Why Gordon Ramsay Spent $4 Million on That Massive Kitchen for His Biggest Show Yet
Ramsay talks about the inspiration behind 'Next Level Chef' and why chefs Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais make his ideal judging trifecta.
He's one of the most instantly recognizable celebrity chefs on the planet, but Gordon Ramsay didn’t start out at the very top. Long before he created his restaurant empire, earned his first Michelin star, and routinely screamed "It's raw!" to blundering contestants on Hell's Kitchen, the international icon began his culinary journey just like any other chef—in your standard, everyday kitchen—and that’s the inspiration behind his latest cooking competition series, Next Level Chef.
Picture it: A gargantuan tri-level set with three kitchens stacked on top of one another, but there's a twist—they're set up in tiers of quality. At the very bottom is the basement, a bare-bones kitchen equipped with blunt cutlery and other dysfunctional appliances. Your center level is the standard commercial kitchen with everything a chef should need to cook up a restaurant-quality meal. And then there’s the top level—a glistening, start-of-the-art dream kitchen that, as Ramsay says in the show’s premiere episode, “Would make Martha Stewart shit herself.” At the center of each kitchen is a descending platform, where ingredients pass from top to bottom on a first-come, first-serve basis. Which means the top-level kitchen gets first dibs, likely being able to get their hands on a filet mignon, while the basement must make magic with something not so appetizing, such as a can of potted meat.
Utilizing those three kitchens are a total of 15 contestants, but unlike his other shows such as Hell’s Kitchen, which consists of seasoned chefs, and MasterChef, which is made up of aspiring home cooks, Next Level Chef is a mashup of the two, tapping a mixture of pros and amateurs, but new to the game are internet chefs. During the pandemic, Ramsay took notice of the surge in social media cooks (just take a look at his hilarious TikTok reactions) and decided to throw them into the fray of frictional personalities.
Joining him as co-hosts are celebrated restaurateur Nyesha Arrington and James Beard-nominated chef Richard Blais, the three each mentoring a team of five contestants. In each challenge, what kitchen the teams end up in is determined by randomly selected unmarked key cards. In the end, there will only be one winner—and one proud mentor who gets to toot their own horn.
During a recent exclusive Zoom interview, Ramsay was a far cry from the fiery personality we usually see on TV. Clearly in the holiday spirit, I’m greeted with a warm, “Merry Christmas, my man!” as soon as he pops on my screen. From there, we jump into a discussion about what inspired the colossal culinary gauntlet that is Next Level Chef, the meticulous (and expensive) construction of its monolithic kitchen, and why Arrington and Blais were the right chefs to come onboard and kick his ass. As we segue into more candid topics, he also playfully challenges another fellow celebrity chef to a cook off.
Thrillist: Next Level Chef is the first cooking competition reality show that you've created in more than 12 years, and from the looks of the intricate set, it appears this concept took some deep thought and planning. What sparked the idea for the show in the first place?
Gordon Ramsay: I think I gave birth to this show during the pandemic. As you know, restaurants shut down, hospitality was brought to a halt, people were told to stay in their houses. When everything stopped, I took that negativity and turned it into grassroots and got super creative. So, I got my team of producers and said, "Look, how do we combine the professional world, the amateur world, and that social media phenomenon?" Because everybody's cooking now. Everybody's a critic. I think the pandemic taught us the importance of eating and communicating around the table.
And then I had this crazy idea: My career started in the basement. And when I won my third Michelin star, I got to the very, very top—but I still had those cuts of fish and meat that I still have heavily featured on my menu out of respect from starting from the bottom, from a braised oxtail to a mackerel that's not as glamorous as tuna. So, three kitchens stacked on top of one another, three incredible mentors. And then there were the sparks that flew when we put social media cooks together with professional chefs—watching them argy-bargy in the kitchen, it's brilliant.
The Next Level Chef stage is gargantuan. Were you heavily involved with planning the construction of that beast?
I've got pictures on my phone when that construction started up last September. This set is 90,000 tons of steel, 105-feet tall, and has three kitchens. There were gas lines being built to power that kitchen—and I’m not talking about a gas container that sits under the bench, I’m talking proper gas lines.
So, it was a big production and it cost literally $4 million just to erect that steel. And I'm a control freak, so I wanted each kitchen to have those dimensions: a basement with dilapidated fridges, fryers not working, stoves putting out hardly any temperature, and blunt knives. And the opposite of that on the top floor: a state-of-the-art kitchen that you could’ve only dreamt of. It was beautiful.
Throughout the years, you’ve had celebrity chefs and other culinary giants show up as guest judges on shows such as Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef. What led to you recruiting Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais as your full-time co-hosts?
First of all, I needed other judges who were going to kick my ass. And this is the first time, in over a decade, I've actually become a mentor. So, I thought, How can we get these kids to aspire to these mentors? They weren't your average Joe, strait-laced chefs. These are phenomenal, talented individuals. Rob Wade, our executive producer at Fox, kicked our ass and said, "Look, what haven't we done? How do we propel this talent? Every year, you're going to be judged on: Where’s the winner? What are they doing? How are they sitting in the industry?”
And so, we put together an amazing 12-month mentorship program where they've got access to Richard, Nyesha, and me. And the winner is going to be tucked under our wings. They're spending time in our businesses. We've committed time to their businesses, and, of course, a major investment. So, I needed the right kind of attitudes on board—judges who weren't overexposed and judges who were hungry to win. And by God, do you see that in the prolificness of their teams, because they are freaking feisty.
There’s an overabundance of cooking shows, so when you end one of your own and start brainstorming a new one, do you look at what else is out there and strive to do things bigger and better each time?
Before we take any show down, I'd like to replace it with something exciting. And so, the success of MasterChef and Hell's Kitchen has been huge. And now, I'm not going to get complacent, but what I am going to do is get creative and take all those elements of Kitchen Nightmares, Hotel Hell, 24 Hours to Hell and Back, and then I sort of look at the food scene in terms of how much more we appreciate good food, and how much money we haven’t got today to cook.
And so, I wanted to find all those missing links that programs haven't tapped into before, and then combine that into this melting pot of three amazing kitchens with three judges. So, it’s always about being better than what we've already done, and constantly pushing the envelope—I don't sit and think, “We've made it," or “We're financially secure, why work so hard?” I need that jeopardy. I need the danger of it possibly not working. And I need to be pushed, because that's when you're going to get me at my best.
Out of all the cooking shows you’ve produced, which is your favorite?
That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child, but for me, I think I have to go back to Kitchen Nightmares in the UK. It was a small documentary crew, no massive footprint, no craft services. Even our executive producer, the legendary Pat Llewellyn, was doing the dishes in the first episodes. It was just something special that you felt as soon as we started shooting.
Who’s still on your ultimate guest judge wish list? Is there a chef you’ve tried to work with to no avail due to scheduling conflicts?
Bobby Flay. Mostly because I’d make him cook off with me first and I know I would cook him under the table, head start included. Bobby, I’m waiting!
Hell's Kitchen is gearing up for Season 21 soon. Clearly, this show has strong legs, but how much longer do you see it going on?
I love Hell's Kitchen. I run a restaurant, Fox runs the show, and I keep that as real as possible. And we start taping again early next year, and I'd love you to come down and have dinner, because that reservation book is full. Those doors open, guests sit down, and I run a fucking restaurant. And I think that's why it works, because these chefs are competing for an amazing position. They're getting a great platform. Can you imagine me at age 25 being given an opportunity to cook in a competition to earn a quarter-million dollars? I could barely earn $2,000 a month at their age. My salary didn't even cover my rent, getting my ass kicked in those top-flight kitchens. So, I think it's an incredible platform for these kids to bounce from.
Can I keep going? I got consumed in this business in my early 40s. And then, how do I claw time back to become super strong and fit? I started taking up triathlons and I did my first Ironman at the age of 43 in Hawaii. And so now at 55, I'm fit as a fiddle. And I can go for another 30 seasons. Trust me. You have not seen the end of me. Do not underestimate the power of an old man [laughs].
Can you name some cooking shows that aren’t yours that you really enjoy and find yourself tuning in to on a regular basis?
Well, with [my daughter] Tilly being on Strictly Come Dancing—the UK’s Dancing with Stars—I’ve become a more regular expert on dancing than food lately. But that said, Chef’s Table is a favorite of mine. The storytelling behind each chef is incredible and how they shoot food is just so beautiful.
When time is extremely limited, what are your on-the-go food pleasures or guilty pleasures?
When I’m busy working I try to stay healthy, so I tend to go for poke or sushi since I’m tasting food throughout the day. But when I need a pick-me-up, my guilty pleasure is a Hershey’s Kisses and a coffee. Why are they so addictive?!
We know you love burgers, and you’ve expressed your love of In-N-Out, so where do you stand on the In-N-Out versus Shake Shack debate?
No offense to my friend Danny Meyer of Shake Shack, but it’s an In-N-Out burger, all the way. Especially when it’s freshly cooked and served animal style. Nothing better.
Not sure if you’ve seen Pig, but it’s a movie starring Nicolas Cage as a world-famous chef who becomes a recluse and lives in the woods with a pet truffle pig. In one impactful scene, he cooks a meal that reduces a man to tears because of the memories the flavors trigger about a deceased loved one. Has a meal ever induced an emotional reaction like that for you?
With a title like that, I’m not sure I would’ve put that in my movie queue. I think for any chef, or anyone passionate about food, there’s a dish or dishes that bring you a sense of joy or happiness in your life. I mean, look no further than the scene in Ratatouille when the food critic is transported home to his childhood after one bite, it happens to a lot of people. For me, it’s eating the dishes my mum used to make at home that are elevated but bring back those memories when we were scraping to make it through.