Omi Hopper knows all about changing one's life.
During the COVID pandemic, she decided (out of necessity) to create a social-media presence involving her cooking Puerto Rican dishes. Since then, Hopper (best known as @CookingConOmi) has amassed more than half a million followers on TikTok, 288,000 followers on Instagram, and more than 56,000 followers on YouTube through "Cooking con Omi."
Now, Hopper is taking on another challenge, competing against other established culinary professionals on the second season of the Fox show Next Level Chef, which features chefs Gordon Ramsay, Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais as the competitors' mentors. While in Chicago recently, the affable and colorful Hopper talked about the show, Ramsay and activism.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Windy City Times: I just saw Next Level Chef. Please tell the readers what the show's about because it has at least two different takes on the term "next level."
Omi Hopper: Yesand, Andrew, don't feel bad because I hadn't watched it before I was on it. [Interviewer laughs.] I had to watch season one seven times so I could learn what I was getting myself into.
So, you have a mentorship and $250,000 on the line. We didn't know that they had already picked who would be on their teams. The competition was initially divided into three groups and three separate kitchens. There's the top-level kitchen with all the bells and whistles; the middle kitchen, which is like a kitchen in a restaurant, maybe; and then there's the basement kitchen, where things might be broken.
Then, there's the platform that provides the food you're going to cook withbut you only have 30 seconds to get them, and you don't know the challenge until that day. Then, you have 40 minutes to cook and two minutes to plate your dish and put it on the platform. So there are a lot of complexities that go into the show. Nevertheless, it's still a game and you have to learn how to play.
WCT: What surprised you the most about the process?
OH: The one thing that surprised me the most was that I didn't know I had it in me. I didn't know I had that extra gear in meor, rather, it was pulled out of me. I think I'm in overdrive right now. [Smiles]
WCT: So you would do it all over again?
OH: I didn't say that! [Laughs] I would try different things within that realm.
WCT: What other reality show would you want to be on?
OH: I don't know if I'd want to be on another reality show. I dream of a more structured showlike a variety show. We'll see how we get there.
WCT: I want to talk about your life a little bit. You pivoted during the pandemic.
OH: Yes. I was a professional makeup artist for 10 years. In 2018, my husband was diagnosed with a degenerative bone disease. I had to take on the loadand I have four boys who I love and adore. With [my husband] being out of commission, I took on more jobs as a makeup artist. I also had my nine-to-five, as I was an educator for makeup artists as well. It was becoming a heavy load to bear. You start to become discouraged and you start thinking that there's no light at the end of the tunnel.
So in 2020, my husband had to have his first knee-replacement surgery. I stayed home to help himand the week I was supposed to go back to work, the shutdown happened. Andrew, I had $35 to my name. I'm a woman of faith and I remember telling God, "Please take over." I went to the supermarket and got what I could. I came back home, I turned on my camera for the first time and I said, "Guys, I'm lonely. You wanna cook with me?" I never did it with the intention of it going viral or me pivoting. But between March 2020 and June 2020, I already had 100,000 followers, and had been on two national shows and in a Puerto Rican newspaper.
I simply walked through the door. I simply hope that can provide hope to someone. If you're going to prayand it doesn't matter who you pray to[do it] with expectation. It's what I did then and what I did on the show. I recognized that I needed to represent a culture and a peopleand to highlight those beautiful dishes that are created in every Puerto Rican household. We're like confetti: Puerto Ricans are everywhere!
I could've been intimidated by the professional chefs or those people in Food & Wine Magazine. But I had something they didn't have: I was willing to acknowledge that I could make mistakes.
WCT: I've been asking creatives for the past few months about activism. How do you feel a chef can be an activist?
OH: I think I'm doing that now by showcasing dishes from my culture. I can shine a light on things that are not usually spoken about and I can use my platform for good. There are so many things people can do with their platforms. What if I turned a light on what's happening with the electricity in Puerto Rico? There are so many things I can do with my platform involving food. If I can get attention, I can use that entryway to talk about bigger issues.
To find out more about Omi Hoppersuch as Gordon Ramsay really acted on the setvisit my new Substack publication, SAVOR with Andrew, at future3733.substack.com .
The next episode of Next Level Chef will air Thursday, May 4, on Fox at 7 p.m.