While competing on Gordon Ramsey’s new cooking show “Next Level Chef,” Auburn alumnus Jonathan Harrison was cooking with a cause: to bring Southern cooking to the world by being the face of progressive Southern food.
“My goal with food is to use it as a tool to facilitate conversations that move the South forward and bring positive change for everyone in the South,” Harrison said.
“With good food you can get different people to sit across from each other at a table, and that’s where those conversations start that bring empathy and understanding. That’s how change happens.”
The Columbiana, Alabama, native was one of 15 chefs competing for the $250,000 first-place prize on the new FOX show, the brainchild of celebrity chef Ramsay that was filmed in Las Vegas in September and is airing on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. CST. Harrison, 29, studied journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and has worked as a chef, realtor and on-site coordinator for the 4-H Youth Development Center in his hometown since graduating from Auburn.
Harrison’s love for Southern cooking has influenced him since he was a child. Growing up in what he calls a “food-centric family” placed some of his happiest times around a dinner table or at Sunday lunches. Harrison said that what he most looked forward to on weekends wasn’t watching football or cartoons on television, but cooking shows like Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa.”
“I remember watching Ina Garten on Food Network and was like, ‘Wow, that looks good,’” Harrison said. “I kept thinking I might be able to cook that if I could just get someone to buy me the ingredients. I just always absorbed it really easily.”
Even though he had grown up in a family of Alabama fans, Harrison said he “saw the light” when he was 19 while visiting a friend on Auburn’s campus. The impact the university had on him was instantaneous. He transferred to Auburn and completed a degree in journalism, an experience he fondly remembers.
“It felt like home immediately, and I loved it so, so much,” Harrison said. “Auburn feels like family, and that’s what I love about it. It really is the most loving community, loving campus, family-oriented place, and I loved it.
“Even when I was in the throes of my major, I felt so comfortable. I can’t say enough good things about the communications and journalism department at Auburn.”
While a student at Auburn, Harrison also learned to cook with limited means, a skill that would help him compete on “Next Level Chef.”
“For a couple of years, I had to figure out how to make really good things on a very tight budget,” he said. “That really helped me figure out how to make things with not a lot to work with.”
Originally, Harrison had considered a career in food journalism after graduating, but he ultimately changed his mind. Even though his career path changed, his love for cooking never left him. Harrison began posting photos of the meals he would cook at home on his Instagram page, and soon people began asking to get a taste of his food.
“I started having driveway dinners during COVID, because we couldn’t be inside and I couldn’t host dinner parties,” Harrison said. “That’s when I started to realize that maybe I was better than I thought I was, or maybe I had the potential to be good.
“I have always admired ‘Southern Living,’ ‘Bon Appetit,’ ‘NYT Cooking’ and those type of things I read because you have to read to get good at something. You have to read, research and practice.”
A friend sent Harrison a link to the application for “Next Level Chef,” but he shied away from applying and decided against it. After two weeks, Harrison had a change of heart and filled out and submitted the application. Even after receiving a text message asking to speak with him from the “Next Level Chef” team, Harrison could hardly believe there was a possibility of him making the show.
“I didn’t believe it was happening to me until wheels were up in September and I was headed to Las Vegas,” he said.
The show turned into the experience of a lifetime for Harrison.
“The experience was the best in my life,” Harrison said. “I’ve never put myself in such an emotional pressure-cooker like that. I mean, you’re cooking for arguably the heaviest hitter in the food game and two people he has deemed heavy hitters in the food game, so you are constantly nervous about them judging your food.
“It was nerve-wracking, but the growth that I achieved while I was there was astonishing, and I’m just really proud of putting myself out there.”
Also, just as valuable as the knowledge gained were the friendships Harrison made while on the show.
“I made friends that I’ll always have who are from all walks of life, from all over the United States, and it was amazing,” Harrison said. “I mean, that’s my whole deal. My whole deal is taking the South to the world and bringing the world to the South.”
Now back in his hometown, Harrison works as a camp coordinator for the science school at the Alabama 4-H Center in Columbiana, Alabama. The 4-H Center is the central location of the Alabama 4-H Program, which is part of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Alabama Extension is the primary outreach and engagement organization for the land-grant mission of Alabama A&M and Auburn University, in cooperation with Tuskegee University.
Harrison helps book school trips to the center, organize activities for the groups and makes sure that everyone is prepared for a successful trip. He also books activities for groups using the conference center. The chance to interact with and have an impact on the youth of Alabama every day is the best part of the job for Harrison, he said.
“My favorite part of the job is the people and the kids,” Harrison said. “I get to interact with so many people from different places and get to really see the kids learn and grow on a daily basis, and that’s really rewarding.”
Kristy Abrams, director of the Alabama 4-H Center, was able to see Harrison put his passion for cooking into action while at work.
“During COVID, the Alabama 4-H Center had to be creative to attract individuals because groups were not traveling,” Abrams said. “We hosted a variety of events: Great Family Stay-Cays, a music festival, Fourth of July event and a Fall Garden event. The 4-H Center had Jonathan prepare a farm-to-table meal for the Fall Garden event.
“Jonathan could go from team building, to lifeguarding, to rocking out a campfire to preparing and cooking an incredible meal during these events. I was so proud when he told me he had been selected to be a contestant. He has a passion for people and a passion for food and was able to bring those two things together following his dreams.”
Molly Gregg, assistant director of the 4-H Program, doesn’t believe that there could have been a better person to represent the 4-H Program.
“Jonathan represents the 4-H ideal,” Gregg said. “He discovered a passion for cooking that he shares with his community to build and create opportunities for people to feel a sense of belonging and have fun.
“It is so fun to watch him now and think about him as a young 4-H camp counselor. He has been a shining light on the youth of Alabama and his community for a long time.”
Looking forward, Harrison hopes to continue to push for change through his cooking however he can.
“I’d love to be out there as the face of progressive Southern food and really just push for equality for all groups of people all over the South and be accepting, loving and spreading the message of radical empathy 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 it has played in his life.
“I love Auburn so, so much, and I think Auburn changed the trajectory of my life,” Harrison said. “I’m just so happy to hopefully be representing Auburn well.”
Harrison offers further insight into his passion for cooking and his Southern roots on his Instagram page.