Fox’s Next Level Chef starts with host and executive producer Gordon Ramsay making a claim: “Every great chef started at the bottom and worked in the toughest kitchens to level up.”
While I’m sure that statement is some chefs’ experience, it seems like a bit of an over-generalization. But it’s at least an idea, and one at first glance appears to be illustrated by his new reality competition’s massive set: a three-story stack of reality TV kitchen sets, complete with mirrors behind from behind which cameras film.
But Next Level Chef (Fox, Wednesdays at 9) doesn’t actually use that set well at all, squandering the many opportunity it creates.
At the bottom of the Next Level Chef set is a kitchen designed to be, well, trash, from its actual garbage can to the staples, like jugs of milk that actually look filthy. It has few tools, and those that are there aren’t great, such as dull knives.
The middle kitchen is a standard restaurant kitchen, and the top level has what is supposed to be an impressive kitchen, and while it certainly looks better than the others, it’s nothing that visually eclipses other kitchens I’ve seen on reality TV shows.
Connecting each kitchen is a dumbwaiter, which drops through a hole in the middle of each set, delivering proteins and vegetables. Each kitchen appears to have a considerable amount of pantry staples available to its chefs, like spices, oil, flour, and cream, that aren’t mentioned but are clearly in use.
That platform starts at the top level, and pauses at each level, giving the chefs in that kitchen 30 seconds to take what they want. They’re only allowed a single protein each, so the top level can’t hoard everything.
That presumably leaves the worst ingredients, like Spam, for the bottom kitchen, though by the time the platform arrived there for the first challenge, there’s plenty: lamb, ground turkey, cauliflower, pasta, butternut squash, bell peppers, chicken tenders. (This all may seem familiar to you if you’ve seen the Netflix horror film The Platform.)
So what are these kitchens and this setup being used for? A pretty ordinary show.
Like on Masterchef, Gordon Ramsay is the central part of a panel of three, joined on Next Level Chef by Top Chef alum and chefs Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blaise.
In the first episode, each of those chefs chooses a team of contestants to mentor through the competition, which will award its winner $250,000. Teams will earn immunity, and one chef will go home every episode. All of this seems pretty basic.
The chefs they’re working come from a variety of cooking backgrounds, which Gordon Ramsay treats as some magical idea, as if Food Network competitions haven’t had social media stars or food truck operators among their contestants for years.
In the first episode, before the teams are chosen, the contestants are randomly assigned to a kitchen. But that random assignment continues. Fox’s description for future episodes says, “Each team is randomly assigned to a kitchen, where they will need to prove that they can create magic in any environment, even when the odds are stacked against them.”
That means only one team has the odds stacked against them, right? But what does that prove? Why did the show spend “literally $4 million just to erect that steel,” as Gordon Ramsay told Thrillist?
Maybe being randomly assigned to the basement kitchen presents a bigger challenge, except having one-third of the contestants be challenged while the others are not is not a great competition.
Ramsay also says that “any chef can shine in the best of circumstances, but only a next-level chef can make magic in the worst.” So is the point of this competition to see how much the chefs in the good kitchen fail and the ones in the bad kitchen succeed?
But the basement kitchen certainly doesn’t guarantee failure. In the first episode, one chef in the bottom kitchen, Roice, doesn’t get a protein, which the editing and Gordon Ramsay treat like a full-blown crisis, and then he cooks one of the best meals, making a cauliflower steak and puree.
The kitchens just present minor obstacles, and mostly serve as backdrops, especially considering the dishes in episode one all seem pretty similar, regardless of where their chef cooked.
Next Level Chef is not the kind of empty exercise that Fox’s Alter Ego was, but I don’t understand why the show does so little with its own conceit. Why not have the contestants work their way up the ladder of kitchens, like Ramsay says in the intro?
Perhaps a more-creative distribution of ingredients on the lift would present more of a challenge, or some kind of mid-cook challenge with, say, mystery ingredients appearing and having to be incorporated.
Watching the first dash for ingredients, I wished the producers would use the lift in reverse: starting it at the bottom, letting the garbage kitchen chefs get the best produce and proteins, and give the chefs in the top kitchen literal scraps.
What if all the contestants started in the middle kitchen, and then moved up or down based on their performance, and only those in the basement were eligible to be eliminated, and those at the top won advantages or prizes? Like Tough As Nails, that could keep more of the cast around longer, and challenge them in different ways.
Maybe some of this will happen in a future episode, but there’s no sign of that in any of the episode descriptions Fox released. Right now, we’re left to just random kitchen assignments to produce the same kind of dish.
Next Level Chef has a lot of potential, and could reach that—or it could just stay fine.
The rest of the show strains to make us this averageness is big and important, and it’s sometimes painful to watch how hard they’re all trying. (I can’t quite believe it’s 2022 and so few shows have learned from The Great British Baking Show, which lets its contestants practice two of the three challenges in advance, and lets them use any ingredients they want, and still produces plenty of drama and entertainment.)
I admire Next Level Chef for not being a Fox reality TV competition that’s about guessing the identity of a performer. But is it really that different from Fox cooking competitions like Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef? Both of those eventually bored me with their repetition.
Next Level Chef could quickly go down that same path. It isn’t bad, but it sure is not next level.
Next Level Chef
Gordon Ramsay’s three kitchens add up to one ordinary cooking competition. B-
What works for me:
- The set design
- Casting Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blaise as mentors
- The contestants seem talented and potentially interesting
What could be better:
- Actually using the levels purposefully rather than randomly
- Doing something more interesting with the distribution of ingredients or the lift
- Less pretending that everything is so important and dramatic