Celebrity chef and unscripted TV icon Gordon Ramsay’s on-camera persona brings to mind the phrase: “Go big or go home.” And with the first new cooking competition in 12 years to feature the star of such culinary staples as Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef, one can say he’s following that maxim to the letter.
Next Level Chef, produced by Ramsay’s Fox-backed shingle, Studio Ramsay Global, and Fox’s in-house prodco, Fox Alternative Studios, sees contestants battling for a US$250,000 check on a 50-foot high, three-story stage consisting of three kitchen levels. Those on the top floor kitchen get top-line equipment and choice ingredients to work with, while those cooking on the middle floor are set in a standard restaurant kitchen environment. And for those in the basement, they must prove their mettle with the bare minimum.
Premiering on January 2, it’s the sort of big, bold format swing that Rob Wade, president of Fox Alternative Entertainment and specials, and his team have been taking since the The Masked Singer‘s success. While some of the tropes of culinary competition series remain intact (a trio of judges/mentors in Ramsay and fellow chefs Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais, as well as an elimination process for those who don’t cut the mustard), Wade, Ramsay and Studio Ramsay Global showrunners Lisa Edwards and Matt Cahoon all say the mammoth set and the gameplay within it will separate Next Level Chef from the slew of other cook-offs currently on air.
“We were striving to create something that was a little bit more unique,” said Ramsay during a virtual press event that saw him joined by Wade, his co-mentors and Studio Ramsay colleagues. “For me, having nearly a thousand hours under my belt with Fox over the last 16 years, I wanted the rawness in this competition.”
While the central aim behind bringing Ramsay into competition mode once more was to hopefully whip up another world-beating format that could sit alongside his previous series, both the chef and Wade mentioned the hardships endured by the restaurant business over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic as another element factoring into the development of the idea.
“I’ve never been turned on with cash, and there is a huge check for the winner, a quarter of a million dollars,” admitted Ramsay. “But, above all of that, there’s a 12-month, first-of-its-kind mentorship where, whoever wins this competition, Richard and Nyesha and myself are taking this individual under our wings. So that’s quite a rare opportunity and something that we very rarely give out.
“Rob Wade was kicking us all up the ass last summer, saying, “How do we create the next-level chefs for the future of the industry, and what have we done so far that we can do [differently] across this competition?”
As for how the idea of the gargantuan set — constructed with 85 tons of steel — came into play, showrunners Edwards and Cahoon said the team wanted to find a visual metaphor for the notion of “starting from the bottom, surviving under any circumstances.”
“When Rob says, ‘Can you come up with a new Hell’s Kitchen or a new MasterChef, it’s no meager kind of a feat, but we worked together,” said Edwards, chief creative officer at Studio Ramsay Global. “We wanted to elevate the food competition in an authentic way.”
“I’ve worked with Gordon now for over a decade, and the thing across all of these cooking competitions is that the contestants are always working in these fabulous, million-dollar kitchens with the best equipment in the world, using the highest-end ingredients that money can buy, and that’s not real life,” added Cahoon, who serves as EP for the series.
“I read an article while I was coming up with this idea about a chef in Thailand, who is a street vendor, and she was awarded a Michelin star. And it certainly wasn’t because of her fancy kitchens or restaurant, and it wasn’t because she was cooking with the best ingredients. It’s because what she did with what she had was truly next level.”
As to whether the series ascends to the top of the culinary competition format hierarchy, time will tell. But the massive set, coupled with Ramsay’s global cachet, should help in stirring up international interest.
“The great thing about this show is it’s obviously a very iconic set,” Wade said. “It’s a really big scale. So our plans for roll-out internationally are obviously big. And we have the hope that the show starts and performs really well and is taken by multiple territories. [That] will allow us to build a hub, and that would allow us to be more efficient in the way that we produce and distribute this globally.”