Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder about the minds of those nameless individuals who dream up the central gimmicks at the heart of newly conceived TV competition series. Certainly, we can recognize the likes of Gordon Ramsay (and his production company) as a prolific source of TV cooking entertainment, but it’s not like he’s the guy dreaming up the specific x-factor that will set some new show apart from the dozens of other, similar programs, right? So who is the person who looked at the cooking competition landscape as it exists today, and asked “Why don’t any of these shows evoke a dystopian sci-fi social satire?” This is the person I want to know more about: The strange soul who conceived the likes of Next Level Chef, now in its second season on FOX.
Were they inspired, perhaps, by the Spanish sci-fi horror film The Platform, which premiered on Netflix in 2019? That ambitiously disturbing movie is about a uniquely cruel, dystopian prison, in which a single platform full of food slowly descends through a vertical structure, and prisoners on each level eat their fill until only the most disgusting scraps (or none at all) remain for the unlucky souls on the lower levels. And looking at Next Level Chef, with its kitchen caste system of those rising and falling, and the same descending platform full of cooking ingredients, one can imagine the gimmick’s creator banking on the format eliciting the same type of anarchy.
And oh boy, does the show deliver anarchy. Uniquely stressful, frenetic and just plain chaotic, Next Level Chef isn’t quite like any other cooking competition on TV today. It takes an array of seasoned cooks and professional chefs, and then confronts them with a gimmick designed to scramble their brains with split-second panic. You think opening a basket of mystery ingredients on Chopped poses a difficult conceptual challenge? At least those ingredients were thought out by a team of chefs or producers, and presumably the producers feel like every Chopped basket has the potential to create exceptional dishes. The ingredients the average contestant ends up holding in their arms after a 30-second grabbing spree on Next Level Chef, on the other hand, are equally likely to be perfectly conventional or downright deranged. You simply get what you get, and only then can you start figuring out “what the hell am I supposed to cook with this?” It’s both brutal and hilarious to watch.
That’s the thing about the Next Level Chef format—there really is no way for these poor contestants to plan for it. Oh sure, you can try to gameplan what you’d make if you happened to lay hands on all the correct ingredients. But even if the producers told the contestants exactly what was going to be on the platform in advance, there’s no guarantee they’d be able to physically grab that item before the person next to them snatches it away. And there goes your carefully constructed plan! Even being on the top level, with the first pick of the platform, one can never guarantee starting a challenge with a coherent collection of ingredients.
I really can’t overstate the pure chaos that is infused into those 30 seconds of gathering ingredients, and the way it reduces many of the Next Level Chef contestants to instinctual grabbing and hoarding of anything within reach. The time passes so quickly, and there are so many other bodies crowded around you, that contestants move in a panicked blur, their faces etched with horror. Cruelly, the show doesn’t even give them baskets or something to carry those ingredients in—they’re awkwardly loading up their arms and hastily stuffing vegetables into their pockets, and then forgetting to remove those vegetables afterward. More than once, a contestant has entirely forgotten to grab a protein, and been forced to make it work with whatever they had on hand. People end up with armfuls of ingredients they’ve never worked with before, and have no idea how to cook, and are left staring down the barrel of a 45-minute time limit to turn it into fine dining cuisine. There may be something of a stereotype of the contestants on these types of shows as weepy drama queens, but I really can’t fault some of these people being turned into blubbering messes by the sheer difficulty factor and agonizing randomness of what they’re being asked to do.
And that’s before you even get into the inherent and intentional unfairness of the three-tiered kitchen gimmick, where chefs on the top floor are cooking with premium equipment—shameless advertisements for Ramsay’s own line of Hexclad pans, naturally—and cooks in the basement are trying to make do with warped pans, ovens that don’t get hot, and faucets that barely work at all. It’s a bizarre combination of social awareness, highlighting the stratification of the fine dining and home chef worlds, and the limitations placed on those who don’t have access to quality ingredients or kitchens, with the fantasy of upward mobility, the promise that chefs will be able to “bootstrap” themselves up to a higher socioeconomic class over the course of a single episode. The whole thing plays out like an idealized fantasy of how a meritocracy is theoretically supposed to reward exceptional people, as the team with the winning chef on any given week is given the reward of then rising to the top to enjoy the luxuries they’ve now earned. If only real life rewarded raw talent so readily.
But that’s not why you’re watching Next Level Chef, at the end of the day—not for the unrealistic dream of rising through the ranks of culinary greatness, but to watch a flaming shitshow unfold on a weekly basis. And that’s almost always guaranteed to occur, because the undiluted craziness of the platform and its ingredient-grabbing frenzy has a way of permeating every episode with a trickle-down effect of madness. Otherwise capable chefs have a way of seemingly checking out mentally on this show, making rookie mistakes because they’re so flummoxed from the initial, stressful rush of it all. They throw carefully constructed plates of food onto the platform as it rises out of their reach, sloshing half the contents onto the floor. Grease fires readily ignite on all three kitchen levels, threatening to consume the entire structure in a hellish inferno. And I swear, the judges—Ramsay, Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blaise—often seem to be doing everything in their power to make the grandiose moments of failure that much more dramatic and ridiculous. Why else would Ramsay, a man who has surely put out hundreds of grease fires in the proper way, be running across the kitchen with a burning pan in his hand, to chuck it into a sink where it can explode in a demonstrative fireball? Because he knows that this chaos makes for good TV, that’s why.
It’s this frenetic energy, the seeming feeling that things can (and will) go disastrously wrong for any given contestant on any week, that makes Next Level Chef a guilty pleasure among culinary competition shows. A contestant can be on top of the world one week, putting together a composed, restaurant-worthy entree, and the next week they’re having a burning pan of their food heaved off the structure by Nyesha Arrington, or ultimately serving raw chicken to the judges, causing Richard Blais to spit his potential food poisoning out in mid-chew. That all happened to a single competitor on the first season of this show, by the way. I can only imagine what will happen in Season 2 if the likes of retired NFL player Mark McMillian are able to stick around, given that he managed to both ignite a conflagration of a grease fire and slop half of his dish onto the platform in the first week. “Messy” is this show’s natural state of being.
No one would mistake Next Level Chef for a fair, objective evaluation of the cooking skills of the contestants involved, but that’s okay. Its own judges surely understand the task here—to provide sideshow entertainment by subjecting the cooks to one of television’s strangest gauntlets, and seeing who has the fortitude to emerge unscathed. If you’re a fan of cooking shows who also possesses something of a misanthropic streak, you might find it right up your alley.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and semi-competent home cook. You can follow him on Twitter for more film, TV, and food writing.
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