NJ chef featured on Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ kills himself in bridge jump

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

NJ chef featured on TV cooking show kills himself

TRENTON, N.J. — A New Jersey chef who three years ago described “overwhelming” personal debt when he was featured on Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” show jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

The body of 39-year-old Joseph Cerniglia, whose restaurant experienced a renewal since the show, was found floating in the river on Friday. The New York City medical examiner’s office ruled it a suicide, agency spokeswoman Grace Burgess said.

Cerniglia owned Campania in Fair Lawn, N.J., about 25 miles west of Manhattan, which he bought in 2006. In 2007, the debt-ridden Italian restaurant was featured on Ramsay’s show.

During the broadcast, Cerniglia estimated he owed purveyors about $80,000.

“I’m financially in trouble. The debt of the restaurant alone is overwhelming,” he said. “My personal debt — wife, kids, mortgage — that’s a lot of debt.”

His wife added, “If this business fails, we will lose everything.”

“Why did you become a chef-owner if you haven’t a clue how to run a business?” Ramsay asks him on the show.

He criticizes the restaurant’s large portions, the food quality and speed of service, and chastises Cerniglia for allowing such a childish atmosphere in the kitchen.

Jim Edwards, the culinary director at Chef Central in Paramus and a close friend of Cerniglia’s for the last seven years, said he thought his friend benefited from being on Ramsay’s show.

“I thought he fared well,” Edwards said. “I was never at the restaurant when it wasn’t packed.”

He said he thought that overall, the show portrayed his friend in a favorable light.

Elisa Ung, the dining columnist for The Record since 2007, said Campania was “one of only a few places that I have returned to repeatedly after a review. The spaghetti and meatballs (equals) heaven.”

She wrote that when she spoke with Cerniglia earlier this year, he complained that “the show didn’t reflect his passion but said it did validate his hope that his customers would accept radical change in his restaurant.”

A self-taught chef, Cerniglia worked for the famed New York-based Gallagher’s Steakhouse chain for a decade, where he became the executive chef.

“I didn’t go to culinary school,” Cerniglia says at the opening of the show. “We don’t have recipes. We don’t use measuring cups or spoons because I’m the best.”

Edwards said he last saw Cerniglia three weeks ago and said he seemed his cheerful self.

“He never gave the outward appearance that there was anything bothering him,” Edwards said. “He was always very creative and upbeat. He had a very infectious smile and a way of making you feel at home.

“It’s very tragic, whatever it was he couldn’t overcome,” Edwards said.

Edwards said his friend benefited from being on Ramsay’s show and said he thought it portrayed him in a favorable light overall.

Cerniglia is the second person on a Ramsay television show to commit suicide. The other was a former contestant on Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” chef competition.

Calls and e-mails sent to Ramsay’s publicist in London were not immediately returned Tuesday.

Cerniglia leaves behind his wife and three sons, ages 13, 11 and 9.

The family is holding a private funeral service on Wednesday for Cerniglia in Wayne, where he grew up. Relatives declined to talk about him Tuesday when reached by The Associated Press.

In his obituary, his family spoke positively about the show: “He was honored to have his restaurant featured on an episode of ‘Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares’ and the television experience was thrilling for him.”

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