Auburn graduate, mentorship coordinator competes for FOX’s ‘Next Level Chef’, Cooking for a Change

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Competing on Gordon Ramsey’s new cooking program The Next Level of Chefs, Auburn University graduate Jonathan Harrison has been cooking for a reason: bringing Southern cooking to the world by being the face of progressive Southern food.

“My purpose with food is to use it as a tool to facilitate conversations that move the South forward and create positive change for everyone in the South,” Harrison said. “With good food, you get different people to sit across from each other at a table, and that’s where those conversations that bring empathy and understanding begin. That’s how change happens.”

The Columbiana, Alabama, native, who was one of 15 chefs vying for the $250,000 first place prize on the new FOX show, is the brainchild of celebrity Chef Ramsay that is filmed in Las Vegas in September and airs Wednesday nights at 8 Evening Cairo time. Harrison, 29, has studied journalism at a liberal arts college and has worked as a chef, realtor and on-site coordinator for the 4-H Center for Youth Development in his hometown since graduating from Auburn.

Harrison’s love of Southern cooking has influenced him since he was a child. He grew up in what he calls a “food-centered family” and puts some of his happiest times around the dinner table or on Sunday lunch. Harrison says what he looked forward to most on weekends wasn’t watching football or cartoons on TV, but cooking shows like Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa.”

“I remember watching Ina Garten on Food Network and saying, ‘Wow, that looks good,’” Harrison said. “I kept thinking I might be able to cook this if I could get someone to buy me the ingredients. I just got it really easy.”

Although he was raised in a family of Alabama fans, Harrison said he “saw the light” when he was 19 while visiting a friend on the Auburn campus. The impact of the university on him was immediate. He moved to Auburn and completed a degree in journalism, an experience he will remember fondly.

“I immediately felt at home, and I loved it so much,” Harrison said. “Auburn feels like family, and that’s what I love about it. It’s really the most loving community, loving campus, family place, and I loved it.”

“Even when I was in the throes of my major, I felt very comfortable. I can’t say enough good things about Auburn’s Department of Communications and Press.”

As a student at Auburn University, Harrison also learned to cook with limited means, a skill that would help him compete in the “next level of chef”.

“For a few years, I had to think about how to make really good things on a very tight budget,” he said. “It really helped me figure out how to make things with not much to work with.”

Originally, Harrison considered a career in food journalism after his graduation, but eventually changed his mind. Although his career path changed, his love for cooking never left him. Harrison started posting pictures of the meals he was going to cook at home on his Instagram page, and soon people started asking to taste his food.

“I started eating dinner in the aisles during COVID, because we couldn’t be inside and couldn’t host dinner parties,” Harrison said. “That’s when I started to realize that maybe I was better than I thought, or maybe I had the potential to be good.

“I always liked ‘Southern Living’, ‘Bon Appetit’, ‘NYT Cooking’ and those things you read because you have to read to master something. You have to read and research and practice.”

A friend of Harrison sent a link to the “Next Level Chef” request, but he walked away from the submission and decided to turn it down. Two weeks later, Harrison changed his mind and filled out and submitted the application. Even after receiving a text message asking to speak to him from the “Next Level Chef” team, Harrison couldn’t believe there was a possibility that he’d do the show.

“I didn’t believe this was happening to me until the wheels were lifted in September and I drove to Las Vegas,” he said.

The show turned into the experience of a lifetime for Harrison.

“It was the best experience of my life,” Harrison said. “I’ve never put myself in such emotional stress. I mean, you cook for the heaviest hitter in the food game and two people I consider to be the heavy hitter in the food game, so you constantly worry about their judgment of your food.

“It was nerve-wracking, but the growth I’ve had during my stay has been amazing, and I’m really proud to put myself out there.”

Also, just as valuable as the knowledge gained were the friendships that Harrison forged during the show.

“She’s always made friends with me from all walks of life, from all over the United States, and it’s been amazing,” Harrison said. “I mean, this is all I have. My whole agreement is to take the South to the world and to bring the world to the South.”

Now back to his hometown, Harrison works as a camp coordinator for a science school at Alabama 4-H Center in Columbiana, Alabama. The 4-H Center is the central location for the Alabama 4-H Program, which is part of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Extension of Alabama is the primary outreach and engagement organization for the land grant mission at Alabama A&M and Auburn University, in association with Tuskegee University.

Harrison helps book school trips to the center, organizes activities for groups, and makes sure everyone is prepared for a successful trip. It also books group activities using the conference center. The opportunity to interact with and influence the youth of Alabama every day is the best part of Harrison’s job.

“My favorite part of the job is the people and the kids,” Harrison said. “I interact with a lot of people from different places and really see the kids learning and growing on a daily basis, which is really rewarding.”

Kristi Abrams, director of the Alabama 4-H Center, was able to see Harrison put his passion for cooking into practice in action.

“During COVID, the Alabama 4-H Center had to get creative to attract individuals because groups weren’t traveling,” Abrams said. “We’ve hosted a variety of events: Great Family Stay-Cays, a music festival, a Fourth of July event, and a Fall Garden event. 4-H Center had Jonathan prepare a farm-to-table meal for the Fall Garden event.

“Jonathan can go from building the team, to rescuing, to making a campfire to preparing and cooking a great meal during these events. I was so proud when he told me he had been chosen to be a racer. He has a passion for people and a passion for food and he was able to combine these two things together to achieve his dreams.”

Molly Gregg, assistant director of the 4-H Program, doesn’t think there could have been a better person to represent the 4-H Program.

“Jonathan is the 4-H model,” Greg said. “Discover a passion for cooking that he shares with his community to build and create opportunities for people to feel a sense of belonging and enjoyment.

“It is so exciting to watch him now and think of him as a young counselor at Camp 4-H. He has been a shining light on the youth of Alabama and his community for a long time.”

Looking forward, Harrison hopes to keep pushing for change by cooking it as best he can.

“I love being there as the face of progressive Southern food and really pushing for equality for all groups of people across the South and to accept, love and spread the message of radical compassion as much as I can,” Harrison said. “Anywhere I can do that is where I want to be.”

For Harrison, Auburn will always have a special place in his heart for the role she played in his life.

“I love auburn so much, and I think auburn changed the course of my life,” Harrison said. “I am very happy because I hope to represent Auburn well.”

Harrison offers more insights into his passion for cooking and his Southern roots on his Instagram page.


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