Feb 3, 201012:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
Chef Gason Nelson works his culinary magic in Reggie Bush's kitchen.
Photo courtesy of Gason Nelson
You won’t often read about personal chefs in this space, principally because their services are limited to a select number of patrons. But when I had the opportunity this week to interview the man who cooks for Reggie Bush, I ran for it. (Sorry.) I thought it was a fitting topic, given the upcoming game.
Chef Gason Nelson is from New Orleans originally but spent a number of years following his father around the world on various military assignments. When he was 18, his family was living in New Orleans, and he was working at a Burger King. His father was ordered to Alaska, and he had no intention of following; his father, not surprisingly, had no intention of leaving him to his own devices in New Orleans at the age of 18. Nelson knew he needed direction, and he chose the Army.
He was at the recruiting station, listening to the various jobs he could pursue, and when he heard “cook,” he thought it couldn’t be too hard. After all, he thought, he’d already spent some time at Burger King. He was wrong about how difficult the job was going to prove to be, but he credits the Army for showing him that cooking could be about more than just sustenance: It was while in the Army, he says, that he first developed a real love of cooking.
Nelson was discharged just before Operation Desert Storm, and he enrolled in Delgado’s culinary program, where he received the James Beard scholarship during his second and third years in the program. While still enrolled at Delgado, Nelson was also working at local hotels and restaurants but was quickly becoming dissatisfied with the long hours of a professional chef.
When he heard that a man named Morris Newman was looking for a personal chef, he decided to apply, figuring that the hours would be better and he would have more freedom. He interviewed by cooking dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Newman and was hired. Working for the Newmans “really opened my eyes up,” Nelson says. “Mr. Newman really knew his food.”
Mr. Newman had hundreds of cookbooks in his library, which Nelson initially found intimidating.
“I was scared to death,” he says. “[Mr. Newman] knew that, and he was patient with me.”
Ultimately, his success with the Newmans was a boost to his confidence.
While cooking for the Newmans, Nelson continued to work for restaurants, and eventually wound up at Sun Ray Grill. There, he met chef Dana Deutsch, whom he describes as a significant influence.
“He didn’t hold me back in any kind of way, and I thank him for that,” says Nelson, who also credits Deutsch with giving him the freedom to explore other areas of cooking that interested him.
It was while working at Sun Ray, for example, that Nelson was asked to begin working as a pastry chef. Sun Ray had been buying a lot of desserts from outside sources, but Deutsch wanted to create an in-house pastry shop, and soon Nelson was responsible for desserts in all of Sun Ray’s locations.
“He didn’t have a lot of experience with it, but he was the James Beard award winner that year, and I thought it would be a challenge for him,” says Deutsch. “There were some folks who were part-time with Sun Ray who did have some pastry experience and were able to guide him a bit.”
Nelson agrees that it was a challenge –– “but I like challenges,” he says.
Deutsch is clearly interested in developing young chefs, and Sun Ray provides $250 per semester toward tuition to Delgado students during their time with the restaurants. That’s an idea that Nelson has followed: The Chef Gason Nelson Culinary Scholarship provides $500 annually for Delgado students.
As much as Nelson enjoyed the chance to broaden his skills at Sun Ray, his main job was with the Newmans until Mr. Newman died.
Soon after Mr. Newman’s death, Nelson learned that then-Hornets player Stacey Augmon was looking for a personal chef. He worked for Augmon for a year and then for former Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks. Brooks, he says, wanted something different. For the Newmans and Augmon, Nelson would cook and serve meals; Brooks preferred Nelson to prepare food to be eaten later.
Nelson was living in New Orleans East when Katrina struck, and like a lot of New Orleanians, he left town with only enough clothes for a three-day trip. Unfortunately, and also like a lot of New Orleanians, he lost everything in the storm. He had evacuated to Houston and began working in big restaurant kitchens. He hated it. The people in those kitchens, he says, were there because they needed a job, not because they shared his passion for cooking. He also wasn’t cooking his food.
While evacuated, he was on a treadmill at the gym when he was paged over the intercom. His first thought was that something terrible had happened, but when he took the call, he learned that someone who knew Reggie Bush wanted to speak with him. He wasn’t sure if he was being put on and waited two days to return the call. When he did, he discovered that Bush’s agent at the time wanted him to interview to be Bush’s personal chef.
He drove from Houston to New Orleans unsure of whether he was going to get the job. He remembers thinking that even if he wasn’t hired, he’d at least have a chance to come check on his flooded house.
Bush was checking out several other chefs, but Nelson was hired on the spot after preparing a tasting menu.
He has an obvious respect for Bush, who he says constantly works at improving himself. Bush watches tape while eating, he says, adding that Bush once told him, “You watch: If you keep doing what you’re supposed to do, it’s going to come together.”
Nelson feels that the best thing about Bush is that he’s approachable. “He never leaves me in the dark,” says Nelson, who has had different experiences in the past with clients who expected him to prepare a meal for 15 dinner guests on a moment’s notice.
Bush took him to Los Angeles not long after he started so that Nelson could eat at some of Bush’s favorite restaurants. There, he was exposed to Mexican food, which he says Bush loves. Currently Nelson cooks full-time for Bush during the football season, but during the off-season, he is available to prepare dinners for families or small dinner parties. He’s also capable of helping clients plan for larger parties, even if he’s not doing the cooking himself.
Nelson knows the value of good ingredients and has developed a number of contacts that allow him to get the best-quality products. He praises Inland Seafood, in particular, for its fish and notes that Jared Ralls of the Argentine steak restaurant La Boca has given him a source for Kobe beef and excellent lamb. When he dines out, his favorite restaurants include August, Drago’s, ACME Oyster House, La Boca and of course Sun Ray Grill.
Nelson clearly loves cooking: “I wake up sometimes, and I can’t believe I get paid for what I do.” He doesn’t completely discount the possibility that he’ll open his own restaurant someday but says it would have to be small; he doesn’t like large kitchens in which the chefs have no control over the food.
No matter how much he enjoys his job, everyone needs some down time, and one night Nelson is definitely going to take off is this Sunday. He had an offer to work during the Super Bowl, cooking for a dinner party, but he turned it down. He’s looking forward to watching the game and says that he knows Bush is ready. “He’s feeling good,” he says. “He wants the ball. It’s a dream for him, also, and he’s excited for what he can bring to the city.”
Nelson’s Web site, Full of Flavor, has contact information, including his phone number, (504) 450-4894, and you can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, you can follow him on Twitter: @chefgason.
To see Reggie Bush's kitchen in the May 2008 issue of New Orleans Homes and Lifesyles, click here.