On a robust autumn evening in October, Jack West addressed the 200 guests gathered under a tent on the grounds of the Vanderbilt Mansion in Centerport at the wedding reception of his daughter Heather and John Serignese.
"Heather always gets what she wants," West said in his prepared remarks. "Don't ever tell her she can't do anything. Just always say, 'Yes, chef.' "
That would be Heather West, until recently corporate executive chef of Jellyfish and Thatched Cottage restaurants in Centerport (a short ride from the Vanderbilt), known to TV viewers as the 2006 winner of "Hell's Kitchen," the reality cooking competition hosted by hotheaded celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.
West had been visiting her parents at home in Port Jefferson in 2005 when an episode of the first season came on television. "I pointed at the screen and said, 'I want to do that,' and my dad looked at me and said, 'Not a shot. There's no way you can handle that yelling,' " said West, 33. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, West, who was hired earlier this month as executive chef at Schafer's of Port Jefferson, was working at the time at the now-closed Almondito in Water Mill. "I was, like: 'What are you talking about? You have no idea what I'm like in the kitchen. I'm like a different girl.' "
Indeed, she was. And after 28 days spent "putting my head down and doing whatever they told me to do," she outperformed 11 other chefs to receive a one-year contract as chef at Terra Rossa, an Italian restaurant at the Red Rock Resort Spa and Casino in Las Vegas, with a salary of $250,000.
After her contract was up, West worked in Seattle, North Carolina and California before heading home to Long Island. In 2011, she met Serignese, 27, a mortgage banker, junior varsity basketball coach for Port Jefferson High School and part-time bartender also from Port Jefferson. Although by then she was known by millions around the globe, Serignese had never heard of her.
"He said, 'Oh, you're a chef?'" West recalled. 'Where do you work? TGI Fridays? Applebee's?' He was joking around, and I was like, 'Yep, that's exactly where I work.' . . . A week later, while we were on our first date, he was like, 'So when were you going to tell me everyone knows who you are? And when I say everyone, I don't mean everyone in Port Jeff, but everyone.' "
The two dated for a little over a year before Serignese popped the question after the pair ran a half-marathon at Disney World in Orlando. West, a spokeswoman for the National Tourette Syndrome Association, ran the 13.1-mile race wearing Minnie Mouse ears and a matching tutu as part of a team.
She was surprised when after the race Serignese reached into his fanny pack and pulled out a candy heart that read: Marry me. He then dropped onto one knee and proposed.
"I just started crying like a baby," West said.
The wedding ceremony took place at the Thatched Cottage. After the nuptials, guests were treated to a pre-cocktail hour featuring nine stations, including sushi, cheese-crudite, wok, pulled-pork sliders, a hot dog cart and a pretzel machine.
"I think the cocktail hour should be fun food," West said.
Next, guests took a trolley to the Vanderbilt for the cocktail hour, which included plated passed hors d'oeuvres, a cheese display and an Oktoberfest station, followed by a country French and rustic-themed reception.
As one might expect from a chef who hustled and bustled her way to a "Hell's Kitchen" win, West, among all the other responsibilities of a bride-to-be, helped prep some of the food for her own wedding, choosing the cheese platters and making the pulled pork sliders.
For the rest of the evening, she got a little help from some friends. "We chose the people in our life that we were close with, the places that we go to, the people I trusted," she said. These included Ron Hoffman, owner of Bliss in East Setauket (he made shrimp seviche on tortillas, lobster mac and cheese and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin); Ariel Contreras-Fox, executive chef of Harding's in Manhattan and a contestant on "Hell's Kitchen" season 6 (open-roasted beets with huckleberry salad, slow-braised halibut); and Steve Gallagher, chef-owner of The Trattoria in St.James (steamed little neck clams, seared filet mignon and slow-braised short ribs).
West asked each chef to prepare two plated passed appetizers for the cocktail hour, as well as one part of an appetizer trio and one entree for the sit-down dinner (the Thatched Cottage prepared two entrees, bringing the total selection to five). "I thought that would be the easiest way to get the food out, because, if there was just one chef doing everything, it would have been a little more chaotic," she said.
In addition to creating sweet, country-themed touches, such as Mason jars, napkin rings and a chalkboard for guest seating, West planned all kinds of surprises for her groom, including a pair of sneakers at the dais featuring the tag "husband" (West had her own "wife" pair waiting, too), a rendition of Disney's "Be Our Guest" performed by members of the guest list, and a visit from Mister Softee ("John and I are big ice-cream fans"). Her friends and family were delighted, too, including her grandmother Tina Gudzik, who helped teach West to bake, Southern style.
"Her pies are out of this world," West said. "That's why I didn't go to school to be a baker. That came second-nature."
Of course, her parents looked on proudly, too. "That feeling of wanting to make your parents proud really never goes away," West said. "When I tried out for the show, I told them I wasn't doing it for the money -- I didn't even know there was a money prize, to be honest. I told them that I was doing it for my parents. To show them that I could do it.
"So," she added with a laugh, "don't ever tell me not to do something."