WESTMINSTER — Town resident and longtime Leominster firefighter Vinny Alia is bringing his culinary skills to a whole new level as a contestant on a national television show.
Alia will be bringing the heat to the kitchen as a member of Team Ramsay on season two of “Next Level Chef,” cooking icon Gordon Ramsay’s reality show that pits amateur chefs against each other. The season will premiere on Feb. 12 on Fox immediately following the Super Bowl in a coveted prime time slot.
Leominster Fire Fighters Local 1841 IAFF shared the show’s post announcing the season on social media Jan. 18, which has since garnered over 250 reactions and dozens of positive comments encouraging Alia and his cooking adventure.
“We can’t wait to see if his dishes will be as good as the ones he makes at the firehouse!” the post stated.
That same day the 42-year-old Westminster resident made his own social media post, writing that his “big reveal is that I’ve made it to the big time.”
“Through the last two years of losing my parents and having a heart attack 4 weeks ago there is light at a the end of the tunnel. I made it,” Alia penned. “Next level chef with Gordon Ramsay and I couldn’t be prouder of myself. Let’s go team Ramsay.”
He said he’s “been known as the firehouse cook since day one” after joining the Leominster Fire Department almost 20 years ago and joked about finding his way around the kitchen, “from burning chicken to cooking sushi chicken, it’s been a long ride.”
“There’s a lot of great cooks at the firehouse, I’m not even the best. Maybe the best looking but not the best,” he quipped.
His boasted that his “number one specialty” is chicken piccata, a dish Alia said, “the crew begs for every Sunday.”
“We still hold the Italian Sunday tradition on my group, the whole day is Italian food,” he said, adding that “Italian in general is my specialty, from making sauce from scratch to homemade pasta. I love all of it.”
The group that gathers for the weekly feast at the Church Street fire station typically numbers around 20 people and includes firefighters, paramedics, and other crew members.
“It’s the day we all look forward to,” Alia declared. “We love to preplan.”
When it comes to his newfound notoriety as a contestant on Ramsay’s cooking show, he said that ironically “the funny thing about ‘Next Level Chef’ is I never even heard of it.”
His friend and coworker Shawn Phillips convinced him to watch the first season because he knew Alia enjoys creating culinary concoctions.
“I love cooking,” Alia conveyed before saying that Phillips told him “I would be perfect for the show for my cooking skills and personality.”
“He looked up the show randomly and said they were taking applicants and like everyone else, I filled out the application with the assumption that I’m not going to make it.”
It’s been quite the long and winding road to get to this point in time for Alia, who grew up in Leominster and lived there until moving to Westminster five years go. He shipped off to the military immediately after graduating from Leominster High School and was stationed in San Diego for four years. Upon returning home he decided to apply for the Leominster Fire Department and was Vice President of his class at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy in Stow.
He became a permanent firefighter/EMT at LFD on June 12, 2004, where he has been serving the community ever since. When asked what he enjoys most about his job, Alia didn’t hesitate to say, “helping people at their worst hour.”
“Usually when people see us it’s their worst day and I just want to help,” he said. “All of us do, that’s why we work there. All of us firefighters put our lives on the line every day to make sure that the people of Leominster are safe. [We] just want to help.”
The year before Alia threw his hat in the ring for “Next Level Chef” his father unexpectedly passed away. That was in June of 2021 and one year later to the month while he was in the midst of filling out and submitting the application for the show, he lost his mother. He made the decision move forward with the show as a way to make his family proud, including his daughter Madison.
“Being a single father made for a great background plus being a veteran, I had so many people to represent. The firehouse, the veterans, my family, and especially my daughter.”
The process of applying for the “Next Level Chef” involved paperwork followed by sending in videos of him cooking to live remote interviews. When the deadline was approaching at the end of July last year and Alia hadn’t heard anything back, he figured he didn’t get in.
“I gave up, but then one day at work I got the call saying I was in the top 22 contestants, and they are flying me out to London, England. I was over the moon excited, and I got to share the news in front of my crew, which made it extra special.”
Per pandemic protocols Alia had to take a COVID-19 test and wouldn’t you know it, he tested positive the day before he was supposed to fly across the pond in September.
“My heart sank, and I knew for sure I was out,” he recalled.
Turns out they liked him so much as a contestant they held up production for Alia and gave him five days to get better. After recovering he was able to fly out to London and was the last contestant to arrive.
Of the 22 contestants that were flown over to England only 18 were going to make it on the show.
“Right away you’re doing live interviews with Fox in front of cameras and the whole experience is unreal,” Alia said.
After the interviews the contestants were brought back to their rooms to await the decision of who would stay and who would go home. Alia said he was thrilled when he found out he made the cut and although he’s not able to share all of the details of his experience on the show due to confidentiality rules he said it involved “long days and long nights.”
“The Next Level Chef experience is unreal, like nothing you’ve ever done,” he said. “Three kitchens, a moving platform with food to where you only have 20 seconds to pick your items and make a stunning dish for the three greatest chefs. You have 45 minutes to construct an award-winning dish and they do not hold back.”
He spent three weeks in London filming the season and then the unthinkable happened last winter — Alia had a heart attack on Dec. 15 followed by surgery.
“It’s been a wild ride since,” he shared.
He’s made a full recovery and is looking forward to the show premiering and finally being able to show people what he did on “Next Level Chef.” Alia said Ramsay has been his “cooking idol” for 20 years and that he is honored that the world-renowned chef picked him to be on his team along with five other contestants.
“We are only on season two, so I suggest everyone watch season one first to get a grasp,” Alia said. “It’s like no other cooking show on earth.”
When it comes to the amount of support Alia has received over the last few years and through all of the ups and downs, the firefighter said he is grateful for the legion of people who have and continue to rally around him.
His “biggest cheerleaders and people I couldn’t have done it without” include his sister Ashley Wing and her family, his parents, Madison and her mother Erin McKenna, whose “support was huge,” Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella, LFD Fire Chief Robert Sideleau, “all my coworkers, and of course I can’t forget Shawn Phillips and Nick Caponi, my best friend (who) took care of everything for me.”
“There’s many more. Just all of the community. Everyone has been great, I’m so thankful.”