From Scratch

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Chef Gason Nelson cooks up a career in private dining.

GasoneditWeekends were all about food when Gason Yen Nelson was growing up in New Orleans. “My dad was off on the weekend, and it was a big deal when he cooked,” Nelson says. “Just watching him do it — he was really into it. I started picking it up from there.”
Nelson followed his father’s footsteps into the Army, where he became a cook. “It came easy to me, and I really enjoyed it,” he says of serving hundreds of meals every day. “Just knowing that four to five hundred souls were about to come in there … it was a challenge. It was like going into a football game.”

In fact, Nelson enjoyed going to work so much that he wondered if something was wrong with him. “Back then, being a cook wasn’t like now,” he says. “Now, chefs are rock stars.”

After leaving the Army, Nelson enrolled in culinary school at Delgado Community College with the help of a James Beard full scholarship, which he won again his second year of school. While studying, he worked at Winn-Dixie’s deli department — a partnership that would later grow fruitful.

He still didn’t see being a private chef as a career option. “I had heard of personal chefs,” Nelson says. “It wasn’t something that was in New Orleans at the time. They were in L.A., New York, Atlanta.”

But by a stroke of good fortune and a well-timed phone call, Nelson got his first private dining clients — Morris and Lila Lee Newman, a husband and wife from New Orleans who loved his cooking. “I was their personal chef for five years,” Nelson says. “I still cook for her today, going on two, three days a week. I have a lot of loyalty [to her] for getting my start.”

The Newmans’ glowing recommendations catapulted Nelson further; he became the personal chef to Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks in 2003, helping Brooks maintain his weight, speed and agility on the field.

What’s it like cooking for a football player? “You gotta keep the food fun and exciting,” Nelson says. “You have to experiment and be on your game … People laugh at me, but I feel like I have a duty.” Each day while in Brooks’ employ, the chef would expand his knowledge by reading books about nutrition and fitness — a practice he continues today.

Then came summer 2005 and Hurricane Katrina. Like many New Orleanians, Nelson was forced to leave home without knowing when he’d return. “Katrina definitely took everything away from me,” Nelson says. “When the levees broke, I lost my home, my job — I lost everything but my passion for cooking.” He and his family evacuated to Houston, where Nelson took odd kitchen jobs, “trying to stay afloat like everyone else.” In the meantime, Brooks was traded to the Oakland Raiders.

One day in Houston, Nelson received word that Reggie Bush’s agent was on the phone for him. Bush, the Saints’ new star running back, was auditioning five chefs for a personal chef position. Nelson was the first, arriving at Bush’s New Orleans home on a Monday night to cook for the athlete. “Before I walked out that night, he called his agent and said he didn’t want to see the four other chefs,” Nelson remembers.

He cooked for Bush for more than seven years, even following the player to Miami when he joined the Dolphins. When Bush moved to Detroit to play for the Lions, he recommended Nelson to fledgling Saint Jairus Byrd, who recently hired the chef to cook for him during the 2014 football season. “[Bush] understood that Detroit was a little too far,” Nelson says.

Along with cooking for Byrd this fall, and catering private dinners for clients throughout the South, Nelson plans to partner with Winn-Dixie again. He’ll be doing cooking demonstrations, giving tailgating advice and hosting other special events. “It’s so cool that I started [with] Winn-Dixie, and now I’m teaming back up with them,” he says.

Nelson rebuilt his flooded home; he is unflaggingly optimistic about what the future holds for him. “My day-to-day life is so exciting,” he says. “Every day, I have somewhere different to be and something different to do.” chefgason.com