Next Level Chef champion Pyet DeSpain on struggle, mentorship, and heritage

"I'm just cooking for the judges like I'm cooking for my family."
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Chef Pyet DeSpain. // Photo by Mark Mendoza

Born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas, Chef Pyet DeSpain took the first-place title in Gordon Ramsay’s latest cooking competition, The Next Level Chef. Through the trials and tribulations of constant kitchen shifts, ingredient changes, and time restrictions, DeSpain came to conquer.

Next Level Chef debuted in 2021, with the concept of professional chefs of all backgrounds, including personal chefs, head chefs, and social media chefs competing head-to-head for a chance to win $250,000.

While battling for a chance at a huge prize, the chefs were divided into three teams based on the selection of notable chefs Nyesha Arrington, Richard Blais, and Gordon Ramsay.

DeSpain showed authenticity, appreciation, and approbation for her roots by incorporating Native Indigenous and Mexican flavors in her dishes. Throughout the competition, DeSpain’s assigned mentor was Arrington, a highly decorated and world-renowned chef.

DeSpain unfolds her experience in the cooking competition by sharing the struggles she faced, the strong relationships that were built while on the show, her thought process while competing, and more.

DeSpain will be hosting a KC live event Wednesday, starting at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available here.

Ahead of that, we were able to get Chef Pyet on the phone to discuss rivalry in the competition, how she spent her prize money, a mindset while competing under pressure, sharing her appreciation of representing Native Indigenous people, and more.

The Pitch: It’s awesome to talk to you today. We’ve seen you on Fox, and now we’re about to have a conversation. It just feels surreal.

Chef Pyet DeSpain: Thank you for asking me to do the interview. I’m, you know—I’m just normal. I’m a girl who just had a dream. And I just happened to be on TV.

Well, I mean, you have accomplished a lot, especially being under pressure with extreme time constraints, and serving a perfect dish almost every time to world-renowned chefs. I don’t think I would be able to do that.

With all the hours under my belt, it’s still crazy to see. I still ask myself how I did it all the time.

I feel like everybody has the same question in mind. How were you able to do it? How are you able to cook under pressure and have Gordon Ramsay, Nyesha Arrington, and Richard Blais watching and monitoring your cooking almost 24/7?

I was very nervous in the beginning, and I felt as if I had many out-of-body experiences. Half the time, I’m like, “Who was cooking that,” because I don’t remember cooking most of those dishes. I was blacked out most of the time, and you know, the thing about muscle memory is I cook for a living.

For the first couple of episodes, I felt like I wasn’t even there. I just felt like I was like everything was happening so quickly.

I wasn’t able to register what was happening, and it wasn’t until the fourth episode that I showed up to the competition. I was like, “Okay, I’m aware. I’m present. I’m very intentional with these dishes and the ingredients that I’ve been choosing.” After that, I felt like I did much better.

Having those mentors with you in the kitchen as well, just looking—you don’t even know what to say—but just to not do the wrong thing. I felt like an imposter that didn’t belong, so it was very nerve-wracking. But it was such an amazing experience to be able to learn from such great chefs.

That’s awesome that you were able to adapt so quickly to that kind of environment, because you were a private chef beforehand, right?

Correct. Yes.

So would you say you were feeling as if you were an imposter due to being a personal chef? For instance, chefs that had experience in restaurants probably felt like they were more accustomed to executing meals in short time frames. Do you feel like some chefs had more of an advantage?

So, I had never worked in a restaurant prior before the show I did work in catering, and it very is similar to working in a restaurant, except where you’re just having to do it for one event and also cooking for a lot of people at one time.

We may seat the same amount of people as restaurants, so I have been in scenarios where it has been very fast-paced, or I’d have to be quick on my feet while also being able to improvise.

There have also been situations where things would go wrong in the kitchen. For example, maybe there was a forgotten ingredient for what was supposed to be cooked with a dinner party of  20 people.

There would be times when I would need to be innovative with ingredient replacements and ask, “What else can I utilize to make this dish happen?”

The same amount of pressure of being able to stand on your own and work—sometimes I didn’t have a team of people. Other times it was just me and one other person, or me by myself. Being able to think quickly on your feet and in a fast-paced environment is something that I was used to.

I think that definitely helped me in the competition and also to be able to go with the flow and make good dishes that are edible in a short amount of time.

But I think that anyone that came into that competition—having that background of working in a restaurant—worked to their advantage, because you see how far the professionals got up to the semi-final episode.

I just thought it was crazy when you all were in teams, and then you all separated into individual competitors. Competing against your teammates—it seemed like there was a shift between everyone working together on the same team, and how supportive the teammates were in the elimination rounds. How did it feel going from being teammates to seeing them as competitors?

Well, the thing is that although it was the nature of the competition, we knew that we would be individualized after. The teams were taken away, but at the end of the day, we were still rooting for each other. There were a lot of things that weren’t aired and didn’t make the cut of the show.

Everyone that was on the show did genuinely care about each other’s journeys, and we wanted the best for everyone. Even if I didn’t win, I would still be rooting for Mariah or Ruelle, because we all got so emotionally invested. We were isolated from the rest of the world and it was only us on set 24/7.

There was only a short amount of time that we didn’t spend together, which was when we were going to sleep in our hotel rooms. We’d wake up the next morning and meet from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.

I was very vocal in the elimination challenges when I tried to give advice. I was like, “Man, I’m so annoying, why am I the one that’s the loudest person in the room?” But that just shows you how passionate we all were about each other’s journeys.

We wanted everyone to stay in the competition, but we were separated, and we were all cooking for ourselves. It didn’t make sense for us to be nasty towards each other or play into the whole rivalry. At the end of the day, we didn’t have the choice of who stayed in the competition.

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A healthy dish. // Photo by Pyet DeSpain

It’s gratifying because we were so emotionally invested as well. Hearing everybody’s story along with the character building in the show—it was just such a great moment. And we were so happy that you won. How are you planning to use the $250,000?

Well, I know to a lot of people $250,000 is a lot of money, but living in Los Angeles—it’s not that much. I don’t know if you saw the gas prices lately, but they are skyrocketing. My goal was to be smart with my money, invest it, and let my money make money for me.

I plan on helping and supporting my family, investing in my own business, and investing my money in ways that will stretch and grow into more than what it is.

I think the most important prize here is the mentorship and the platform that I’ve been able to gain from all that. Money comes and goes, and I think the most important thing I could do with this moment is to continue to allow Native people to have voices, give back to communities, and connect with the people that I’m representing.

Chef Gordon Ramsay has given me access to knowledge, and it’s been a privilege to work with him. Gordon Ramsay, Nyesha Arrington, and Richard Blaze alone are worth more than $250,000. So, I am planning on taking up every single minute of the mentorship that I can utilize to propel my career forward.

We admired you for that throughout the entire season. It was more than just the title, and it was more than just winning the money. You had a purpose. You had a powerful story that also pushed you through those limits. Knowing that you are a part of the Potawatomi Tribe, did you feel any pressure trying to translate your love of Native culture into your cuisine?

I didn’t feel pressured at all to represent Native food. It’s more of a passion. We didn’t have access to all the ingredients in the world. We just had access to one platform. So, I tried to just best utilize what I had in order to represent myself and represent Native culture.

When I made fry bread from scratch, that was muscle memory. That’s a recipe that my grandmother taught me many years ago. We would make fry bread for every family gathering and meal.

I’m very passionate about it, because I do genuinely think that these meals can be next-level meals. There are taco shops that have Michelin stars, and I think people don’t realize that. We were encouraged to cook that way.

The judges were saying that we didn’t have to have the finest dining well-plated plate, as long as you are cooking from your heart and presenting dishes that you are truly passionate about. I cooked Native food not because it was a requirement, but because it was something that I just did as a passion in my heart.

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Colorful and Vibrant Pomegranate. // Photo by Pyet DeSpain

We love that you were authentic to your culture, and it was heartwarming to see representation of Native Indigenous people and cuisine. How hard was it to keep it a secret while it was airing?

That was hard, because I went through this heavy-weighted somatic experience—a lot of things that happened during the filming of the show that I didn’t talk about to the public.

I ended up losing a friend during the process, and she took her life the first week I was filming. I almost dropped out of it, because I didn’t think I could do it.

Going through the entirety of the show and the nature of it was pressuring. It gave people a lot of anxiety walking onto the set of “What’s going to happen today? How well am I going to do just with the pressure of it all?”

It’s a lot for any individual to take on, let alone going through the loss of a friend. So, it was very taxing and a bit traumatizing. I wasn’t able to be with my loved ones or anyone close to me to lean on. And granted, I was able to have phone calls, but there’s only so much that I could talk about during those calls.

Going through that entire process, and then leaving it knowing that I won made me wonder, “How am I supposed to continue my life right now? What am I supposed to do? I can’t tell the world or anybody that I won the show.”

As a private chef, I had to tell clients, “Hey, I can’t take your work this entire month. But I’ll be back at this point.” I lost all my clients, and in a way, my whole world was flipped upside down.

I felt like I was living paycheck to paycheck before I went on the show. I barely even had money to find my first few weeks of meals until the show started giving us compensation for meals. We had to cover our expenses the first couple of months, and I barely had enough to make it.

I hadn’t been able to save up to prepare for an experience like that. I only had four days to prepare myself to be away for an entire month. Initially, I was stressed after the show—emotionally and physically drained. I hibernated for a couple of months and just tried to rebuild my strength.

The first couple of months was easy to keep a secret, because I wasn’t doing too much. I think the biggest thing was trying to have my mom be quiet about it. Because she was at the finale, I had to inform her that she had to keep it a secret and wait until it aired.

We still weren’t able to tell people that we were even on the show until Fox released that information. Once they released it, it became harder, because people would ask if I won the competition. They had to just watch to find out.

People have also asked me how it felt being a winner, and I’m like, “Well, I’ve known this information since last September.” I’ve had some time to process it, and now the world knows. It was an interesting experience through all of it.

You worked with Nyesha Arrington, and you were a great fit for her team. She’s strong, poised, business-oriented, and focused. Has she given you any opportunities, personally?

Our mentorship started, and I didn’t want to reach out to her if it was not under the guidelines that I’m supposed to follow, because I know she’s a busy woman.

We had an Instagram live with her, and she mentioned wanting to take a few months to rest, because she’s been on the go a lot. Her career has also propelled forward since the show, and she’s got tons of opportunities.

I think at this moment, she’s just trying to prepare for the future and find out what she wants to do with her career. So there hasn’t been much outreach to extend any offers to me.

Her mentorship still stands, and I have access to her for the next four months to pick her brain, get advice, and any suggestions for me to utilize that mentorship. I plan on doing that here soon. I’ve got lots of questions for her.

I went into that competition wanting her to be my mentor for that same reason you’re saying that you admire her—the strength that she exudes, that confidence as a woman and as a multiracial African American and Korean woman. She also represents people from different cultural backgrounds, and she also is super passionate about putting those influences into her food.

Once I learned all about her, I wanted to be on her team. She’s one of those people with power in her presence, the air, and the space that she holds. It allows you to then be confident and true within yourself. I started to be the strongest person for myself because of her, and she encourages that.

I felt her strengthening me to be the best version of myself and not aspire to be like her. The first dish that I cooked with corn and citrus cabbage was to gear my flavors towards Nyesha, and it worked because she picked me as her second team member. So, I was super happy about that.

Were you satisfied with the team in general?

The first time we cooked with our teams, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how much our team members’ performances would affect us. We didn’t know exactly what we were getting into, and I had no control over who she chose to be on her team, but I did like the team that we had.

There are some people that I walked out with being friends for life. Amber, for instance. She and I got close, and she cooks with so much heart and love. She, in general, is just an amazing person.

Getting to know some of the other team members like Zack and Andy was amazing. I don’t keep in touch with Sergio as much, but on set, he was a very delightful and nice guy to talk to.

I mean, there were other members of different teams that I did see as really good, strong assets, but they weren’t on my team. So, I can’t say if I wish they were on my team or not. Everything happens for a reason, and I feel like everyone did their best and held their own.

We saw you and Chef A are close, and it was always had a good laugh every time she was on the screen. 

She is amazing. She and I are really good friends. Chef A, myself, John, and Amber call ourselves the quad squad. And we are very, very close. We talk regularly—pretty much every single day. She lives in San Diego, so I’m not that far from her. We got to hang out post-show, and we’ve had brunch together.

She has come to Kansas City to celebrate my win with John and Amber also. I got to spend some time with her while she was here. We rewatched the show together the next day in our pajamas in my hotel room, and it was such a moment.

“Twerking taste buds.” I’m going to use that for the rest of my life.

She’s very original, too. That’s one thing about her that I love.

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Chef Pyet. // Courtesy Pyet DeSpain

So, you are J.C. Harmon alumni. Did you leave Kansas City and go straight to California?

Yes, I did. I went to J.C. Harmon, and most of my family graduated from there as well. So, I’m a Wyandotte girl from the Dotte. I went to K-State for a short amount of time. I didn’t graduate but had a cool college experience.

I ended up going to culinary school, and then after culinary school I did private cheffing in Kansas City for a few years.

I had a real hard time picking up clients, because in that time frame, I think there weren’t many people or families interested in hiring private Chefs for work. Kansas City is a family-centric community where most cook for themselves. Some didn’t see the worth or the value in hiring private chefs.

I ended up doing some research and trying to figure out where I would be able to be to grow to be as successful as I wanted to.

Los Angeles is one of those places where there are tons of opportunities for private chefs. Everyone either has a nanny that’s at home helping them or a private chef. People even have chauffeurs over here. That type of lifestyle is very common.

That’s one of the biggest reasons why I decided to move to Los Angeles. At the time, I was very nutrition and wellness-focused with my career. I wanted to go to a city that was very progressive in that sense. I wanted more people to be interested in investing in their health when it comes to food.

I’ve been in Los Angeles for four years now.

Some may say, “Don’t forget your roots, don’t forget you’re from Wyandotte,” and believe me, I will never forget. Most of my family still lives there, so there’s no way I would ever lose touch with my roots. There’s also nothing wrong with leaving your current environment if it’s not propelling you forward.

There are a lot of things about staying in your hometown, such as comfort level, that can hold you back from reaching your full potential within your career, life, and personal growth.

Once you get to that level of success, then you can give back to the people that have helped and supported you along your journey.

It’s such a great win for Kansas City. There are a lot of dedicated and talented people here, and it was amazing finding out that you were from Kansas City as well. You’ve shined a light on Wyandotte too. A lot of people aren’t aware of the history of Kansas City, Kansas.

The morale of the city and the community that you come from are worthy of having this gift and people doing good acts of service. We’re worthy of good things coming out of the community that inspire people to want more and work towards having a better environment.

When you’re constantly fueling a community of people with negative news and all the things that are wrong, that is going to affect the way people perceive their environment.

I talk a lot on the show about representing people like myself that have faced adversity, poverty, and houselessness; whether your family stayed in a shelter or you’re kind of living off your friend’s couch for a couple of months.

That happens to us, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you don’t stay there and in that same mind frame of, “This is the end, and this is all I will ever amount to.”

You have to have those inspiring stories of people who have faced adversity and similar situations you can relate to.

You have been a big inspiration for so many people and have made a huge impact on Kansas City. Would you have done anything differently?

No. I only wish more could have been highlighted. I had no control over what they decided to put in the final cut of the show. I am Native American, but I’m also Mexican American. I talked a lot about it, but there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation on it.

I just wished there would have been an opportunity for me to highlight both of my heritages equally.

Categories: Culture, Food & Drink