Devonnie Black of Columbia City knows TV culinary competition host Gordon Ramsay is a polarizing figure.
“He has this huge personality and people either really love him or hate him. They think he’s aggressive or mean,” says the 31-year-old. “But I’ve never seen it that way.”
Instead, Black sees Ramsay as more like “a professor who knows what he’s doing.” Appearing on Ramsay’s latest Fox series, “Next Level Chef,” only solidified her take on the reality TV mainstay.
“Who doesn’t want to learn from a professor who knows what they’re doing?” she says. “He’s such a great guide in the whole culinary world.”
“Next Level Chef” (5 p.m. Sunday before moving to its regular time period, 9 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5) brings together professional chefs, amateur home cooks and chefs who make a name for themselves on social media. The cheftestants, vying for a $250,000 grand prize, land on one of three teams led by mentors/judges Ramsay, Nyesha Arrington or Richard Blais. In each episode, the teams work on one of three levels of a massive, 49-foot-tall set constructed from 85,000 tons of steel outside Las Vegas.
The top level features a state-of-the-art kitchen, the middle level is an adequate restaurant-grade kitchen and the basement is a bare-bones kitchen with fewer supplies and resources.
At the start of each competition, a platform descends from the ceiling giving contestants at each level limited time to grab as many ingredients as they can, beginning with the top level and working its way down.
Ramsay says the true test of a great chef isn’t what they can create in a gleaming kitchen but what they can do when they work with less.
“All good food comes out of the basement, and more importantly, it gets you seriously creative when you have to think fast on your feet,” Ramsay said in a recent Fox virtual press conference.
Black doesn’t get to experience the basement in the “Next Level Chef” premiere, instead preparing a sea bass entree in the most modern kitchen.
At one point in the episode Black exclaims, “My home chef is showing!”
“When you think of a home chef, you think of someone who’s maybe not as familiar with using a kitchen or certain tools in the kitchen,” Black says. “Some things may seem a little adventurous when you’re used to a mediocre kitchen with your simple knives and forks and spoons.”
Born in Jamaica and raised in the Bronx, Black attended a culinary arts high school in Manhattan, but she then went on to study theater at the State University of New York at Purchase. After college she moved to L.A. in 2013 and relocated to Seattle in 2016, working for several years at the Genius Bar at the Apple store at Westfield Southcenter Mall. In 2019, Black started working at Seattle Rep in patron services but got laid off in the pandemic.
She saw an application link for “Next Level Chef” on one of Ramsay’s social media channels and applied to be on the show in June, and within a month she learned she’d been selected for the series, which filmed in September.
Black says she was surprised by Ramsay’s sense of humor.
“He had jokes!” she says. “Everything else I was familiar with — his personality, his cooking style — but I didn’t know how tall he is or that he has jokes!”
Prior to “Next Level Chef,” Black tried getting jobs in restaurant kitchens but with no experience beyond waiting tables and bartending, she had a hard time getting her foot in the door.
“I am hoping that the show does give me some exposure, something where people will want to say, ‘OK, let’s give her a shot,’ that it shows I can thrive under pressure,” says Black, who currently works as a private chef-for-hire, booking gigs through her website, devonniesbites.com. “Because beforehand those things weren’t coming to me. I wasn’t getting the positions I was applying for. And I get it: I have no line experience. You don’t want to throw someone on the line if you don’t think they’re good at it. But I really want to be in this industry so I’m hoping once the show airs, people see this is a passion of mine.”
Black credits her father with introducing her to cooking.
“The whole neighborhood would know when he was cooking because we’d have so many people just come over and eat and there’d be stories,” Black says. “So I think that spawned my love for storytelling and just being a performer.”
Black says her Jamaican melting-pot roots — her grandmother is part German — influence her cooking style.
“All of those cultures really blend together and you get these beautiful flavors and aromas and spices,” she says. “That plays a part whenever I cook anything.”