Janelle De Souza
For 26-year-old Trinidadian chef Sergio Steele being on Next Level Chef was a “wild experience.”
He never wanted to go on a chef show because he found them to be generic and not very challenging. But he was intrigued by the concept of having to choose random ingredients in a limited time and thought that challenge was right for him.
“I’m from the islands, I got thick skin. So getting shouted at by chef Gordon Ramsey never bothered me. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was going in there with everything I have. I was going for the kill. I love the thrill of adrenaline so I was happy to be there.”
In the first episode, which premièred on Fox on January 2, Steele was the penultimate person to be chosen for a team. (He was one of two Trinis on the show; the other was chef Reuel Vincent.)
One of the mentors and his team leader, chef Nyesha Arrington, called him arrogant but Steele rejected that descriptor.
He said he went on to the show being himself, but the way it was edited presented him in a certain light, as the egotistical guy with the tattoos. But he was not disappointed either by the producers’ choice or being one of the last to be chosen.
He said there was a fine line between confidence and arrogance which can become ignorance. He is confident and can back up that confidence with actions and “facts” while he tries to avoid that line.
Steele is originally from Arima but he and his parents moved to Florida when he was two.
“My family is Trini so growing up all I ever ate was Trini food, like curry and stewed chicken, but from around six years old my mom had me in the kitchen with her, so I understood flavours at a very young age.”
He wanted to be a chef so, at age 14, he dropped out of school to pursue that dream. He moved out of his home, found an apartment, bought a car and started working as a dishwasher at a Jamaican restaurant. Three months later he was cooking on the entire line.
Since he did not want to go to culinary school, over the next four years he hid his age and experience to get internships at 20 restaurants which prepared different types of food, and kept a second job to pay the bills.
“I did this for a reason. To learn. At every restaurant I went to the chef and said, ‘I want to learn everything you know. Please teach me.’ I would be the first person to work every day and the one to clock out and continue to work until I was the last to leave.”
By the time he was 18 he got his first paid sou chef position at a healthy, vegan fine-dining establishment.
“This was eight years ago, back then the whole healthy eating was now becoming a thing. It wasn’t really that big as yet so I got to see that establishment get built out and be a part of that.”
Looking back, he realises it was a crazy and bold move but he believed in himself so there was no plan B.
However, he said that kind of attitude was in his blood. His mother was successful in the medical field, his father is a lawyer with several degrees, and his half-brother worked multiple jobs to care for his sick mother and put himself through school to become a lawyer.
He described them all as “thick-skinned, go-getters, pick what you want in life and chase the dream” kind of people.
He said his parents were disappointed when he told them he was dropping out of school. They were also worried about him but his father understood that he had a drive. He trusted that they raised him right and let him do what he needed to do.
At 19 Steele left the culinary industry. He had achieved his goal to be a chef and found that he wanted more out of life so he went into sales.
He started working at a call centre of a sports nutrition company selling vitamins, supplements, and protein powders. And since he had always been large for his age, and interested in athletics, bodybuilding and nutrition, his new job was right up his alley.
He was one of their top sales people and was promoted within a few months. He started selling products wholesale to supermarkets and vitamin stores and even exported products to TT a few times. And he was making a lot of money before he moved on to another company in the industry.
“I was able to step into two different companies from the bottom when they were doing okay and rise with them for the whole wave of growth until they became top companies. I was able to see how to build a company from scratch to absolutely blow it out the water.”
About three years ago, he decided to further diversify his portfolio and left the industry to join a company selling luxury vehicles
When the pandemic hit, he left the luxury vehicles business.
“It was the perfect opportunity for me to start my own business, which I always knew I wanted to do, and I wanted to use me last name, Steele.”
However, he wanted to be strategic about it, to do something that he knew “inside out,” and now he had the experience of building a business from working at the two sports nutrition companies.
He therefore started his own meal prep company – Steele Meals.
“Covid was somewhat of a blessing because my business was built off of the lockdown. We make fresh, fine dining, healthy, gourmet foods, and deliver it right to your doorstep.”
The business was launched about 14 months ago with him cooking in his kitchen. Now, he has ten to 15 employees and is in the process of getting a bigger kitchen as the company is outgrowing the old one.
He is no longer the chef but he runs the kitchen and creates the recipes which he describes as bold and daring.
He said he loves to create meals that people do not understand but that they love when they eat it.
“When you come from the islands your palate is diversified. All you know is bold, amazing flavours so when you take that and put it to Italian food or American food you’re able to play with a lot more than the person who grows up eating plain food. That was to my advantage as a chef.”
Through it all, Steele always believed in himself and never needed any help although he now has the support of his fiancee, Sarah Eaves.
“I’m a loved person, by everyone, I have numerous acquaintances, everyone loves to be around me, I’ll be the life of the party, but I was never the person who had to rely on someone. So I didn’t have much support. I was my own number one fan.
“It just goes to show anyone that’s out there, young kids who want to chase their dream, anything’s possible. You’re going to eat sh-t but you’ve got to eat sh-t to get that success.”