Emotions run high on the premiere episodes of season 3 of Next Level Chef because each of those episodes is an audition for the cheftestants who are hoping to land a spot on either Gordon Ramsay, Nyesha Arrington, or Richard Blais’ teams. But only five of the eight cooks who tryout each week – one week for social media cooks, one week for home cooks, and the final week for professional chefs – will make it through and be drafted onto a team.
“The audition process is a new thing for us because we actually get to see these cooks in action, not just look at their resumé or check out their social media channel,” Blais tells Parade in this exclusive interview. “We get to see them cook in the Next Level Chef kitchens and then make our decisions in the draft based on their performance.”
The surprising thing is that no matter their level of experience, passion reigns supreme in the kitchen and there’s lots of swearing, sweating, and tears, as the cooks feel the pressure of crafting a great dish in the allotted amount of time -- once in each kitchen. Then, the cook with the worst dish is eliminated and the remaining contests move up to the next level.
“I think if anyone’s ever home and goes, ‘Why is that person crying?’ it’s because it means the world to them,” says Blais, who says he, too, got emotional as a competitor on Top Chef, which he won during season 8 in New York City. “It really does. When you get sent home on a show, or you don’t do well, or someone says something about your food, it’s your livelihood, it’s your craft and in that moment, you feel like it’s your whole world crumbling down. That bubbles up in tears, emotion, anger, whatever it is for the contestant. It’s real. I understand it.”
To date on Next Level Chef, Nyesha won season 1, Gordon won season 2, so Blais is hoping this is finally his season.
“It has to be,” he says. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with British soccer, but I don’t want to get relegated. I feel like I have to win this season just to stay on the show.”
During our Zoom chat, Blais also talked about what the biggest challenges for the 24 contestants are on each level, how the playing field evens out between the different level of contenders, whether men or women make the best chefs, his new cookbook, and more.
From past seasons, it’s been noticeable that while professional chefs are competing with social media and home cooks, sometimes the latter two categories are equal to professional chefs.
Yeah, I think there’s an advantage and a disadvantage for all three of our genres. The home chef knows how to cook for tough critics -- your family and loved ones, who, at least in my house, can be the toughest critics. They know one or two, three, ten go-to dishes that they cook a lot for their friends and family, so they know flavor.
The social media chefs, they might present beautiful food, they know how to articulate in front of the camera and the mentors, but they might not be used to the speed or the pace because someone’s not there setting up their ring light and doing ten takes for their viral macaroni and cheese on a martini glass Bloody Mary thing or whatever’s happening there.
And then the pro chefs, yes, they know how to move fast, but they don’t get all the ingredients they want. They’re used to just ordering from a vendor or going to the market and they’re used to maybe doing a prototype and working through a dish and now they just have to do it on the fly.
All three genres have their advantages and disadvantages, and it is always the case that someone rises from the social media and home chef genres and that some of our pro chefs don’t do as well as maybe you would think they would.
Even though the top level is where the best ingredients and the best equipment are, sometimes the best dishes come from the lower level. Is it because when the cooks are under such stringent conditions, they have to become more creative?
I think that it frees them up. They are more relaxed because they know they’re not going to miss something. They can only get gifted something in the basement. And often they do. A beef filet drops down there, a truffle, whatever it is. So, I think it releases a little bit of tension. They know that they only have a certain amount of equipment. Most people at some point have cooked in that type of kitchen. So, there’s not the pressure of having to use all of the equipment that you have in the top level. So, I do think that there can be an advantage to it. That being said, when beef tongue and frog’s legs and half of an eaten sandwich drop down there, it’s not exactly easy.
What are the biggest challenges that the chefs face on all three levels?
Again, in the basement things like the knives are dull, the pots are wobbled, you don’t have as much of all of the things. At the middle level, you’ve got everything you need, but nothing more, which I think can put you in a little bit of a weird middle zone quite honestly. And then I think the challenge at the top is just because I have the smoke gun, the pizza oven and all of the other equipment for that challenge, do I have to use all of it? The fact is you don’t. Each floor has its own challenges. I do think that there’s pressure to live up to that top level. I think if you miss the beef filet on the top now all of a sudden, you’re rattled. It’s really hard. The platform grab is really, really tough. It’s only a couple seconds.
Is it going to be the same amount of time? Or do they make the platform grab shorter?
No spoilers, but there’s been rumors that the platform moves at a different pace sometimes this year.
Do you think because we’ve seen two seasons of the show that you’re attracting more people wanting to apply and appear on it because they now know what it is?
100 percent. I think that that was one of the reasons why we put the auditions in this year. We have thousands and thousands of resumes and applications and videos sent to be on the show. I think, as with all things, the more popular that it becomes, the more interest that people have in it, and the more armchair quarterbacks there are out there that are like, “I can do that. I can’t believe they didn’t grab the ginger and the garlic and the scallions.” It’s a lot different when you’re out there under the lights, in the duress and running around. Lots of people are interested in the show and we’re very lucky for that.
What these people do is very impressive. The food industry has changed a lot in the last decade and how being a chef is now considered a desirable career, where years ago, it wasn’t touted.
Our show, especially since we feature social media chefs, I think is a great example of that. For me growing up, if you were a chef it meant you were going to work in a restaurant and your goal was to be the best chef in the world and there wasn’t much in between. Now you can still be a great chef, cook from your home and make more money most likely and do it at a much more comfortable pace. I just think that it is great that there are just so many more avenues for people in the culinary arts.
And not just the career, but the foods that we eat have changed so much. It’s gotten very international. What are some of your favorite new food discoveries maybe in the last couple years?
Wow, so you would think that I would be a guy that goes out to look for new experiences. I am actually more of an older soul than that. I tend to look backwards a lot. I’m obsessed with classic, ancient almost French and Italian food most of the time. As far as new things, though, I think it is always interesting to scroll through social media -- Instagram and TikTok -- and just find out what’s going on because you do learn things from being on social media. Whether it’s a technique or, like you said, maybe it’s a cuisine you’re not familiar with. I’m learning things every day. It’s easier now to learn because of the internet.
I have my mother’s 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook and there’s still recipes in there that I absolutely love.
Well, listen, what’s old is new again. That’s true with everything. Look at so many movies and they’re a remake. I like to look at food that way. That cookbook you were talking about? I want it. Because there’s a bundt cake mold in there that no one’s using anymore. I have a British-themed restaurant that has Welsh rarebit on the menu. It’s from my grandmother, who had recipe cards in a little plastic, rectangle box. To me that’s exciting. There’s something there. Even though it’s old, to me it’s new.
The fact that you were the winner of Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars, do you think that works in your favor for mentoring these people who are coming in and have never done a competition?
Yeah, I think I’ve been in their shoes so I know what they’re feeling. One of my goals this season is to relate that a little bit more. Again, it’s not just the cooking, it’s the take a deep breath, I’ve been there before. I know that sometimes you just black out in a stressful situation because the lights are on and you’re running around and your heartbeat’s up. I do think it benefits me to have been in their shoes for sure with the mentoring.
One of the biggest things is if you do survive an episode, it doesn’t really matter what you did five minutes ago or what you did yesterday or on last week’s episode. That’s a hard thing. I think especially for people who are not familiar with the TV world, they think every second of everything they do is going to be aired. So, sometimes they’re very cautious about everything they do. We don’t have a 12-hour docudrama for each episode. Them knowing I’ve been in their shoes helps get people to relax a little bit.
One of the prizes that the winner gets is to be mentored by the three of you. What’s happening with Pyet and Tucker? Have you worked with them? Do you know what’s going on with them?
Yeah, they’re both crushing it right now. They’re both working with different brands, guesting on different TV shows. I’ve enjoyed my time working with both of them. Although we get a year’s worth of collective mentorship with them, my door’s always still open for both of them. I’ve enjoy very much the post-show part of the mentorship. I feel like that’s another part of the game that I’m somewhat good at -- getting them setup with different people and teaching them how to move about in the world of celebrity chefdom is something that I love sharing with them.
They’re both women.
Listen, they’re both women and I think we can settle that. I do think if you had to say it, I think women are better chefs than men. I will just say that. I don’t think there’s a debate. But, yeah, I guess we have to have a boy win at some point. I hope. Or else it’s just going to be ladies’ night all the time on Next Level Chef.
You have a new cookbook out. It looks to be vegetarian.
The book is Plant Forward. It’s co-authored by my wife, Jazmin, and me. It is not all vegetables; it’s mostly vegetables. A lot of people might not know that I’ve lost 80 pounds over the last 12 to 13 years. It really talks about my health and wellness journey, how it started with my wife, Jazmin, the type of foods that we eat now, and how to get someone to maybe eat more vegetables. It’s like a 101, 102 sort of book on what my health and wellness journey was and how to inspire people on theirs.
Does it explain how to substitute for protein?
I’ve been talking about this the last couple days. Just take a favorite sauce that you love and use that sauce or those spices on a vegetable that you like. I had mentioned that I really love classic Italian dishes, I believe. If you make a carbonara sauce and put it on broccoli or a cacio e pepe for cauliflower that’s a great way to start eating more vegetables. You’re not eating the pasta, you’re just taking the seasoning, the spices, the sauce, using that on the vegetable that you want to eat. Then that’ll give you the, “Oh, yeah, this tastes like pepperoni pizza because I used pepperoni spices on these vegetables.” It’s a great way to start eating vegetables and still get those meaty, nostalgic flavors by using spices. Barbecue some carrots. It’s not brisket, it’s not going to replace brisket, but it will summon the nostalgia in your mind to be like, “Oh, yeah, I’m eating something meaty.”
Next Level Chef season 3 will air a special preview on Jan. 28 at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT before moving into its regular timeslot at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday, Feb. 1.