Victorian cooks up strategy on MasterChef (video)
Get into it
• "MasterChef" Season 4 airs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox Network.
A plate of fried bananas almost ended James Nelson's career on "MasterChef" the first time. The second time, it was a bowl of mushroom soup.
Fortunately for Nelson, there were two home cooks with dishes worse than his.
"No matter how good you are, you can only be judged by your last dish," Nelson said.
All that stands in his way to $250,000, a cookbook with his name on it and the title as MasterChef are five contestants who also have their eyes on the prize.
"It was great to go through that experience because it really forged my skill set now," he said about the show. "I'm really grateful I went through it."
Although the show was completely filmed earlier this year, he said the unpredictable mystery box and team challenges helped him develop into the cook that he is now by having to work with different people and thinking on his toes to create impressive dishes for the judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot.
Just a few months after the show and about 10 weeks into the season, Nelson went right back to cooking with his new business, Brave Kitchen Project.
The business, which he started in April, offers cooking classes, catering and pop-up dinners in various Houston restaurants.
"After getting back and having that hunger to cook, it kinda spiraled from there. We just kept the momentum going," he said.
He hosted his third pop-up dinner July 23 at the Royal Oak Bar and Grill in Houston. The appetizer and entree menu offered guests a peek into his culinary repertoire.
"You take bar food and pub grub and kinda escalate it into stuff that you never, ever get," Nelson said. "You get crab mac and cheese pizza or tandori wings. That kind of stuff is a little outside the norm, and I wanted to have fun with it."
Sitting on the corner of the bar were a few of Nelson's friends who drove to Houston for a taste of his creations. Adam Mahan, of Victoria, and Christina Myer, of San Antonio, had been to Nelson's second pop-up dinner at Liberty Station and were hungry for more.
"As soon as we saw that he was hosting another dinner, we got the time off," said Myer, 27.
Myer is a teacher who is working in retail this summer, and Mahan, 27, a musician, saved the date for a trek to Houston and dinner cooked by a famous friend.
Mahan said the first dinner they attended had a smaller menu. They agreed that the appeal of coming out to the dinner was the combination of great food and being able to see Nelson's dreams come true.
"He's a great guy, and he makes great food. Plus, there's a larger menu this time," he said. "The barbacoa burger sounds amazing."
Developing his palate
As a teenager, Nelson had a close relationship with his parents, Dorothy and John Nelson, as the only child in their Telferner home. Each night, the three of them spent time together around a table eating a dinner his mother made from scratch.
"Eating out was a special thing," he said. "That was a very normal lifestyle for us."
Mahan, who became friends with Nelson during their sophomore year of high school, described him as a very humble and down-to-earth teenager.
Looking back at their younger years, Mahan didn't have an inkling Nelson would become a "MasterChef" contestant.
"In high school, if your friend asked you to try something they cooked, would you try it?" he joked.
Almost 10 years later, Mahan said Nelson is pretty much the same guy he hung out with in high school. They were the quiet kids in school who minded their own business, didn't worry about what other students thought of them and cared only about the music they were listening to.
After high school, Nelson moved to Houston and got a job with Apple. Living on his own forced him to start cooking for himself, and he learned more about food along the way. Starting with the basics, he would cook burgers, grill steaks and tinker with barbecue until his curiosity for food and flavor combinations grew. Soon, he was experimenting with the ethnic foods he found in Houston, including Indian, Korean and Mexican food.
"I wanted to try everything, and that made me want to cook everything," said Nelson.
But he still goes back to the those home-style meals his mom taught him to cook.
"There's no way around it, even if you don't wanna do it," he said. "There's always the comfort things that you go back to."
Aside from working at the Apple store, he's been busy preparing for the relaunch of his sauce company, Bravado Spice, and planning the August pop-up dinner for Brave Kitchen Project.
Every Wednesday, he's usually sitting with a group of friends drinking a brew, watching and joking about the show.
The "MasterChef" judges have narrowed the top 20 contestants down to six, and now, Nelson faces some tough competition.
Nelson experienced another close call when he was teamed with competitor Jordan Roots to tag team a plate of sushi. He almost came face to face with the judges in the bottom three, something he does not enjoy.
"There's a lot of fear that everything you've been working for is about to come crashing down," he said. "But it's also one of the most motivating things. If you survive it, you come back way more pumped and energized, ready to do more."
Mahan and Myer watch the show every Wednesday in San Antonio and were on the edge of their seats when the pair was being critiqued by the judges.
"I would've loved to see him do better," said Mahan of Nelson's sushi performance. "I think they mainly got hit on the shrimp, but everything looked fantastic."
While the home cooks worked together to prepare their plate for the judges, Mahan was impressed by Nelson's ability to take charge. Even when he saw the pair get scolded by Ramsay, who called them a pair of school girls for giggling about their butchered shrimp, he was still proud of his old friend for making it that far on the show.
"I don't know if he wins or how it ends, but regardless, I'm proud of him, and I think all of Victoria is proud of him, too," Mahan said.