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ECC grad with a globe-hopping chef career chosen to compete on Fox’s ‘Next Level Kitchen’


Zach Laidlaw’s career as a chef has taken him from Elgin to Miami to Hawaii, and this week it has landed him on Fox TV’s “Next Level Kitchen” in front of renowned chef Gordon Ramsay and two other chef/hosts who will be judging his cooking prowess.

A native of Burlington, Laidlaw graduated from Elgin Community College in 2012 with associate degrees in culinary arts and restaurant management.

“Food is the perfect outlet for Zach to express his art,” said Laidlaw’s mother, Mary Sagan. “He has the personality and skills of a great chef.”

Chef Zach Laidlaw, right, and Hua Momona Farms co-worker Travis Sheffield show off greens grown on the farm that adorn a meal served at a restaurant in the Maui area.- Original Credit:
Chef Zach Laidlaw, right, and Hua Momona Farms co-worker Travis Sheffield show off a culinary masterpiece topped with greens grown on the farm that adorn a meal served at a restaurant in the Maui area.

His first restaurant job was as a dishwasher at Art & Alma’s Century Inn in Burlington when he was just 13, Sagan said. Laidlaw’s brother, Kiel, worked there as well and made a prime rib Laidlaw found so impressive that it prompted him to start thinking about food as profession, she said.

Kimberly Rother, professor of culinary arts and hospitality at ECC, remembers Laidlaw from their program.

“He was a young student with potential,” she said. “He did well in the culinary arts courses and was determined to complete his degrees. It’s rewarding for us to see one of our students on a big stage.”

Laidlaw, 34, currently serves as executive chef at Hua Momona Farms on Maui. He was recruited for “Next Level Chef” by the show’s producers last May through social media, Sagan said.

In addition to Ramsay, the competition features top chefs/hosts Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais and competitors who fall into three categories — social media-famous chefs, home chefs and professional chefs — each of whom will be vying to be on teams to be led by Ramsay, Arrington and Blais.

The first episode, which aired Jan. 28, and showed what the social media chefs had to offer, followed by the home chefs competing Feb. 1. The professional chefs, including Laidlaw, face off Feb. 8.

All told there will be 13 episodes, each of which airs first on Fox and then is available to be streamed on Hulu the next day.

The winning chef will receive $250,000 and a 12-month internship with the three chef hosts.

Laidlaw has worked at 25-acre Hua Momona Farms since 2019, and in addition to working as its chef, he also runs its greenhouse and has overseen its microgreen program since its inception, said Tina Carranza, president/COO of the operation as well as Laidlaw’s girlfriend.

Since being established in 2017 and launching in 2019, the grows produce that sold directly to customers and to more than 50 restaurants and resorts in Maui and Oahu, its website said.

Carranza said Laidlaw went through a vetting process for the “Next Level” show and learned he was chosen about the same time the couple lost their condo and almost all their possessions in the August 2023 fires that devastated Maui.

He told James Evans, who hosts the Maui No Ka Oi podcast, that his decision to go on the show was partly to take his mind off the disaster but he ultimately had an amazing experience.

Hawaii is a far different place than northern Illinois. Jennifer Fukala, now executive director of the Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin, remembers Laidlaw from when she trained him to be a server at Applebee’s in Elgin, where he worked from 2005 to 2007.

 

“He was a fun-loving, free-spirited guy, a skateboarder who marched to the beat of his own drum,” she said. “He was forward-thinking and passionate, with a conviction about having a career in the restaurant industry.”

Zach Laidlaw, a Burlington native and Elgin Community College grad, harvests produce grown at Hua Momona Farms in Maui. Laidlaw, a trained chef, is competing on "Next Level Kitchen" airing on Fox TV and Hulu.- Original Credit:
Zach Laidlaw, a Burlington native and Elgin Community College grad, harvests produce grown at Hua Momona Farms in Maui. Laidlaw, a trained chef, is competing on “Next Level Kitchen” airing on Fox TV and Hulu.

His post college career initially kept him in the area, where he landed chef jobs at Porter’s Pub at Bowes Creek Country Club and at Art & Alma’s for a time.

Through contacts he made in the Chicago area and elsewhere, he wound up working at restaurants in South Beach Miami, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and Australia and spent some time at (Mick) Fleetwood’s restaurant in Lahaina, Maui.

John Perry, who worked with Laidlaw at the Elgin Applebee’s, said he’s not surprised his childhood friend was chosen for the show.

“Zach is a gregarious guy. He’s fun to be around,” said Perry, who now lives in Houston.

Perry and Sagan both noted that Laidlaw’s outgoing personality has served him well and helped him land the globe-hopping career opportunities he’s had.

But he’s also committed to the Hawaiian farm on which he works and now lives with Carranza, they said. It’s led to him being involved in the efforts to feed those left homeless by the fires — much like they did for those who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, Laidlaw told Evans.

Since August, that’s meant providing 30,000 hot, healthy to-go meals to the community, he said on the podcast.

The farm also has a foundation, which has been collecting money for relief efforts through the website, www.huamomonafarms.com.

Mike Danahey is a freelance reporter for The Courier-News.



Mike Danahey , 2024-02-03 01:06:46

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