Gordon Ramsay’s Newest Next Level Chef Wants to Empower Women Chefs
Chef Gordon Ramsay believes the true test of great chefs is not only what they can do in the best of circumstances, but what kind of magic they can create in the worst. To find out, he created the TV series, Next Level Chef with a gargantuan tri-level set of three kitchens costing $4 million to build. Ramsay said the state-of-the-art top level kitchen “Would make Martha Stewart sh– herself.” The middle level was built as a standard commercial kitchen, and the dreary basement, a bare-bones kitchen with intentionally blunt cutlery kitchen and other dysfunctional appliances.
Eighteen contestants competed in the cooking challenge in which they had to race to a moving platform, grab ingredients on the go, and cook specific dishes of the day using those ingredients. Chefs Gordon Ramsay, Nyesha Arrington, and Richard Blais judged the dishes, and each week, the contestant who created the worst dish was sent home. The winner, just crowned, is professional chef, Tucker Ricchio, who has her own cooking show on Truffle Shuffle. Chef Tucker won the $250,000 grand prize and a one-year mentorship with all three chefs.
Ricchio learned to cook as a child, helping her grandmother in the kitchen; but her plans were to be a nurse, and she graduated with a double bachelor’s in nursing. She was about to start her master’s degree until the day she watched Chef’s Table on Netflix. The episode was with three-Michelin-star Chef, Dominique Crenn. Says Tucker, “I was so inspired when I saw what she was doing. It was her attention to detail: her food was art, and her menus were poems, literally, it was edible art, and I realized there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do more than that.”
Tucker signed up for Cordon Blue and after graduating in 2015, she worked in a few Sacramento restaurants, but realized that to find work at the Michelin star restaurants, she needed to move to the Bay Area (the foodie hub of California). Tucker eventually landed in the kitchen of Michelin-starred Suzette Gresham’s Aquarelle where she learned butcher skills and eventually made her way to sous chef.
While Tucker remains grateful for everything she learned from Chef Gresham, she is also grateful to her three new mentors, especially Chef Ramsay.
Tucker Ricchio First Interview After Winning Next Level Chef
We caught up with Tucker Ricchio by phone following her big win.
You’ve said that in culinary school, you learned most women don’t get into Michelin starred restaurants?
Absolutely. It’s a very competitive, very elite, and it’s a boy’s club. At Aquarelle, I was literally the only other woman in that kitchen. You really have to fight your way to the top and prove that you can hang with the boys. I want to pave the way for other women, to open the doors for them, because when you reach a position where you can help other people, you don’t pull the ladder out behind you – you reach down and help them up. That’s exactly what Suzanne Gresham did for me and that’s what I hope to do for the next generation of female chefs.
Did you ever watch Julia Child?
When I was a kid, my mom would put cooking shows. Julia Child always said you have to have a ‘what the hell’ attitude in the kitchen. Until I got into professional kitchens, I didn’t really understand what that meant, because in the home kitchen, you’re just hanging out; but in professional kitchens, everything is hot and fast. It’s a chaotic environment, and you have to have a what-the-hell attitude in the sense that maybe the flavors aren’t going to come together, whoops maybe I burned something over here. In a professional kitchen, you have to adapt and react. That’s an important lesson that I’ve learned many times.
How did Next Level Chef happen for you?
A recruiter reached out via Instagram and suggested I apply. They selected me over thousands of applicants, and I feel very blessed to have been one of the 18 chosen for Season Two.
Were you posting a lot of videos on Instagram that would appeal to them?
I posted a lot of final dish photos and a lot from Truffle Shuffle, and there were some videos where I was creating recipes and showing people that cooking doesn’t have to be as daunting as it may seem. I wanted to make it a little bit more approachable and wanted to share with the world, so I was putting out as much content as I could. And I guess they took notice of that which is super cool.
What did you have to do to apply?
We had to send in multiple photos of dishes that we’d created. And there were questions about if you were to have this kind of a theme, what dish would you create? There were background checks, and a couple of in face-to- face interviews via Zoom with different casting producers who asked, ‘What is your story? What do you stand for? How did you learn how to cook? What’s your food style? What is your favorite dish to cook,’ things like that.
Once you were chosen what happened?
It was a pretty quick turnaround. Maybe a couple of months and then off to film at Studio Ramsay. We were all taken to a hotel and couldn’t talk to each other. I had to stay in my room the whole time. This was still in the setting of a pandemic, so to ensure the safety of the cast and crew, everybody was quarantined to their rooms. They really just wanted to make sure everybody was super safe.
When filming started, how were you chosen by Chef Ramsay? How did that work? In season one, all the cooks all showed up, and in episode one, they cooked a dish that represented themselves. From there, it was kind of like dodgeball picking between the three mentors. The difference in season two was that we came in and they said, surprise, we’ve already chosen our teams. I was so absolutely blessed to have been chosen by Chef Ramsay. I mean he’s the original gangster of the culinary world and it’s just been an amazing ride learning from him.
How long were the cook days?
From 12 to 14 hours. Call time was 7:00 or 7:30am. We started out with the bus to the studio and from there it was wardrobe, makeup, get mic-ed. The producer would come and give us little pep talk – to be our best selves. It was really nice to have that pep talk, because you’re not at home, you’re away from your family, you’re in this high intensity situation with a very huge prize at stake. And then, it was off to off to cook. Intermingled between the cook challenge and elimination challenge, there were interviews. They’d ask us questions, see how we were feeling in the moment. We’d wrap around 8:00 or 9pm, a six-day work week.
You weigh 120 pounds and you’re five feet two inches. The others have longer legs and longer arms and they’re taller so they can reach more. Was that at a huge disadvantage for you?
Well, you know being short in the world in general is a disadvantage and in a professional kitchen it also a disadvantage because they’re made for tall people. I’m always pulling out ladders or asking tall people to help. I figured I am pretty fast. I’ve been a sports player all my life, but your legs can only go so fast. It’s a little bit of a disadvantage to try to see the top of the platform and reach over to try to grab things.
Once you had your ingredients, did you base your dish on your knowledge of recipes of things you never cooked? Or did you just wing it?
When doing a platform grab, I decided that it would be disadvantageous to go in with a plan of what should I cook today. So, when I went to the platform to grab ingredients, this was my mantra: protein, starch, veg, sauce, garnish. That way you have your entire dish. It doesn’t matter what your ingredients are, but you need to grab those off the platform. I think that helped me organize myself because when you run up there, there are just so many things at one time. We saw people forget starch, protein, different components of their dish – I didn’t want to hurt my chances by simply forgetting something on the platform. If I was going to go down, it was going to be something that I didn’t execute properly, not because I forget something, The first thing I would grab would be the protein, the hero of the day, the star of the dish. And once I had a protein, I’d start picking the other four things of my mantra and then the dish would start coming together. But the dish would build itself once I had the protein.
What was one of the worst things that happened to you on the show?
I think those undercooked meatballs in the basement on game day were probably not my finest moment. Chef Ramsay was saying multiple times, ‘Get the meatballs in the pan,’ but I honestly don’t know what I was doing – but it was not meatballs. They were underdone, but luckily, the sauce saved me that day because they said the sauce was delightful.
What was your worst dish?
The fried food challenge. Fried food is not exactly a cuisine I delve into very much. At this point, there was a time token at play meaning a contestant could either add 10 seconds to their grab time or take 10 seconds away from someone else. So, on this particular day, someone gave me the time token, so I had 10 seconds less at the platform. I had 20 seconds to pick ingredients. I got a little frazzled because 30 seconds is not very long to begin with, and 20 seconds, goes by even faster. I was just pulling random things off the platform, got back to my station to start the challenge and couldn’t wrap my mind around what was going on. I was blanking on very basic cooking techniques, and I put up a dish I wasn’t proud of. They didn’t like it either. And that sent me to the elimination.
Besides winning, what was the best thing that happened to you on the show?
Getting to work so closely with Gordon Ramsay, especially on the semifinal episode. I was the only one on that top level kitchen with him, so I essentially had a private cooking lesson with Gordon Ramsay. Aside being able to cook with him all season long, I had this little one-on-one time with him. What an absolute blessing to have such an experience like that, it was literally a dream come true.
Why did you win? Was it your talent?
I think I consistently put up decent dishes, not too many terrible dishes. I only went into elimination that one time. I didn’t cook anything that was super hideous. And on the finale episode where we had to cook a three-course meal, I pulled out all the stops. I showed them that I have a flavor profile I cook with which is based on my Italian heritage and my French culinary skills from school. That’s kind of my flavor profile. I think by the end of the competition, they understood my personal philosophy on flavors, but that I also showed diversity. I experimented with some Asian flavors on the fish course. I think they saw diversity in me, I think they saw potential and I think they saw I have this passion backed up with talent. The other chefs were also incredibly talented. This was a very difficult fight to the top, and they put up a good fight. But in the end, I prevailed, so I’m pretty proud.
What are you going to do with the $250,000?
Obviously, I will have to pay quite a bit of taxes on the money, but with what I have left over, besides food, travel is my second passion in life. Being a chef, you’re not exactly in the category where you can spend a lot of money or have the time off. So now that I have a little bit of that, I can really travel and through travel, I want to learn different cuisines of the world. My Truffle Shuffle show is called “Eat around the world with Chef Tucker.” I really do love travel and food. I would really just love to literally eat my way around the world.
Will you continue to work at Truffle Shuffle?
Yes, I plan to. I’ve been working here for over two years, and it truly is a community full of fellow foodies who have a genuine interest in learning and a genuine interest in food. I love the community we’ve built here, so, I plan to stick around,
And you will be mentored by all three chefs?
Honestly, just getting any career advice from these three would be super helpful, because going back into restaurants is not really where I want to go with my career. I want to take on a different platform to bring my food to the world and not as a brick-and-mortar restaurant type of career. I’m coming in with an open mindset to embrace whatever comes out for me in the next year.
What’s the most important thing you learned about being on the show?
I learned that experience is really key because I’ve been doing this for quite a few years, and I think that was one of the advantages as well. Working in restaurants you learn a ton — that’s not to say that that culinary school wasn’t invaluable – I’m so glad I did that. But the number of things I learned by just working in a restaurant day after day, year after year, there’s no comparison. You learn timing, technique, adapting, you pick up little tips and tricks from all these chefs year after year. You try to soak everything up. That’s how you’re going to be successful in whatever you do, because you learn life lessons in the kitchen, and I think those carried over into the competition as well.
What advice do you have for chefs hoping to be a contestant on Next Level Chef?
This show is not for the faint of heart, so bring your A game.
Anything you want to add?
I’m just so blessed to have learned from so many amazing women chefs and be mentored by some of the best female chefs out there, including Chef Nyesha Arrington on the show. I had a very small pool of female mentors, and I hope I can become that for the next generation of young cooks, especially the young gay women out there, because representation matters. Until you see someone like yourself doing it, you don’t really know that you can. I just hope to be the inspiration that I was lucky enough to find.