‘Next Level Chef’ EP Matt Cahoon On Staying Innovative In The Reality Competition World: “Make It Theatrical, Make It Big, Make It Over The Top”

For Next Level Chef, executive producer Matt Cahoon needed to think of a new idea for Gordon Ramsay’s next big show. He realized the key to creating something new and original was to really put the chefs’ skills to the test.

Gordon Ramsay hosts this reality cooking-competition, along with fellow chefs and mentors Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais, where fifteen chefs compete for a $250 thousand prize and a one-year mentorship under all three chefs. Each challenge is rigorous, as the chefs are split between three levels: the top level with a top-shelf kitchen, the middle level with a standard commercial kitchen, and the bottom level with a “basement” quality kitchen.

While the pitch for Next Level Chef seemed daunting, Cahoon and Ramsay’s crew of builders managed to create the three-tiered set and keep it 100 percent green. It’s difficult to stay innovative with so many cooking shows on television, but Cahoon knew they had something special from the first episode. And that something special has led to Next Level Chef being renewed for another season, which will premiere on February 12, 2023 as the Super Bowl LVII lead-out program.

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DEADLINE: Where did the idea for Next Level Chef come from?

MATT CAHOON: Gordon and I had just come off the road from a two hour special of 24 Hours to Hell and Back called “Save Our Town”, where we didn’t just do a single restaurant. Instead we did an entire old town, where a small block of places had twice been hit by flood, in a really kind of heartwarming fantastic episode. And he said, “I’m looking for the next big show, what can you come up with?” The best thing about Gordon is his work ethic; he’s unlike anyone else. The man is like a shark. He doesn’t slow down or I think his body would just quit. He always goes and goes and goes, and that’s been since he was a kid. I mean, hearing stories of him starting as a dishwasher and working his way up from job to job, to the amazing being he is now was always really impressive to me because that’s how my work ethic is.

I read an article about a street vendor in Thailand who was awarded a Michelin star, and that really got my wheels turning because the thing that’s always stuck with me about every food competition is that you put these chefs in a million-dollar kitchen and you give them all the best ingredients money can buy and then you have them compete. To me, that was never real life. You know, everyday people are looking in the back of their fridge for what’s gonna go bad. What’s about to spoil? What can I get outta my freezer to make? They’re working with whatever is around, and that was the seed for me. Any chef can make something great with a filet of Wagyu beef in a million dollar kitchen, but what can you do if you’re a street vendor with run of the mill street food? Can you make Michelin star food out of it? And that’s how Next Level Chef was created.

DEADLINE: I can imagine that pitch being a little strange where you’re like, “Okay, we need three kitchens that need to be stacked on top of each other.”

CAHOON: [Laughs] Yep, I did not want this to be small by any stretch. I think there were a lot of wide eyes from everyone right off the top. You’re not talking about one set, you’re talking about three sets running concurrently, all stacked up on top of each other. But that was it for me, it was really about taking the cooking genre to the next evolution. Let’s step it up a little and make it theatrical, make it big, make it over the top.

DEADLINE: Let’s talk about that set, because that does seem like a crazy set to build.

CAHOON: It was daunting to say the least. I’ll tell you why – it’s a next level set in every way. It was 85 tons of steel and built over 50 feet tall. We couldn’t find a stage to house it because it was so tall, and the only places it could fit in were stadiums and sports arenas. So we built our own industrial production tent and it was the largest temporary structure in Las Vegas history. We had to go through a lot of codes before they let us build it. 40 thousand square feet was our production tent, which was pretty amazing and we housed everything inside of it. But the thing that we were most proud of, meaning Gordon and myself, is that it was 100 percent green. All of our generators, which ran electric and air conditioning and obviously all of our appliances, were all 100 percent natural gas operated. It was something that had never been done before and we were really proud to be able to do that and run it all off natural gas. We had zero footprint on it, which was pretty fantastic.

50 feet high is no joke. You get chefs up in that top kitchen and they’re wowed by how amazing this kitchen is, and then they get to the edge and step away really quickly. It was fantastic. It was a lot of phenomenal work by a lot of people. The crew really went above and beyond in terms of building this set and making it what it was. I had a really clear vision of wanting something that would wow and man, did they deliver.

DEADLINE: You said largest “temporary” structure… Did you leave it up for season 2?

CAHOON: It was brought down and it’s being built up again. It was created modularly so that we could put it up every time. So, it is being rebuilt as we speak. The build is starting very shortly for season two, which will air next year.

DEADLINE: How do you stay innovative when there are so many cooking shows out there?

CAHOON: I think that was always the driving force from the start, you know, to make this one innovative. Every cooking show has its own unique niche that it’s trying to fill. This was about how people at home would cook. Anyone can make magic with the best ingredients in the best kitchen, but what kind of magic can you make when you’re in the worst environment with the toughest ingredients, with the lowest quality ingredients. In our first episode, one of our finalists Reuel [Vincent] had to cook a dish with spam, with canned meat, and that really set up the entire series to me. He was the very first pick in the very first episode by Gordon and he cooked a dish with spam and he elevated it.

And that’s really what I wanted from this. What sets us apart is showcasing the talent of these chefs, which I don’t think any other show can do, you know? It’s having them get delivered the lowliest cuts of meat or the lowliest ingredients like vegetables that are starting to wilt or canned fruits, and really showcasing their talent with what they can do technique-wise and take you to the next level. That to me is what sets us apart.

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