After a lifetime of cooking, nine years in the food industry, and fighting his way to the top, Chef Reuel Vincent is ready to show what he’s got.
And he decided to do so on celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey’s newest reality-TV cooking show, Next Level Chef.
Vincent, 34, is one of two Trinis on the show, which premiered on January 2 on Fox.
“I’ve always been in the shadows, so I was super-excited coming out to finally showcase my talent.
I’m a very humble individual who is all about teamwork, because without the team I’m nothing. I see myself as the unseen hand working at the back of the house, especially in the kitchens.
"But just being there was so surreal for me. It was a moment to step out of my comfort zone into the spotlight and show people what I can actually do.”
The competition takes 15 contestants and splits them into three teams with one mentor each. In each challenge, teams are randomly selected to work in each of the three kitchens stacked on top of one another – a bare-bones kitchen called the basement, a standard commercial kitchen in the middle, and a state-of-the art kitchen at the top.
The last team standing will win the US$250,000 grand prize.
Vincent told Sunday Newsday his friends were always encouraging him to appear on a cooking show, but his schedule was too busy. Early in 2021, a friend saw an advertisement for Next Level Chef on Instagram and passed it on to him. Since at the time he was working from home because of covid19, he decided to apply.
“I really didn’t think about it. Months later I got hit up for a casting, did it and didn’t hear anything for months. I figured I didn’t make it, but then they called and said, ‘We need your information. We’re about to fly you out to Vegas.’”
Vincent works at Aspire, a private event venue at One World Observatory at the top of One World Trade Center, New York City, so he had to take vacation to film the episodes.
He said the show was a reflective experience for him, since the contestants are not classically trained, but are line cooks, home chefs and social media cooks. It reminded him of working his way up the ladder and proving he was worth others investing in him.
“I didn’t have the money to go to culinary school, so I had to do it the hard way. That’s getting up at 3 am to go to work till 11 am and running over to a two-star Michelin restaurant from 12 pm-10.30 pm to work for free. You have to overextend yourself to compensate for that lack of knowledge.”
He added that working with Ramsey was “amazing” and now his social media is “blowing up,” which was a bit disconcerting, because he was not expecting that level of attention.
Vincent lives in Brooklyn, but is from Sangre Grande.
His maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as his father, loved to cook and taught him what they knew.
His great-grandmother, who was one of the First Peoples, taught him the “old ways” of cooking with provision, including making cassava bread, and his grandmother would take him to the market every week early in the morning.
“They always said they would teach me to do everything a woman can do so no girl could cut style on you. They made sure I knew how to wash and iron my clothes and cook my own meals, so by the time I was 12 I could cook pretty decent.”
He also spent a lot of time with his father, Albert Vincent, who lived in Maracas before his death in 2011. He recalled that his father was a great cook who specialised in curry. He and his brother would visit their father on weekends and he would take them on river limes and make curry duck and dumplings. He would also take them to taste different foods such as bake and shark, souse, and doubles.
“My dad was always intrigued about opening us up to new things. He was very quiet, but when it came to food, he was very loud, because it was his thing. He would cook something and just sit back and watch me eat, because he said he could see my brain working.
“And when I got into cooking, our relationship got even closer, because we had something to talk about. He was curious about the new ingredients I was working with. He would say, ‘Boy, I hope you’re not just seasoning with salt and black pepper.’”
And when his father lost his sight and therefore his independence, he was even more eager to hear about Vincent's job.
Vincent had just finished Form Two at Caribbean Union College Secondary School when he left TT in 2001 to live with his mother in Brooklyn. His mother wanted to give him a better chance at education and discipline, since he has dyslexia and was a “little bit of a rebel” at the time.
While it was difficult for him to leave his friends, learn a new history and culture while having an accent, he settled down and continued to cook at home.
Eventually, he attended Andrews University in Michigan to study physical therapy (PT). There, he was known as the person to go to for food if he and his friends remained on campus during breaks. He cooked in the dorms, hosted curry-ques and got jobs at the cafeteria and sandwich shops on campus, where he would often make dishes outside of the menus.
Basically, he fell in love with cooking.
He was tired of the repetition of PT and wanted to leave university, but his mother encouraged him to get a degree. He switched to nursing, since he had the science credits, but that was “too boring” for a man who was always on the move, so he returned to NY.
In 2012 he started working with his aunt, who ran Creative Catering in Manhattan, and stayed there for six years.
“That woman put me through the wringer. She did not treat me like family – but she did it on purpose. She wanted me to understand that things are not given to you, you have to work for it. She made me start at the bottom and she worked me to the bone.
"I slowly worked my way up from washing dishes and peeling potatoes to working on the line to prep cook to lead cook to sous-chef to head chef to running the spot.”
At that point he started seeing the gaps in his knowledge. Two of his co-workers mentored him and he started educating himself on the basics via the internet. He also started an internship at the former restaurant, The Gilt, at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel and fell in love with the restaurant business as he learned about quality, sauces, techniques, and more.
“There I saw five people working on different components of one dish. Then I started to understand colour, acidity, fats, how to enhance certain dishes, how to plate, what’s negative space. I really fell in love with that.”
He was inspired by the chef at the time because he too was not classically trained, but rather started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to being a Michelin chef.
He recalled one time he was laughed at because he did not know certain terms. One of his mentors who worked at another kitchen at the same hotel had to explain them to him.
“The next day I got it correct and they said, ‘Somebody did some studying.’ And I said out loud, ‘Today will be the last day you ever laugh at me.’ And I made sure no one would ever laugh at me and I would never be embarrassed. So I studied up on everything I could get my hands on.”
He bought cookbooks, got subscriptions to chefs’ websites, and generally learned more on his own.
By now he felt he had learned everything he could at The Gilt and wanted something more exciting, so he applied for a job at One World Observatory.
He started as a chef tournant, a cook who provides help to all the different cooks in a professional kitchen, and moved up to sous-chef after 18 months. In 2015 he moved out of the restaurant and became One World Observatory’s banquet chef.
“I love it. For me it’s like someone is expecting you to be perfect for that one day, and that type of pressure is what I thrive on. And while I took on the responsibility of banquet chef, I wanted to change what the role was.
“When you have to feed so many people en masse, there’s no care in the food. I wanted to make sure everyone who sits there feels important. So there’s a lot of love, a lot of dedication, paying attention to detail and making sure no one is left out.”
Since then, he has worked with many celebrity chefs, for VIP clients, and for high-profile events. He has creative control and creates his own menus, so it keeps his attention and keeps him on edge.
He also incorporates his Trini upbringing in his food, but has to be careful how he presents it, as many people are hesitant about the unknown. For example, he would use fried channa in his kale salad, and season his curries and broths differently from other chefs.
“It’s about putting your influence in there, but still keeping in streamlined, where the client is more accepting to it. But when they do taste it, they taste the difference.”
When asked if he integrates TT flavours on the show, he replied, “All I can say about it is: Strap in. It’s going to be a good one.”