As Jonathan “Jon” Harrison faces the judges on the Fox competitive cooking show, “Next Level Chef,” he’s concerned about his fate after a series of mishaps while he prepared that episode’s dish.
Worry turns to astonishment when the host judge—chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay—heaps praise on Harrison’s offering, clams and spaghetti with toasted breadcrumbs.
“I don’t know who cooked this but it looks like it’s been cooked by a pro,” Ramsay says. “What they’ve managed to do is cook everything to absolute, utter perfection.”
The program cuts to Harrison’s ecstatic reaction during a post-episode interview. Crossing himself and patting his heart, he exclaims, “Father, Son, and Kacey Musgraves over here, baby. I’m just like ‘Thank you. Thank you.’”
Harrison’s cooking and deliciously southern personality has endeared him to the three “Next Level Chef” judges, which also include restaurateurs and television personalities Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais.
The Columbiana native and resident also has built a legion of fans online. And scores of fellow Columbianans gather downtown weekly for Wednesday watch parties, cheering him on.
“My community has come out to support me,” says Harrison, who grew up in the Shelby County city, returned home after college, and has spent the last year restoring a 1930s-era home he bought there.
“I’ve felt support from all over the state,” he adds in a recent interview. “Alabamians are so good at supporting Alabamians. I think that is one of the most beautiful things about living here.”
The original 15 contestants on the show are divided equally among home cooks (like Harrison), professional cooks, and social media cooks. Each judge chooses a team for the duration but one person from the overall group is eliminated each episode, after a cookoff.
Riding high one week doesn’t guarantee future success. After scoring the top dish in Episode 3, Harrison had to fight for survival in a cookoff during the January 26 broadcast, two weeks later. He made it through to Episode 6, which will air on Sunday, January 30, instead of the usual Wednesday time slot.
Harrison can’t say how deep he goes, much less if he is ultimately crowned the “Next Level Chef” and wins $250,000 and mentoring for a year by the judges.
The program’s “Next Level” twist is its three-tiered kitchen setup, which descends in quality to an ill-equipped basement level. Starting at the top, cooks chose their ingredients from a platform, with options narrowing as it moves down. The contestants plot their plates on the spot, based on what they grabbed from the platform.
“The top level is just the nicest kitchen I’ve ever cooked in in my life,” Harrison says. “The middle is a beautiful industrial working kitchen where you’ve got everything you need to make a great meal.”
But good things can come out of the basement. That’s where Harrison prepared another dish that the judges exuberantly praised, top round steak served with a gratin made from Swiss chard. Ramsay called it a piece of art.
“The basement level is like where I was used to cooking in college,” says the 2014 Auburn graduate. “I kind of felt at home there.”
Harrison says he learned by watching chefs and cooks on TV, including Ina Garten and Julia Child, and then moved on to cookbooks such as Birmingham legend Frank Stitt’s “Southern Table.”
Harrison regularly feeds a crowd, who gather around long tables set up in his driveway. But when asked who would be his dream dinner guests, living or dead, he builds a list around the six-seat dining table inside his house.
“I love Julia Child,” he says. “I would love to cook for her. I’d love for Ina Garten to be there. Kacey Musgraves. Pete and Chasten Buttigieg. And number six, I would be intimidated and I would have to push myself, but I would love for Frank Stitt to be there as well.”
Kacey Musgraves. There’s that name again. What is it about the multi-Grammy and Country Music Association award-winning singer-songwriter known for progressive themes in her country songs?
“She is just who I see as the ideal southerner, the ideal southern artist,” Harrison explains. “She practices radical empathy. She’s moving forward but also knows and remembers where she came from. And that’s what I want to do.”
Harrison’s invocation of Musgraves’s name on national TV made it to her Instagram story, and her team is talking to Harrison’s people about possibly meeting.
“We’re still working on some stuff,” he says. “We’ll see about that.”
So maybe Harrison will get to cook for Musgraves after all.
“I think that would be very, very cool,” he says, pausing to relish the thought. “Yeah.”
(Updated 2/3/22: Harrison was eliminated in episode 7 of Next Level Chef, which aired February 2. Before elimination, he was one of the top 10 contestants.)