Columbiana’s Jonathan Harrison had the opportunity to show some love for his home state as a contestant on the first season of “Next Level Chef,” a reality show that aired on the Fox network earlier this year. Hosted by famed TV chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, the show looks for the country’s best line cooks, home chefs, social media stars and more to find the food world’s next superstar.
Harrison didn’t make it to the finals, but the experience furthered his current career as a private chef; he creates what his neighborhood calls “driveway dinners,” inviting people via his Instagram account to come to a limited seated dinner. “It’s an excellent way to meet new people and try some new food in a laid-back environment,” he says.
He plans to continue “private cheffing” and would like to produce content for food publications, as well as cook his signature Southern fusion cuisine with some of his heroes and pursue opportunities in media and TV. – Allison Law
What career path did you originally want?
I wanted to be all the things growing up, haha! I thought I would be a great lawyer; I loved running for SGA offices and dreamed of being in politics. My mother wanted me to be a music minister because I have always loved to sing, but when it came time to go to college, I really wanted to be able to go to culinary school – but I had a full ride that didn’t cover the culinary program where I was attending, so I decided to major in journalism.
All the while, I continued to cook, read about cooking, try new foods, and explore as many new foods and ingredients as I could. I never stopped wanting to cook for people, I just didn’t know how to make it full time or what it would look like.
When did you start cooking, and with whom?
The first people I remember cooking with are my grandmothers. I remember rolling out sausage balls and shredding cucumbers for cucumber spread with my paternal grandmother, Dean. I remember her food as being so incredibly flavorful and she made some of the only chicken and dressing that I have ever actually enjoyed. I’m not sure if it was the fourth cup of bacon grease or the love she put into it that made it so good but it was amazing.
My maternal grandparents were the ones we lived closest to and their house is where the traditional Sunday dinner after church took place. Most Sundays we had roast, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, slaw, some sort of pound cake-esque situation for dessert and so much Red Diamond sweet tea. They had a large garden and this is where I learned to appreciate fresh produce and understand how invaluable it is.
What is your favorite type of food, or cuisine, to cook?
I absolutely love Southern fusion. My favorite thing to do is take the South to the world and bring the world back to the South. Combining ingredients and techniques from around the world with traditional Southern food is just exhilarating to me. Saag Paneer made with collard and mustard greens, wrapping spicy coconut infused dirty rice in motherland okra leaves and steaming them, Chilton County peach and Thai basil scones with sauterne glaze – I know that’s a lot of words but doesn’t that sound so fun and delicious? It just fires me up.
Tell us about the experience with Gordon Ramsay and the other judges.
My experience with each judge was so valuable and so very unique. I was being coached by Richard Blais who I knew from the upscale burger concept Flip Burger Boutique. Flip Burger was one of the first creative eating experiences I had as a kid.
My experience with Nyesha Arrington was just the most incredible. To say that her presence is formidable is an understatement. She is tough, she is incredibly intelligent, immensely talented and she just exudes kindness and acceptance. My experience with Chef Ramsay was equally as wonderful. He truly believes in each contestant and wants you to be your absolute best.
Do you want to stay in Alabama?
I love Alabama, and I will always have a home here. I always admired how Ernest Hemingway traveled the world but always came home to Key West. I plan to travel and cook around the world, in as many places, for as many people as possible but I think I will always have a little oasis in my hometown to come back to. I want to be someone who goes into the world to show people all of the wonderful parts of our state.ν
Follow Jonathan on Instagram @chef_jonathanharrison