Victoria native earns spot on 'MasterChef'

Jessica  Rodrigo By Jessica Rodrigo

May 28, 2013 at 12:28 a.m.
Updated May 29, 2013 at 12:29 a.m.

Chef Gordon Ramsay, left, and James Nelson on the set of "MasterChef." Nelson is a Victoria native and is competing on the cooking show for $250,000.

Chef Gordon Ramsay, left, and James Nelson on the set of "MasterChef." Nelson is a Victoria native and is competing on the cooking show for $250,000.

James Nelson could be the next MasterChef.

Or at least his friends think so.

Last week, the reality cooking show aired on Fox to kick off its fourth season.

Nelson, a Victoria native who now lives in Houston, had a chance to cook one dish that could change his life.

He served up a dish unique to his style of fusion cuisine - pork belly with a lentil and portobello mushroom hash - to the "MasterChef" judges, Gordon Ramsay, Gordon Elliot and Joe Bastianich.

One by one, members of the trio sampled his plate while he stood there awaiting judgment.

"It was such a profound moment. I was sitting there in the audition room with Gordon Ramsay, Joe and Graham with my dish thinking, 'How did I end up here? ... If I pull this off, everything for me changes forever,'" he said. "It was a horrifying experience. I was terribly nervous."

Amazed by his predicament, Nelson was met with a skeptical Ramsay, who was unsure about giving the 27-year-old home cook an apron, which would move him another step closer to becoming the next MasterChef.

Not liking to be doubted, he told the judges he was serious about food and he was passionate and motivated to compete for the title.

After pleading for his spot as a finalist, the judges handed him an apron, giving him a chance to compete with just a handful of other home cooks for the prize of $250,000, a cookbook deal and coveted trophy and apron.

"I didn't have any doubt in my heart going in that I was going to get the apron," he said. "It was such a champion moment for me. I felt like I conquered a huge hurdle."

Nelson, a big fan of "MasterChef" since the first season, was watching the end of season three when he made a joke to his fiance, Jessica First, about how funny it would be if he auditioned for the show.

Not taking the comment as a joke, she encouraged him to audition, saying that he should give it a try.

"She told me, 'What's the worst that could happen?' So I applied and got a call in a few weeks," he said.

"MasterChef" put him through a series of interviews and auditions spanning over a few months until the day he got the call that he was in the top 100 finalists.

He boarded a plane and flew to Los Angeles for the audition that would soon put his wedding date on hold.

"She was super fine with it and super supportive, and she knows that this is my dream and that this is what I want to do," Nelson said about First. "She is the most supportive person out of everyone."

In Victoria, his longtime friend, Janell Langley, knew about the premiere and started spreading the word on her Facebook page about Nelson's televised audition. Since it's not often that a Victorian makes it onto national television, she joked that it should be mandatory for everyone to show support and watch the show.

Langley and Nelson became friends in ninth grade and together graduated from Memorial High School in 2004. When she heard he was going to audition for "MasterChef" earlier this year, she said she wasn't surprised.

"I always knew he was going to do something," she said. "He just has that kind of personality to where if you get him going, he won't stop. He doesn't have any limitations to what he can do."

Darick Canion, another friend from high school, said he heard the news about Nelson's "MasterChef" audition a few months ago through Facebook. Canion followed Nelson as he posted photos of the food he was cooking and said Nelson was asking for some feedback on his page about an opportunity to audition for "MasterChef."

"Then there was a quiet period for a while and then he mentioned it ("MasterChef") again," he said.

Since the show was filmed in its entirety earlier this year, Nelson is bound by a contract with Fox and can't divulge any details about the competition.

But while the rest of the world sits on the edges of their seats till the next episode airs, Langley and Canion will be huddled around their televisions to see what happens next.

Langley said because she is at work until 8 p.m., she can't watch the show when it airs at 7 p.m., but she set her DVR to record it.

Canion said he watched the show with his mom and a group of friends all eager to show Nelson support.

"A lot of my friends already said it was their favorite show, and now they had another reason to watch it," Canion said.

Having someone from Victoria on the show is quite an incredible feat, he said.

"We're so proud of him," Langley added. "He's following his dream, and he's making it happen."

Each episode of season four will reveal a little bit more about Nelson's culinary journey through the ranks of home cooks hailing from all over the country.

"Things kinda turn up in terms of competition and heat, and things get a little aggressive," he said. "It's definitely worth watching every week, not just for me, but for everyone involved. It's an amazing group of people."

Now that the show has been filmed and his competition is over, he can get back to planning his wedding, which had been pushed back from April to July because of the show. But his lips are sealed about how far in the competition he goes and who wins in the end.

"I don't really care about the money or the trophy," he said. "What I care about is the title - the validation of being one of the best. And for me, that is what I am fighting for on the show. It's about being known as the best."



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