Chef Zach Laidlaw reflects on his Next Level Chef experience, interview

Chef Zach Laidlaw on Next Level Chef Season 3
Chef Zach Laidlaw on Next Level Chef Season 3 / FOX

As the final Team Blais member and professional chef standing in the Next Level Chef Season 3 finale, Chef Zach Laidlaw understood that his story did not end when the credits rolled. The Hawaiian based chef saw this culinary competition as a way not only to rise from his personal loss but also to help his local community.

Throughout Next Level Chef Season 3, Chef Zach proved that he has expert culinary knowledge and skill. From creative ingredient pairings to intricate plating, he impressed at every turn. While the judges sometimes questioned whether his dishes needed a more concise edit, the reality was that anyone would be delighted to enjoy one of his meals.

Recently, FoodSided spoke with Chef Zach Laidlaw about this Next Level Chef experience. Since the FOX competition gave him a platform, the conversation expanded to how Maui is still rebuilding from the destructive fires that leveled the area. For Chef Zach, he might have wanted the title, but he will celebrate the opportunity to help rebuild his community.

When the other chefs were preparing for the Next Level Chef competition, Chef Zach was picking up the pieces of his life. After the Maui fires, he was left with nothing. But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he was determined to rebuild and Next Level Chef was an opportunity not only in that moment but a chance to keep Maui’s plight part of the conversation when the season aired.

As Chef Zach shared, “I had never done competitive cooking before. It was all very new to me. Four weeks after I lost everything, I am heading on a plane to compete. My head was in whatever state that it was, but I felt like I thrived off the pressure. I tried to disconnect from the tragedy and submerge myself in the present.”

“Everyone was practicing before the show and I was kicking around dirt because my house burned down. I did not get any practice and I was basically cooking off reflex.”

Whether it was reflex or instinct, many people would love to be able to cook like Chef Zach. Even though he might have wanted to compartmentalize his life back in Hawaii, the island influence was clear in his dishes.

Speaking about the Bento Box challenge, Chef Zach said, “I did chicken katsu, which is huge in Hawaiian culture. It is panko crusted chicken served with rice. Grabbing the chicken breast in that challenge made a lot of sense to me. People might have questioned it, but it made sense to me. In Hawaii, we are a melting pot of cultures. We are super influenced by Filipino culture, Asian culture, and Hawaiian culture. I felt that I really represented Maui on that one.”

Chef Zach might have felt a responsibility to represent Maui in the competition, but he had a bigger goal in mind for every challenge.

He explained, “the show is called Next Level Chef. I wanted to stand out, to push boundaries, to do things that no one was doing. I did not want to play it safe. I wanted to raise the bar super high for seasons to come. I do not have any regrets.”

“I do take the judges’ criticism to heart. We are in this culinary profession where you never stop learning. There is always another chef that is willing to teach you something new, a new technique, a new flavor combination. You have to be open minded, put your ego aside, and realize that if this is what you want to do, you have to be open to learning.”

From that quick platform grab to cooking within the time restraints, Chef Zach took every challenge and did his best. As a member of Team Blais, he did feel some pressure to earn Richard Blais a win.

Although that outcome did not come to fruition, Chef Zach wanted to have Blais as his mentor because “he's very well-rounded with his expertise in cuisine. That is how I see myself in the future, being that well-rounded. My brand right now is true, elevated farm to table, but I would love to do some pop-ups and switch up my style a little.”

While Chef Zach found personal growth on Next Level Chef, he appreciates that his story is an opportunity to remind people that Maui is still rebuilding. When asked what he would like Next Level Chef viewers to understand about the island and how to help, he said:

“A lot of people are debating on coming to Maui because people think that it is shut down or not the right time. Honestly, we need tourism to come back. The economy took a hit. We need tourists to come and support local business and small farms.”

“At our farm, Hua Momona Farms is volunteer driven, especially with our nonprofit. We are feeding the displaced. We have volunteers who can come harvest vegetables which are distributed to our kitchen. We have people who come to help in our prep kitchen. There are many ways to help.”

While Chef Zach encourages everyone to visit Maui, it does not have to be just for the epic waves and relaxing beaches. Tourists can help volunteer at the farm as well, plus they can enjoy some of the food afterwards. It is a meaningful way to get to experience a taste of the food that he created on Next Level Chef.

His days on Next Level Chef might be over but Chef Zach Laidlaw has a bountiful future ahead of him. For anyone who visits Maui, make sure to put Hau Momona Farms on the must visit list.

Hungry to see Chef Zach’s food again? Next Level Chef Season 3 can be streamed on Hulu.