Indigenous chef Pyet DeSpain (Prairie Band of Potawatomi/Mexican) recently made her mark on the culinary world by winning Fox’s latest cooking show competition, “Next Level Chef.”
In the show, 15 contestants from around the country went all in with their cooking skills on three levels of kitchens, each level with its own degree of difficulty, to compete for a $250,000 prize. The contestants were mentored by established chefs Gordon Ramsay, Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais.
The season finale showcased the three finalists’ three-course meals, and DeSpain came out on top, propelling her into a household name overnight across Indian Country and the U.S.
DeSpain talked with O’odham Action News about her journey, from her first experiences with Indigenous food to winning “Next Level Chef,” and beyond.
“‘Next Level Chef’ was a joyride. It was great, and as nerve-racking as it was—and it gave us anxiety going into all the challenges—it was so much fun. It’s kind of one of those environments that’s like a pressure cooker. It helps you develop those strong skillsets in a short amount of time,” said DeSpain.
DeSpain spent part of her childhood on the Osage Indian Reservation, then lived in Kansas City, Kansas, and is currently a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation living in Los Angeles, California.
She attended L’Ecole Culinaire to pursue a culinary education and started a personal chef business in 2016 called “Pyet’s Plate” to promote a passion for wellness, nutrition and quality food to the public.
Before her professional career took off, DeSpain’s passion for cooking developed as a child while helping family in the kitchen. Coming from both a Native American and Mexican heritage, DeSpain had a unique understanding of what food means to family and community.
“I grew up in two different cultures that really value food that brings the community together,” said DeSpain.
“With my Native American side, a lot of the traditions we have revolve around food and plate offerings, with family coming together during powwow season and having the elders cook for the dancers and the families. Having that background alone inspires you to cherish food and really use it as a way to express your feelings and your love and passion for each other. I found my identity through food. I realized that cooking is not just about feeding yourself or going to a restaurant; there is a lot more that goes into this. Culture, tradition, knowledge, technique, passion—all of these things go into one dish.”
Her grandmother passed down her family’s recipe for corn soup and frybread, which DeSpain said brought her closer to understanding the history of her heritage.
“One thing that I learned about corn soup recipes is that there are different tribes and regions that had access to different ingredients, such as wild game, seeds and berries. The way that they would cook [corn soup] would be based on their environment. With frybread, there are some people that use buttermilk or warm water or regular milk. Some people roll the dough out, and some people flatten it with their hands. There are so many different ways that you can make it.”
While being proud and honored to represent Indian Country on national television, DeSpain said that most importantly, this is an opportunity for the world to see how dynamic the Indigenous culture is here in America.
“It’s very rare these days that you find people my age that are full-blooded Native. A lot of us are mixed with other cultures and weren’t raised knowing traditional ways. There are a lot of people still fighting to find their identity in the world and in their own communities, where they are representing two different cultures. I grew up not feeling Mexican enough, and I also grew up not feeling Native enough. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that it’s okay to be proud of both and not know what the full definition of being those things is. The definition is what you make it.”
DeSpain’s inspiring win on “Next Level Chef” resonates with aspiring Indigenous chefs, culinary entrepreneurs, and SRPMIC members such as Ernesto Lopez, who owns Ernie’s Catering Business.
Lopez, who is currently working on a recipe for a superfood cookie geared toward athletes that uses foods grown in the Community, said that DeSpain’s win means the world to him.
“I wouldn’t mind being in her position one of these days,” Lopez said with a smile.
“As Indigenous people, we don’t get recognized too often. And to put yourself in that position and level of expertise, whether it’s a chef, IT work or construction work, to me, it’s a big accomplishment.”
SRPMIC member Kenneth Young, co-owner of the Dirty Bros food truck, said that he is full of Native pride for DeSpain’s win.
“I’m excited and happy that it was someone who is Native who got on the show and had the stomach to compete and place first. It’s awesome to see other people have a passion for cooking. The fact that you’re able to go through the competition and come out a winner, that takes some dedication. It’s a huge thing to see Native people on television,” said Young. Dirty Bros also has plans to use more foods traditionally consumed by the O’odham and other local Indigenous communities, such as sourcing freshwater fish and using traditional grains for a fine-dining experience.