I like Next Level Chef. I went into it assuming it was going to be a little too weird and gimmicky, but it’s actually a lot of fun. Many of the chefs are relatable and easy to root for. The multi-level format with tiered ingredients and cooking utensils tests the contestants in compelling ways, and each of the mentors brings a unique and engaging energy. I’ve set the season pass on the DVR and am on board, but even so, it’s pretty clear the reality competition needs to make a key change to the first round of judging.
In short, the show is a team-based reality competition. Popular chefs Gordon Ramsay, Richard Blais and Nyesha Arrington each picked a team of five chefs. Each week, those five chefs are randomly assigned a level, which corresponds to one of three kitchens. The top kitchen has the nicest equipment and ingredients; the bottom has the worst of everything. Everyone cooks, a winning dish is chosen, and the two teams who didn’t put up the winning dish have to select someone to cook for their life in a sudden death competition. It’s oddly complicated on the surface, but it actually all makes complete sense– except for how the first judging round is scored.
After all of the dishes in the initial round are put up to be judged, the mentors working with each team describe the dish, and all three of them try it and give their initial thoughts. After all the dishes are tried, the judges go into the other room and talk out which dish they think is the best one. It sounds good in theory, except all three of the judges are clearly very, very biased for their own team members.
They each know who put up which dish, and if someone on their team has a possible contender, they advocate for that dish pretty nakedly. I think the producers suspected this would give the mentors a fun chance to go back and forth and fight for their team members. That does happen, but it also creates a pretty unhealthy and imbalanced conversation in which it feels like no one is being completely honest. There’s also a bit of a weird power dynamic in that Ramsay is clearly the star of the show (because he's Gordon freakin' Ramsay) with Blais and Arrington along as key supports. They’re great and Blais especially has extensive TV experience, but there’s still an imbalance that occasionally comes across in body language. It’s as if Ramsay’s voice is just a little bit louder and carries slightly more weight.
Now, the second round of judging is quite good. The two contestants who are put up for sudden death elimination cook their dishes apart from their own mentors. The mentors then come in and critique the dishes blind. That allows for a much more honest conversation and puts the mentors in a position to accidentally send their own chefs home. They vote, and if there’s a tie, the third mentor who watched the contestants cook and has no rooting interest decides who should go home. That’s good television and should not be changed.
But something needs to be done about that first judging round. All the best reality competitions evolve. They add new wrinkles. They change the rules to fix problematic behavior. They guess and check and clarify until they get to a format that maximizes the premise. The premise of Next Level Chef is quite good, even if it’s a bit complicated to explain. I like it and know a lot of other people who do too. But the show needs to recognize what doesn’t work and adjust for next season.
Some may argue the best solution would be for the first round to be judged blindly also, but I like having the mentors in the kitchen with the chefs. It’s nice to see Ramsay, Blais and Arrington giving actual instructions and helping the contestants learn new skills and improve. I don’t want to lose that hands on instruction.
Instead, I think the show should make Gordon Ramsay a super-mentor without his own team. They can bring in a third mentor to take over his spot (Graham Elliot? Antonia Lofaso? Brooke Williamson? Edward Lee? Wylie Dufresne?). Once three mentors are in place, Ramsay can wander the three levels as an unattached observer, adding in little comments and hassling the mentors. Each contestant and mentor would then present their dishes to Ramsay after the first round. He would praise them and/ or tear them apart without any emotional attachment (which would be great TV) and then he can once again, be the tie-breaking vote in the final round.
Long story short, I like Next Level Chef. I think the format works, and I’ve enjoyed watching every episode. But something needs to be done about the first round of judging, and whether the show takes my super mentor suggestion or not, change is needed. Hopefully when I sit down to watch next season, it’ll be the same basic format and tone I love with a tweaked set of rules that make a little more sense.
Enthusiastic about Clue, case-of-the-week mysteries, the NBA and cookies at Disney World. Less enthusiastic about the pricing structure of cable, loud noises and Tuesdays.
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