Alabama Home Cook Competes on Gordon Ramsay's 'Next Level Chef'

The new reality TV cooking competition airs Wednesdays on Fox. 

Jonathan Harrison grew up on Sunday lunch. As a native of Columbiana, Alabama, Sunday afternoons were reserved for big family meals at his grandmother's house. Those meals spurred a passion for food that blossomed when he discovered "Queen Ina Garten" at the age of 12.

"She was the reason I got up on Saturday mornings," he told Southern Living. "Not cartoons, not football, not anything like that. I was getting up to watch the new hour of Barefoot Contessa. That's when I started to figure out that maybe food is a little more to me than just sustenance. Maybe it's kind of a passion."

Jonathan Harrison
Carlos Hernandez

Over the years, Harrison has honed his skills in the kitchen and become an accomplished home chef. During college, he learned to create quality dishes on a budget. That experience, coupled with influence from family recipes and chefs like Ina Garten, led to Harrison's unique take on Southern food in which he spotlights classic dishes but fuses them with flavors from around the world. For example, a recent meal included the Southern delicacy pineapple casserole kicked up a notch with roasted poblano peppers and ginger. He serves fried pork chops, but they're accompanied by mango ginger gravy and spicy yellow curry grits.

Harrison, who has never cooked professionally and works as a coordinator for a local 4-H Youth Development Center, gets practice by hosting massive dinner parties in his driveway.

Now, at just shy of 30, Harrison is taking on his biggest culinary challenge yet as a contestant on chef Gordon Ramsay's newest reality cooking competition Next Level Chef. In the show, Harrison competes against 15 chefs from across the country for $250,000 and a yearlong mentorship from the show's three celebrity chef judges: Nyesha Arrington, Richard Blais, and Gordon Ramsay. The contestant pool consists of five home chefs, five social media chefs, and five professional chefs.

Next Level Chef puts a spin on the traditional cooking competition format by splitting the 15 chefs into three teams who cook in a giant three-story kitchen. The catch? Each level of the giant kitchen is equipped with varying levels of appliances and gear. The top kitchen is a five-star facility. The middle is utilitarian and functional for average restaurant cooking. The bottom is an outdated setup that leaves much to be desired.

Jonathan Harrison
Carlos Hernandez

Harrison, who has tried out for MasterChef and other cooking competition shows before, said when a friend sent him an ad for the new show urging him to apply, he initially ignored it but eventually relented.

"Having applied for this kind of stuff before, I had the expectations of dirt," he said. "The plane lifted off the ground and I said, 'I guess this is a thing now' because I just didn't believe it until I was at the airport."

Though he can't reveal how far he makes it on the show, Harrison said the experience was a dream come true. Equating the filming experience to a mixture of boot camp and summer camp where you're in a pressure cooker of emotions. He bonded with many fellow contestants and now counts many of them as close friends. Above all, Harrison is thankful for the opportunity to learn from the best.

"It was the greatest, most challenging, scariest, most fun experience of my life." he said. "It was once in a lifetime."

Jonathan Harrison
Carlos Hernandez

As for whether Chef Ramsay is as brutal as he appears on TV, Harrison has his own take on the famously biting British chef. Harrison admits he didn't watch Ramsay's cooking competitions Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef before competing himself, but he has watched plenty of Ramsay's cooking tutorials.

"The way he interacts with his kids and family [in those videos], you can tell he's a really nice guy, and that's who I found. If he's ever yelling at you, it's because you're not living up to your potential. You're making stupid mistakes, and he knows you're better than that. Or, you're not being respectful to someone or to him. I think that's why he yells. He's passionate about people being good humans and people being the best they can be in the kitchen."

Those two passions are extremely familiar to Harrison, who said cooking has led him to discover tangential passions for food history and social justice issues as they relate to food. As a citizen of the South, where he said our food history isn't always pretty, he hopes to acknowledge that history and use food to move our community forward.

"My philosophy for Southern food is that we should be using food to bring people together," he said. "I know that sounds so cliché, but the thing is, people got to eat. People love to eat. People from all walks of life will come and sit down at the same table if there's good food at it. Then that's where you facilitate those horizon-expanding conversations. That's when you facilitate people meeting people that don't look like them, people meeting people that don't believe like them."

Now that Harrison is back home in Alabama, he's focusing on spreading his message and delicious food as a private chef. You can see how he fares on Next Level Chef airing every Wednesday at 8 p.m. CT on Fox. The second episode of the new series premieres tonight.

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