Jason Zepaltas | Ray Mickshaw / FOX
Updated: August 23, 2014 6:25AM
In an epic underdog tale, 33-year-old Lake Zurich native Jason Zepaltas has gone from perhaps the shortest-lived contestant in “Hell’s Kitchen” history to a top two finalist.
Tonight, he and Woodstock’s Scott Commings will face off on Fox-TV for the chance to be head chef at Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, a $250,000-a-year dream job that season 11 winner Ja’Nel Witt declined due to “personal matters.”
But that’s just on television.
Zepaltas and Commings already know who wins, and must remain tight-lipped about their status until the final episode has aired — a task that Zepaltas, surprisingly, has not found difficult.
“I just get a big kick out of it,” he said. “People always ask me how well I do on the show, and I’m at the point now where I can say I’ve done really well, because I’m in the final two.”
His father, John, doesn’t even know who wins Thursday — and the elder Zepaltas has been on the edge of his seat watching the show every week.
“It has been an unreal experience to see all the things he’s done — I’m just waiting here to see what happens!” John Zepaltas said.
Not even Jason Zepaltas’ current employer, Farmhouse in Evanston, knows whether he’s staying in Chicago, where he currently lives in Ravenswood with his fiancee, or leaving for Vegas next month.
The Evanston restaurant promoted him to head sous chef last week, after just a month and a half of working there.
Zepaltas’ career with Farmhouse is going much better than his previous job a block away at Found Kitchen and Social House, where he was fired, even as he advanced on “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“It’s the first time I’ve been fired,” he said. “I was in awe.”
Knowing he would be one of the top two finalists on the show undoubtedly lightened the blow. But even if he weren’t a finalist, Zepaltas has confidence in his talent.
He exhibits that confidence on the show and lives up to it this season — something Zepaltas didn’t have the chance to prove on season nine, when he was hospitalized for dehydration and forced to withdraw from the competition.
This season is much different for Zepaltas, though it is filled with the same pressure driven by what some have called a form of sensory deprivation.
“We were in isolation — no TV, no radio, no magazines, no books — so all we had was each other. That’s it. ... We could not talk to our families or even use pens, unless we were in the kitchen,” he said. “I think they just didn’t want us exchanging any information and giving anything away to people, but it really gets to you after a while.”
This could perhaps explain why Joy Parham-Thomas, a contestant on the show who was lauded as a favorite, stormed off set as Chef Gordon Ramsay was reprimanding her for several mistakes during dinner service to a group that included famed comic book writer Stan Lee.
Zepaltas was surprised by her leaving. He expected Parham-Thomas to end up as a top two finalist, alongside himself.
Win or lose, Zepaltas will be celebrating at Driftwood tavern in Chicago tonight, where he’s been following the season with a growing crowd of people almost every week.
Zepaltas was called into work on July 17, the day it was revealed that he and fellow Illinoisan Commings would be the top two finalists. That won’t happen this time, he said.
“I will for sure be there. I told them I’d work a double shift in order to be able to be there on Thursday,” Zepaltas said.