in the middle of dinner service, or changing around team members.
Hell's Kitchen is produced by ITV Studios America in association with A. Smith & Co.