- By Tamara Ikenberg
When a beaming Gordon Ramsay enthusiastically asks to fill your champagne glass, and you find yourself clinking flutes of bubbly with him and celebrity chefs Richard Blais and Nyesha Arrington in a toast to your talent and success, you know you’ve made it big in the food biz.
That was the exhilarating scene Prairie Band Potawotomi and Mexican-American Chef Stephanie “Pyet” Despain soaked up on Wednesday night when she was declared the winner of Fox reality cooking competition Next Level Chef.
View Native News Online's interview with Pyet:
Interview conducted on Friday, March 4, 2022
Pyet’s triumph, the climax of eleven stressful weeks of competition, comes with $250,000 and a priceless year-long mentorship with show co-hosts Ramsay, Arrington and Blais.
“I feel like I’m a part of history,” Pyet said through tears of happiness, with her mother Delfina at her side and a cheering crowd applauding her, after Ramsay bestowed upon her the coveted title of “Next Level Chef.”
“You use the strength of your background every time you pick up an ingredient,” Ramsay told Pyet. In an aside, Ramsay added “Pyet has heart, drive and an undeniable talent.”
Via the show, the game-changing Chef Pyet has familiarized TV audiences with the flavors of her heritage by concocting creations with Inidigenous staples like squash blossoms, homemade fry-bread, and Wojapi berry sauce throughout the competition, and changing and challenging the standard reality cooking show formula.
From the beginning of the season, Pyet made it clear that the competition isn’t just about the advancement of her own career.
“If I'm going to be on a major platform cooking for Gordon Ramsay on national television, then I need to represent,” Pyet, who has a personal chef service called Pyet’s Plate and an e-commerce business selling Indigenous ingredients, told Native News Online. “I need to show that Indigenous people are all capable of reaching amazing levels of success in our careers, whatever the industry may be.”
The watershed win for all champions of Indigenous cuisine, and Native American foodies with daring dreams, couldn’t be better publicity for Indian Country. Next Level Chef is a ratings hit that draws around 4 million viewers a week, and was just renewed for a second season.
For the concluding challenge, Pyet and fellow finalists Mariah Scott and Reuel Vincent faced the daunting task of creating an appetizer, fish course and meat course in 90 minutes.
Pyet, a pro in the arena of Indigenous fusion food joining her Native American and Mexican backgrounds, triumphed with a trifecta of sweet potato and pork empanadas with avocado slaw, pan-seared sea bass with spiced sweet potato puree, and rack of lamb with prosciutto-wrapped green beans and a Merlot wine sauce.
It was an ambitious array to pull off in 90 minutes, and the hosts warned Pyet on several occasions that she may have bitten off more than she could chew in the limited time, particularly with the empanadas, and the lamb.
But Pyet, who has become more self-assured and skilled with every episode, confidently told them she had it under control, and followed through with her plans despite the well-intentioned advice.
And with a few snafus, including a burnt chili sauce intended for the seared sea bass, Pyet maintained her fierce focus and cooked her way to the win.
For Pyet, one of the most satisfying and memorable moments of the finale was hearing Ramsay honor her sweet potato puree with positive profanity.
”To hear Chef Ramsay say my dish is ****ing delicious means the world to me,” she said. Ramsay used more appropriate language to laud her lamb dish, calling it “absolute utter perfection” and the best meal out of the night’s nine dishes.
The sweet success is the culmination of six years Pyet has spent hustling to build a name in the food industry and to cultivate a wider appreciation and recognition of Indigenous food.
Those six years have included moments of both elation and desperation, including a bout of homelessness where Pyet was living out of her car.
“I’ve worked my (butt) off for the last six years,” she said on the finale. “ I know where I come from. I know the battles.”
With the Next Level Chef battle behind her and brilliantly conquered, Chef Pyet can concentrate on moving on to the next level of her career with the tutelage of Ramsay, Arrington and Blais, and a fresh batch of cash.
Wherever this win may take her, Pyet has emerged as a poised and fearless role model with the power to raise Indigenous cuisine from niche novelty to its rightful place at the top of the table.
For a deeper dive into Pyet’s experience on the show and her plans for the future, tune into a livestream discussion between Pyet and Native News Online’s editor Levi Rickert on Friday, March 4. It can be viewed on the Native News Online Facebook, Twitter or YouTube social media accounts.
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