Alabama home chef aims to win $250,000 on Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Next Chef’ Show

Jonathan Harrison knows his way around the kitchen, preparing hearty dishes like marinated pork with curried onion broth, scrambled eggs with pickled shrimp, tandoori chicken, short rib fried rice, and paella with lobster.

A creative and skilled home cook, Harrison, a native of Alabama, isn’t afraid to venture beyond his Southern roots to include world class ingredients and flavors. For proof, just take a look at his Instagram page, which showcases mouthwatering photos of dishes that originate in Colombiana – the city where he was born and raised – but have a global perspective.

“My specialty as a chef is Southern fusion,” Harrison says. “I like to bring the world to the south and to take the south to the world.”

This guy could make a buttermilk biscuit that Grandma would agree to, but he’d more likely make a casserole of stewed vegetables and pineapple with roasted pecans and ginger. Traditional cornbread? Harrison can handle that, along with Conecuh-fried pork chops with mango-ginger broth and spicy yellow curry grits.

Perhaps that’s why Harrison was cast as a contestant on “Next Level Chef,” a new FOX reality series led by Gordon Ramsay. (Yes, that’s the quick-tempered chef who bullies competitors at “Hell’s Kitchen”).

Harrison, 29, is one of 15 competitors on Ramsey’s new show, making his debut tonight at 7 p.m. CST. After that, the series will move to its usual time: Wednesday at 8 pm Cairo time.

TV viewers in Harrison can get a double dose of “next-level chef” this week, watching the Alabama contestant make his claims in a tough, fast-moving culinary competition. The winner of the series will receive $250,000, plus a year of mentorship from three celebrity chefs on the show: Ramsay, Nisha Arrington and Richard Bliss.

“I like to try the hard stuff,” Harrison says during an interview with AL.com. “I have great respect for Gordon Ramsay and was very happy to meet Nisha Arrington…and Richard Bliss. I really wanted to get in there and see if I could hang out.”

Reality TV fans will learn about the familiar structure of “Next Level Chef,” which poses weekly challenges to contestants. With confidence and speed, they must choose ingredients, use different kitchen utensils, and prepare food for the judges to rate. Each dish has to look good, taste great and correspond to a specific theme, while conveying the contestant’s point of view as a chef.

The new Ramsay series offers a twist. Contestants are divided into teams operating in three distinct kitchens stacked on top of each other in the set. The loft kitchen is a luxurious space with everything a five star chef could need. The middle kitchen is utilitarian, with standard equipment used in the catering industry. The lower kitchen is a dreary area with dim lighting, outdated appliances, and a variety of basic utensils.

Teams alternate between the three kitchens during the season, giving everyone a chance to enjoy luxury and deal with adversity. Contestants have just 45 minutes to visualize and prepare each dish, after eating the ingredients – in 30 seconds – from a platform that moves through the three kitchen levels.

The roster of contestants is cut through weekly filters, and the “second” contestants engage in a last culinary chance to decide who stays and who goes. Ramsay, Arrington and Bliss serve as team mentors and competition judges, pushing the contestants — all of whom are in-house chefs, social media chefs or culinary professionals — to excel.

If “Next Level Chef” sounds like a pressure cooker…welcome to reality TV. Drama is a valuable component of any competition series, and this TV show is keen to heighten the excitement.

Harrison, who has tried reality shows in the past, says he went to “Next Level Chef” without knowing the three stacked kitchens, the moving platform, or any other vicissitudes.

“I really imagined the ‘MasterChef’ case,” Harrison says. “The concept for me was incredible. I thought this would be a challenge.”

The first season of “Next Level Chef” was filmed in Las Vegas over four weeks in September. Harrison says his preparation for the competition was simple and thoughtful, based on his knowledge of other culinary offerings.

“I was just trying to cook things as fast as I could and save as many things as possible,” Harrison says. “I’m not a baker, but I thought there would be a baking ingredient. I saved the cornbread and saved the crackers. I was trying to make as many meals in 30 minutes as I could, using (the four cooking elements) of salt, fat, acid, and heat.”

Harrison can’t provide spoiler from filming – and certainly can’t reveal his performance in competition – but he admits that preparing food for the judges was a nerve-wracking experience.

“I am just a home cook who does everything he can to study the technique and hone my craft in my kitchen,” says Harrison, who serves as the site coordinator for the 4-H Center for Youth Development in Colombia. “I’ve never had a professional chef before this show.”

Harrison began cooking as a teenager in his family’s kitchen, and began developing his skills in earnest as a young adult. He vividly remembers his first successful dish at the age of 14 or 15 – braised red wine short ribs with garlic mashed potatoes – and the surge of emotion he felt when the food was tasted and praised.

“I made it and people lost it,” Harrison says. “I thought, ‘I can do this every day of my life and be fine. “I’ve really dived into what makes Southern food Southern, and it evolved into awakening cultures. You know, Southern food isn’t just that one thing. … I’ve spent the past decade falling in love with food and how food connects people.”

Friends, neighbors, and other people in Harrison’s orbit took advantage of his explorations, and attended dinner hosted by the enterprising chef in his driveway.

“I have 1,450 square feet in my house and a dining room table that seats six,” Harrison says. “This is not always enough for me. During COVID, I set the tables in the corridor and set up a makeshift kitchen. I started inviting other people, sometimes 12 people, sometimes 50 people. It turned out to be the most rewarding thing, just the feeling of feeding everyone.”

Over the past few months, Harrison has worked as a private dinner party chef, motivated by local excitement about his participation in “Next Level Chef.” He taught a cooking class at the Grand Columbiana Center, and prepared farm-to-table dinners for a fundraiser organized by Main Street Columbiana.

Now, with his national television debut looming, Harrison has another on the agenda—this time for Wednesday dinner and binge-watching at the Alabama 4-H Center in his hometown. To celebrate the second episode of Next Level Chef, Harrison plans to make filet mignon, mix green gratin, roasted and mashed potatoes, and white chocolate bread pudding.

As a bonus, he’ll mingle and mingle with diners at 4-H Center, answering their questions about food, TV series, and more.

Harrison knows people wonder what it’s like to cook for a demanding chef like Gordon Ramsay, and he has an answer ready. Harrison says Ramsay isn’t fluffy, but he’s very supportive in an emotional way.

“The word I would use to describe it is nutritious,” Harrison says. “As someone who comes from the South, where parents are more constructively critical than other places, I welcome constructive criticism. What I could see was that this guy knew how good you can be, and he wanted to push you to be as good as possible.”

Ask Harrison to name his core strength as a chef, and he immediately mentions “understanding flavors from around the world.” His weaknesses, Harrison says, are “portion size – food plates that are too big – and trying to do too much”.

Viewers will see how things like this get into “The Next Level Chefs,” as Harrison competes with 14 aspiring chefs from across the country. Will there be a reality TV villain on the set? Harrison remains silent on the point, laughing at the idea and opting for blanket praise.

“It’s an all-encompassing cast and full of different personalities,” says Harrison. “It was great to be in a room with people who share your passion for food and they were really kind. There was so much support and encouragement for each other.”

Win or lose, Harrison says his time at “The Next Level Chef” is a pivotal point in his life and career.

“I definitely think this will be the start of my future in food,” Harrison says. “I would love to write a cookbook that represents the South. I would like to have a Southern tapas restaurant. I like to be the face of progressive Southern food and progressive Southern culture. … For now, all I mean is to make food that represents the well of the South.”

If you watch: “Next Level Chef” premieres Sunday, January 2, at 7 p.m. on FOX. After that, the show will move to its usual time, Wednesday at 8 pm Cairo time. The second episode of the season will be broadcast on Wednesday, January 5 at 8 pm Cairo time.

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