What's Next For Alex Belew After Conquering Hell's Kitchen? - Exclusive Interview

Alex Belew wouldn't change a thing about his "Hell's Kitchen" journey. Why would he? Major spoiler, if you haven't yet watched the finale — he came out on top. The only thing the Southern chef remembers after he opened the most meaningful door handle in culinary competition history — as Belew told Mashed — is that his wife, Sarah, couldn't speak for weeks after the finale because she screamed so hard.

That moment was probably a blur for Sarah, too. Consider that Cheyenne Nichols had come up to her not long before, and apologized for having lost the competition for Alex. That moment most certainly did not make the finale cut. Neither did the fact that Alex Belew and Dafne Mejia literally passed out cold after the dinner service; they fell asleep in the chairs at the dorms for a good 45 minutes while waiting for Gordon Ramsay to summon them. In our exclusive interview, Belew told us that story, dished on the times he was sure Ramsay would send him packing, and gave us a masterclass in real Southern food.

What you still don't know about Hell's Kitchen champion Alex Belew

What do you think people don't know about you after having followed your journey on "Hell's Kitchen"?

Wow — there's 20, 27 years of work and sacrifice to get to this point ... The people that have just started paying attention now don't see all of that. They don't see a ton of failures that I've gone through, but I never quit pushing. That was the whole thing — perseverance was my word. No matter how many curveballs life throws at you, you can't let it kill you.

What's something that you understand about the competition now only after having gone through it?

When you're sitting at home watching it on TV with your hand in a bag of Doritos, it's easy to be like, "Why can't these people cook scallops? They can't cook risotto." But there's so much pressure ... that's not in a normal restaurant setting. The best chef can crack, and you're only as good as your last moment. If your last moment sank the whole ship, that's it. You could have had a stellar performance three or four or five days in a row — but one bad dinner service, you're gone. It's crazy.

You sit at home, and there's so much that you don't see on TV. You only get about 1% of our day. There's so much that goes on in the dorms and in the punishments. There's a lot of camaraderie that you don't [see] ... I didn't expect to come away with friends, and that's been the most shocking thing.

The challenge Belew was sure was going to send him home

Was there ever a time in the competition that you were scared you might be going home?

When I opened that suitcase and that crab was in there waving at me, I was pretty sure I was done. Dafne [Mejia] had an easy box — she was getting Boston. She got fish, potatoes, and green beans. Alejandro [Najar] got steak and potatoes ... Sommer [Sellers] got her exact wheelhouse with Caribbean flavors and jerk flavors. She got rice, plantains, and mahi-mahis. Cheyenne [Nichols] was right up her alley with New Orleans. Here I am, this Nashville Southern boy, and I get a suitcase of crab, pinot grigio, and grapes. I'm like, "What am I supposed to do with this?" That whole challenge, I was terrified.

With "Hell's Kitchen" being so intense, do you get dreams about it? 

No, but my memory ... The top 11 of us, we still talk almost every single day. There's not a day that goes by that we don't think about it.

What do you all talk about?

We talk about everything that's going on in our lives — new opportunities that are coming up, new jobs, family stuff. We are a tight-knit group. We all have this shared common bond that only 400 people in America have had this experience ... We listen to each other and we give honest feedback. It's not all sugar-coated. It's not, "Yay, that's great." Sometimes it's, "This is the hard facts; you need to hear this." Or my wife lost her dad the other day, so we talked about that ... We're a group of friends. It's crazy.

The most intimidating finale guest judge

During the final three, you were judged by Curtis Stone, Stephanie Izard, Nancy Silverton, Mei Lin, and David Myers. Which judge was the most intimidating for you?

Stephanie is hard. They're all intimidating. You've got Michelin stars littered throughout that group. You've got decades — probably a century — of knowledge between them all. I didn't see anyone walk out the door and be like, "Oh, thank God" ... It was all a bunch of "oh s***" moments.

They're all intimidating, but having had Stephanie and David both judge me previously ... Stephanie will nitpick your dish to death. She was harsh on my chicken dish. It was like, "This side's great, this side basically is not," so, "Eh, I'll give you an eight ... " I thought right then I was done.

My entire [time], I started off with a 10. I felt pretty good about that. I thought the hush puppies were great, and then David didn't get enough prawn flavor. The salmon dish — I felt strong on that as well. Then when the chicken dish came out, I was like, "I'm done. This is it. I'm saying goodbye."

What the cameras didn't show you during Hell's Kitchen Season 21's final dinner service

After the final dinner service, you're caught on camera saying to Dafne, "Tonight didn't go like I expected." Let's dig into that.

A lot of that dinner service is blacked out in my mind ... I remember talking to my mom and my wife, and they were like, "Everything seemed fine until the very end." Then they were [like], "Your entire demeanor changed, and you seemed like you had lost everything." I was like, "It all fell apart." I was not aware of what was going on in Dafne's side of the kitchen, so I had no idea. We had an issue with a piece of fried chicken and a hush puppy. Cheyenne, at the end — we had a few steaks that were undercooked, a piece of raw chicken ...

The dinner service did not end as strong as it should have. I was fine throughout. We kept pushing, and at some point, they were like, "Dafne's going to finish first." I was like, "I don't care ... As long as everything that we put out is quality and everyone gets fed, it doesn't matter. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon."

Who was telling you that Dafne's going to finish first?

Gordon was letting me know that she only had one or two tickets left. I honestly can't remember all of this. But my team was concerned that we weren't going to finish first, because they thought that was going to set the tone for who was going to win. At one point, Cheyenne walked up to my wife and my mom and apologized. She was like, "I think I lost the competition for him." She felt so much pressure. Brett also felt so much pressure.

I was like, "Listen, we did the best we could. Everybody got fed. [For] all the food that went out, we caught the mistakes on the pass. Nothing went out wrong. Nothing came back ... We got tons of compliments on the food. We're going to have hiccups. We're human. We're going to make mistakes, especially when this is the most important dinner service anybody has ever cooked in their lives ...

Cheyenne has only been cooking for four years, and I've got her on arguably one of the hardest stations in the kitchen. If you had put me on the meat station when I was 21, I would've set the whole place on fire and walked out. It would not have been a good situation. But I gave them a little speech during pre-service, and everybody was crying and emotions were high ...

In the end, I think what Gordon saw was that I never lost my composure. I never got mad. I never lost the drive. I kept pushing the team to crank out great food no matter the speed bumps, and that's what we did.

The only thing he remembers after winning Hell's Kitchen

Your pre-service speech didn't make the cut. How did that go down?

I was telling them how proud I was. The people that I selected to be on the team, I appreciated their hard work. I chose them for a reason. No matter what happens at the end of the service, we're all going to have different lives. I'm thankful for each one of them ... Emotions were high and there was — oh, God. It was a good moment.

Did you get to go out after service and talk to people?

No — I didn't even see my wife. I saw my wife and my mom sitting right there, but we didn't talk to anybody. Gordon dismissed the team, and then he talked to me and Dafne for a minute or two and said, "I've got a tough decision to make. You both go back to the dorms."

Dafne and I went back to the dorm. We were sitting on the patio talking. Mid-conversation, we both passed out. We fell asleep — 45 minutes, we were gone. I woke up, and I was drooling. She was passed out over there by the hot tub. We were so exhausted, emotionally, mentally, [and] physically. We were done.

Every time you get the phone call that dinner service is happening, or a challenge is happening, you get a buzz ... you get that second, third, fifth wind. I was out of wind. I was done. I remember waking up, and she was still sleeping. The phone rang, and I'm pretty sure a producer had to wake Dafne up. They were like, "Hey, go to the kitchen." It was nuts.

Do you remember what Gordon Ramsay said to you after you won?

No. I don't remember standing in his office. I don't remember walking through the door. Watching it was as surreal as living it for me ... It was so much to take in. I gave a speech, but I don't remember what I said. I remember my wife going nuts, and that was awesome to see. To see how happy she was ... She was screaming so loud, you could hear the disruption in the speakers on the TV. She couldn't talk for two weeks after we filmed. Her voice was gone from screaming so hard. It was awesome. That's what I remember.

Is Belew taking the helm of a Hell's Kitchen restaurant?

Having cooked for the legend, what are Gordon Ramsay's tells? How do you know if you've knocked something out of the park or messed things up monumentally?

I don't think I could tell. He's a pretty damn good poker player. Have you ever seen the "Key & Peele" skit where he's like, "Give me your jacket because you deserve to be cooking in the best place ever ... because your food sucks so bad, you need to learn something"? That's Gordon. He can turn on a head. You don't know what he is thinking. It can be that he'll take a bite and, "Mm-hmm, uh-huh. Well, this is s***." And you're like, "Oh, okay. Cool. Sorry." He's hard to read.

What have your conversations with him been like? Are you taking the helm of Hell's Kitchen in Atlantic City Caesars?

Popular question ... I've had a conversation so far with the Director of Food and Beverage at Caesars Atlantic City. I am planning on going up there for introductions at the beginning of March. Other than that, I can't say much.

What you've gotten wrong about Southern food

You've been showcasing elevated Southern food throughout your "Hell's Kitchen" journey. What are some misconceptions people might have about Southern food?

A lot of people in the country think Southern food is all heavy — it's all biscuits, it's all gravy, it's all chicken and dumplings, it's all fried food. The South [has] a tremendous spread of vegetables. We have amazing produce. Unlike California, which is where I'm at right now, we have these weird things called seasons ... We get great vegetables and we have great proteins, and there's amazing farms that raise fantastic cattle. A lot of times, people think the South means "fat." The South means "all you can eat in my face." It's not — a lot of times, it's just cooking with the seasons and making things taste fresh.

So many people that used to come to my restaurant would say, "I hate vegetables." It turns out they hate the vegetable that they had when they were a kid because it was done so [poorly]. Treating the ingredients with respect and getting great ingredients [is] half the battle, and then it's preparing them in a way that respects them and highlights their flavors. A great vegetable doesn't need anything more than salt and maybe some lemon juice, maybe a little bit of fat. Great things taste great without a lot of alteration.

Are there any underrated Southern ingredients or condiments we should be adding to our culinary arsenal?

Okra is one of my favorite vegetables. I said it's not all about fried food, but my grandmother made the best [fried okra] in the world. I love okra. I love it grilled. I love it smoked. I love it fried. I love it in gumbo ...

I've also yet to find a tomato that rivals a good summertime Tennessee tomato, bursting with sugar right off the vine. The skin is splitting from the tomato wanting to be picked. You slice that thing and put a little bit of some crunchy sea salt and some great olive oil on there, and it would rival the best steak, in my opinion. There's something about it, the natural glutamic acid in that tomato — there's so much umami, and you've got the acidity, and the saltiness, and the richness ... I used to think my grandmother was crazy for eating tomato sandwiches, and there's probably nothing better.

What's a key to your grandmother's fried okra?

It was a simple cornmeal, egg wash, cornmeal, breading; then fried in lard at 350 degrees [Fahrenheit] for 3-4 minutes. Hit it with some salt when it comes out. There's just something about it — I can't make fried okra better than my grandmother. That's the trick about grandmothers: You can never outcook your grandparents. That's something special about that.

Why your hush puppies might be undercooked

There's so much memory wrapped up in food.

The thing that I love about food is [that] food and music resonate in your soul. Those two things are the universal language. Music can take you back to a time, and you can remember exactly where you were and what you were going through when you heard that song. Food and smell can do the same thing. You can eat something and be transported back to when you were in seventh grade at a Christmas thing with your grandmother. We celebrate the best and worst moments of our lives with food ... Food is a comforting agent in life.

Hush puppies were front and center of the finale episode for you. Brett had trouble cooking them under pressure during the finale. Can you give us the trick to getting hush puppies right?

It's all about the fry time. If your oil is too dark, it's going to make the outside look cooked before the inside is actually cooked ... That whole rule of "when it's floating," that's what a lot of people think: When it floats, it's cooked. That's not always the trick with hush puppies. There could still be a spot of raw batter on the inside. It's really all about consistency and timing. It's usually a 3-and-a-half- to 4-minute fry, depending on the color of your oil and the temperature of your oil.

What kind of oil is the best to fry hush puppies?

Peanut is great. I've learned so much about oils lately that I try to not use any seed oils at all anymore. I don't use canola or grape seed ... I use beef tallow to cook almost everything now.

Belew makes a case for beef tallow

Give us your argument for using beef tallow for everything.

You get a lot more vitamins and minerals and saturated fat out of beef tallow, and your body can actually absorb more minerals and vitamins from that. Your body needs saturated fat. Seed oils are highly inflammatory, very bad for your body, cause cancer, and they're in everything. I've probably listened to too many Joe Rogan podcasts to go on a tangent about seed oils right now ...

We use a lot of extra virgin olive oil at our house. There's some scientific studies that show that increasing the consumption of extra virgin olive oil can improve your brain function. We eat a lot of olive oil, we do a lot of beef fat, we use ghee, and that's pretty much all we use now.

What's your dream scenario for you and what you'll be doing in another 10 years?

Since I was 18, I've been chasing something, and I didn't really ever know what that was. I've been a musician most of my life. I've been in bands trying to get a record deal or whatever. I've been in every school play imaginable. I've shot two pilots for the Food Network. I've always enjoyed the media aspect of life. I've had an idea for a TV show for about 10 years, and we are actively working on shooting a pilot. I have a few guests that are spectacularly famous and talented that will be on ...

I would love to have another restaurant, but I can't be the one that's there 90 hours a week. My family deserves more than that. If COVID taught me anything, it's that I love my kids ... Finding some sort of balance is necessary. I grew up without a dad, and I don't want that for my boys.

One thing that I have learned about myself is that I enjoy doing many different things and not being stuck in the same thing all day long. Going from project to project and bouncing around and having my finger in a lot of pies is where I want to be ... I'm going day by day at this point, and I'm having fun. As long as my family is taken care of, that's my first priority ... My goal in life is to wake up every day and say, "I get to go to work," not "I have to go to work."

Belew teases an exciting new project

Can you give us any more of a taste of this TV show?

It has something to do with music and food ... I don't know that there's any food show that's also heavily musically inclined. Putting those things together, it can be cool ... You see a talk show — let's use Jimmy Fallon — he'll have a band on and they'll talk for two minutes; then they'll play a song. "How's the tour going? Where have you gone?"

Well, let's talk about, "Where have you eaten? What are some of the great meals you've had as you've traveled the world? What are some places that you could tell people, or what's one of the best foods that you've had in Germany, in wherever?" Let's figure out how to make that dish, and let's introduce new foods and new cultures to people.

I don't want another competition. I feel like everybody's got a competition show, and they're all pretty similar. We could add some competitiveness to the show that I have in mind — I have to play the musician's song, and they have to cook the recipe, and whoever does that the best wins. But it's also fun to watch people cook that don't know how to cook ... Adding some humor to it, I don't know. Everybody needs a little love and a little laughter these days.

To keep up with Alex Belew, visit his website and subscribe to his mailing list.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.