Competing in a cooking competition can make you feel like you’ve been thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire — just ask any contestant.
On FOX’s Next Level Chef, Gordon Ramsay serves as mentor alongside chefs Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais as 18 contestants try to cook their way to the top (and win the $250,000 prize). One of the contestants from the second season, airing now, is Shay Spence, who just so happens to be a former Food Editor at PEOPLE.
Spence and his fellow cast mates compete in three teams and work across three kitchens — the basement, the middle kitchen, and the top kitchen — with differing levels of tools and ingredients in each. The higher level kitchens come fully equipped with the latest gadgets and all the bells and whistles, while the basement kitchen has chefs just scraping by with the bare minimum.
The element that sets this show apart is “the platform” — which is overflowing with ingredients as it traverses through the three kitchens. Chefs at the top have first dibs at the cornucopia of ingredients, while those in the basement are left with the scraps. At the end of the round, starting at the lowest level and working its way up, the platform returns and chefs have just a few moments to get their dish onto the platform before it soars into the sky for judging.
Aside from his career in food writing, Spence has become a viral star amassing over one million followers on TikTok with his cooking and travel videos — but nothing quite prepared the Key Wester for Next Level Chef. He sat down with PEOPLE to talk about making his TV debut, the pressure and “the hardest part of the competition.”
PEOPLE: Start by telling us what it’s like competing — do you go into the challenges with some kind of plan in mind?
Shay Spence: Oh my God, it’s just chaos. You have no idea what the challenge is going to be until you get there to set that day. You can kind of assume, based on what the challenge is, that certain things might be on the platform. I tried to go in, saying, “I want to get a protein,” every time. That’s really important. Protein, starch, veggie, and then anything else is just a bonus. You’re just grabbing and you can’t really strategize and no matter how many times you do it, it’s just insanity every time. The platform grab is the hardest part of the competition because you’ve seen how it can be the downfall of certain people. Because if you don’t get a crucial component, then you’re just kind of screwed.
PEOPLE: What do you do when you get an ingredient that you’re not really familiar with, like when you got duck breast in episode 4?
Spence: It’s hard because when we first started they said, “You are supposed to use all the things that you grab.” So, for example, on the sandwich challenge, I grabbed this mushroom duxelle, and it didn’t end up going with the rest of my dish, but I used it anyway. They will ding you if you don’t use an ingredient that you grab, but it’s also not like Chopped where if you don’t get an ingredient on the dish, then they’re going to disqualify you.
I had made maybe two duck breasts in my life. One of them was in culinary school, which was 10 years ago now. So you just kind of got to go with your intuition. The mentors do help. If I said, “I have no idea how to cook this duck breast,” [his mentor] chef Arrington would’ve given me a little guidance, but mostly you’re on your own and you’ve got to just put it on the plate and pray.
PEOPLE: What would you say are the upsides to cooking on every level and what are the pitfalls?
Spence: I started in the basement and I think that was great because you’re never scared of it after that. It was terrifying, and the first episode was going to be terrifying anyways. There are cameras in my face, there’s this renowned chef in my face asking me what I’m doing, and I’m just trying to focus and put anything on the platform. Getting those kinds of nerves out of the way was nice. The top kitchen has a lot of pressure because it’s almost like you have so much to choose from on the platform, and you feel the pressure to put out something really good, that it’s an embarrassment of riches. If you’re down in the basement, you kind of get what you get. And obviously that can backfire and you can get something really horrible but sometimes the best things come when you have fewer options.
PEOPLE: What was your favorite and least favorite kitchen to cook in?
Spence: Actually, my favorite is the middle. I love the middle kitchen. It’s really nice. It’s not as nice as the top kitchen. It doesn’t have some of the fancy stuff the top kitchen has, but I didn’t really even need that stuff. The middle kitchen feels like an industrial restaurant kitchen. I feel very comfortable there and it wasn’t just like we’re getting scraps, but it wasn’t like the top kitchen where the pressure is just really on.
I had the most trouble in the top kitchen. Ironically, I’d gone two challenges in a row where I couldn’t even get a plate on a platform, or I had to use my jumping skills and throw it up there.
PEOPLE: Since we’re talking about your athletic prowess, what is that last rush of the competition like?
Spence: It’s horrible. You’re not allowed to start plating until, I think, two minutes before. So people are always like, “Why don’t you just get it all together earlier,” but you cannot grab your plate until two minutes ahead of time. When you’re on the top kitchen, you’ve got to reach much higher. I was used to being on the bottom where your plates are all down lower and much easier to reach. So, the first time I was in the top kitchen, I allotted myself more time, but when you’re in that situation, your mind just goes totally blank.
In the fifth episode, I actually had to re-plate my dish because chef Arrington came around and she said that my plate was a mess, so she was like, “Go grab a new plate,” and I did. So, I didn’t get my plate on the platform which was my fault because I had a sloppy dish. But I would’ve rather have had a sloppy dish than not put a dish up once again. I persevered and it turned out okay, but in the moment, I was just totally dejected. That was really a heart-shattering moment.
PEOPLE: Cooking a composed dish in 45 minutes is already a feat. What’s the pressure like when you have just 30 minutes for the elimination round?
Spence: That was what was so nerve wracking. I sort of felt a sense of relief that I was going into an elimination challenge because I was so nervous about what it was going to be like. Watching it from the sidelines is almost scarier than just cooking in it because it’s such an intense situation. Going into it, Cassie [Yeung] was one of my best friends on the show, and so I was like, I’m glad we’re going in together. They hyped us up before we went in by playing Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter.” So once that started, we were like, all right, we got this. We’re friends. We’re going to compete against each other and both give it our all, but we had a more relaxed, competitive spirit because, at that point, I knew I could easily go home. She knew she could easily go home, and we’re doing this for fun. It was hard to find fun in certain moments of the competition. We hyped each other up, and we ended up having fun.
PEOPLE: You were inspired by your loved ones in a lot of the challenges. When you hear the challenge, do they immediately pop into your head?
Spence: One thing about doing this show that I didn’t consider before we started was how homesick I was going to be. We were in a hotel meeting completely new people, and we pretty much weren’t allowed to leave our hotel. You get into this crazy mindset, and that’s probably why we all get so emotional, too. So, when I’m cooking things and thinking of my family or my fiancé, James, it really comes just on the fly, from the heart. James’ favorite food is steak au poivre so I make that all the time. When I grabbed a bison steak, that just immediately came to mind. The au poivre sauce was something that I could make without really grabbing anything from the platform, because we have a reserve of certain ingredients like salt, peppercorns, spices and then beef stock and cream. So I was like, oh, I can just make this amazing sauce. I do it all the time, and it was delicious, but it didn’t quite come together.
PEOPLE: How do you keep your cool while you’re getting your dishes critiqued by such amazing chefs?
Spence: I don’t think I was able to. The rules aren’t hard and fast, but they’re like, “Don’t really make obvious faces.” But also the judges have these huge bright lights on them, so I don’t even know if they can actually see our faces when they’re looking out. Some people are better at poker faces than others, but we all kind of have our weird reactions. There’s a bit of a waiting period between after you put your dish on and when the judging happens, so that’s the most nerve-wracking part of it all, except for waiting for the platform to come. I tried to keep my cool, but I don’t know if I did.
PEOPLE: The mentor chefs are super encouraging and helpful. Are there any really great tips that you might’ve picked up on from them?
Spence: The mentors really did a good job of mentoring, which sounds obvious, but I didn’t know going into it if they were really going to want to help us or want us to be mostly on our own. Chef Arrington did a really good job of just helping me relax a little bit because she could tell that I was a total stress case. I cook all the time. I knew I could do all these things, but executing it in this timeframe with all this pressure, with TV cameras when I’ve never been on TV before, and having to keep your cool in that regard and also keep your cool with regard to the actual competition that you’re playing, she helped me with my breath control. I could kind of get focused, get organized and just focus on what’s in front of me.
PEOPLE: How do you recenter yourself after those challenges?
Spence: So you couldn’t have your phone on set. This is another reason I was so homesick the whole time. We were on set from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., no phones. I couldn’t talk to anybody. That’s why we all became such good friends as a cast, and we really helped each other center ourselves. We all became family because we just spent so much time together and it was this hodgepodge group of people from all over the country of all backgrounds, and we leaned on each other. And besides that, I didn’t have my phone so I could just go and meditate for a little while.
PEOPLE: What are you proudest of from your time on Next Level Chef?
Spence: I got to show off my heritage a little bit. My mom’s Lebanese, and I got to cook some dishes in honor of her. I got to just kind of put my personality out there, dedicate some dishes to James. And I just really wanted to make my family and everyone proud. I think I did a good job of that.
I’m also proud of myself for doing it. The whole time I came away from the experience being like, I cannot believe I just went through that. It felt like I was in Gordon Ramsay bootcamp. I live on an island, and I moved there for a reason because I do not do super high stress, adrenaline rush situations, so this was totally outside of what I normally do. It was far more grueling than I thought it was going to be.
I’ve watched cooking shows my whole life. I’ve written about cooking shows for a living. I have been a fan of Top Chef since I was a teenager. And you always can be an armchair quarterback and critique these chefs from the perspective as a viewer and now I’m on the other end of that with the tweets that I get.
People just can’t believe I couldn’t get a plate on the platform or didn’t do this or didn’t do that, or this contestant did this. And I’m just like, you have no idea what it’s like until you’re in there and under that pressure. Some of the most talented chefs there, I saw crack so many times because you just get a bad grab, you’re in the wrong headspace one day, you get a bad night’s sleep and the whole day could be ruined. So I was really proud of myself for even putting myself in that position.
PEOPLE: Is there anything else that you’d like to add about your experience?
Spence: No, just stay tuned. It was one of the most unexpected joys of my life, and it is more joyful actually watching it back, even when I kind of mess up. It’s really stressful. But my overall reflection on this time is nothing but positive, and I came away with 18 incredible friends from the cast. I got to cook for Gordon Ramsay and Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais. And yeah, it was all very positive so I’m really ultimately very glad I did it.
Next Level Chef airs Thursdays on FOX at 8 p.m. EST.
News Source: https://people.com/food/inside-gordon-ramsay-next-level-chef-shay-spence-interview/