From soldier to private chef: Gason Nelson feeds football stars
It's NFL game day at 7 a.m., and a peachy sun is rising over Miami. Inside Reggie Bush's oceanfront condo, a man does sprints and ab work, and tears up the elliptical. As sweat comes, so does the swagger.
"Working out keeps me crisp, and I bring that intensity to the kitchen," says Gason Nelson, who is private chef to the Dolphins' star running back.
Football players may have their own Sunday rituals, but Nelson treats his pregame zone with the same ferocity. "Sometimes I tell myself, 'Calm the hell down; it's just cooking,'" he says.
Hardly, when you've got a hungry pro athlete at the table. Bush is known for stray explosive plays that call for nimble speed, so on game day he eats light: scrambled cheesy eggs, turkey sausage and pulp-free orange juice.
"The consistency helps," Bush said in a written interview. "He knows my diet, and what I can and can't have."
For Nelson, the setup has its stresses. Eight months a year, he's a geographical bachelor shuttling between Miami and his family's home in New Orleans.
But he maintains affection for Bush, who seemed heaven-sent to Nelson (and the Saints), both reeling after the levee failures in 2005. "Reggie helped me get back; he helped rebuild my city," says Nelson, now hitched to Bush's star, to rushing yards and re-signed contracts.
While the chef has been exposed to the glamorous NFL lifestyle -- yachts, foodie trips to L.A., luxury kitchens -- he's also observed Bush's gritty daily routine.
So those mornings in the gym, Nelson pictures other chefs gunning for his job. With every pushup, he's growling: "I'm gonna scare you, dominate you, put fear in your heart."
In high school, Nelson was a wide receiver -- with a private passion for cooking that, at the time, embarrassed him. This was the late '80s, and Anthony Bourdain was an unknown (if sharply observant) chef. Cooking wasn't yet cool.
At 16, Nelson secretly baked cookies before school, "just to see if I could do it," he says. "I never told anyone."
He didn't see a career in it. His only choice after high school was following his soldier dad to a post in chilly Alaska. The rebellious teen defied his dad's orders by, well, enlisting in the U.S. Army himself.
If he'd been shy about his natural talent before, Nelson indulged it in the macho confines of the military, training as a cook at Ft. Jackson, S.C. He learned to feed 700 troops in tight conditions, often from kitchen trailers in the field.
Nelson thinks he would have someday cooked for generals, but he got out after five years. At the time, he was "following recipe cards", he says, unable to deviate from the standard-issue menu.
Post-Army, Nelson worked at a few joints in New Orleans, none noteworthy. He was drifting.
One night, as he was purging an overflowing freezer at home, a friend threw down a challenge: You've got stuff here, Gason. Make something of all this.
The friend got egg drop soup, fried crawfish salad, and alligator gumbo. "Get yourself to culinary school," she said, and he did.
Two James Beard scholarships would pay for his Delgado college tuition, which Nelson supplemented by making hot plates at the Winn-Dixie deli.
Finally sick of "living in restaurants," Nelson launched Full of Flavor in 2000, scoring his first private gig by chance (he was in the culinary school office when a client called).
He transitioned into pro sports after meeting New Orleans Hornet Stacey Augmon's friend at a celebrity fundraiser. Then Tisa Brooks hired him for an anniversary dinner.
"The food was spectacular, with impeccable service," Tisa's husband, Aaron Brooks, remembers. "Gason's professionalism was a key factor" in hiring him, and in "trusting him in our home."
Some players hire a private chef for status, but Brooks (then the Saints' starting quarterback) was picturing nights out in New Orleans, eating with his offensive linemen.
"I was a pocket passer with the ability to run, and I had to be slippery at times," says Brooks. "If I'd gained weight, my career would have taken a different turn. I would have been a sitting duck."
For a year, Nelson made weeknight, post-practice dinners for the Brookses. "That may have been my best year, mentally and physically," Brooks says. "He helped me prepare to be a quarterback."
In August 2005, of course, a hurricane was bearing down.
Two days before Katrina hit, Nelson drove his family to Houston. He remembers: "I'm glad we left. We would have been the ones on the roof."
The fall was swift, and brutal: food stamps, a cramped Houston apartment, FEMA paperwork, and the loss of Brooks, traded to the Raiders.
Nelson toiled at a generic restaurant, not even relishing the rivalry, because the other cooks didn't care. "It wasn't a satisfying win," he says.
The only thing he could control in early 2006 was his body, and he was on a treadmill when he got the call that the Saints had signed Bush, who was looking for a private chef.
There were five other chefs vying for the job, so Nelson had no expectations. "I came back to New Orleans to see if my house was still underwater," he shrugs. "And I wanted to thank Reggie for coming to my city."
For his audition meal, Nelson grilled filet mignon and whipped up garlic mashed potatoes, onion-smothered green beans, and Krispy Kreme-banana bread pudding. He was hired on the spot.
"We got along so well, and the food was so good, that I knew he was the right person," Bush wrote. "Our personalities gel."
Elated, Nelson left Bush's glittering downtown condo, driving over the Industrial Canal and deep into the suburbs of New Orleans East. Pre-flood, Nelson and his family (wife Courtney, daughters Taylor Yarbrough, 21, and Tyler Nelson, 10) lived here, in a brick ranch-style house.
On this day, tramping through the weeds: "I opened my front door, and I shut it," he says. "Everything from the back rooms had floated to the front. I didn't want anything in it. It was not my house."
In a chef's world, kitchen mats are the gridiron, the plate is a football, and the customer is the arbiter (high-strung Yelpers, of course, are this season's replacement refs).
The tempo's even more jacked on the set of Food Network's Chopped, where Nelson played defense against three others chefs in October 2012.
Round after round, "I played it safe," Nelson says. "My game plan was to hold back and let everyone else eliminate themselves."
Nelson "brought it" only in the final dessert round, composing Honeycombs-crusted French toast points with puréed cocktail franks, bourbon-glazed pears and a clever chocolate-soy sauce.
At least one judge conceded he'd won that round for the plate's "creative spark," but they denied him the ultimate win.
After that sting, Nelson studied his client's winning habits: Bush brings an iPad to dinner for reviewing other teams' plays, but the next morning he's gone at sunrise.
"Use the competition to your advantage, to make you better," Nelson learned.
He practices this on a New Orleans East tennis court, on a recent sweetly muggy Saturday. The other players include a retired professor, a pre-med student and a news cameraman -- ambitious African-Americans bound by this most elegant sport. Clearly, Nelson surrounds himself with achievers.
"Burn the rice, Chef!" His doubles partner calls out, a kind of culinary fist-pump.
Nelson is generous with the others, but when he slices a shot that's too short or lobs one out of bounds, he turns on himself -- "Come on, Chef! What was that!" -- and spins the racquet in his hand, looking for the perfect grip.
Like many New Orleans joints, specialty meat shop Rare Cuts operates from a classic old house. In the kitchen, Nelson eyes a video monitor trained on the parking lot. He has juicy rib-eyes bathing in a sous-vide cooker, to be finished on the grill; and lobster bisque, and pots of vanilla custard ready for sugar-toasting with the flick of a lighter.
Then the monitor blooms. Entering the shop are former Saints defensive back Mike McKenzie and his wife, Rachel; AFL's VooDoo defensive players Marlon Favorite and Derandus Frye; and Raion Hill, a former Bills safety and now a stunt man and actor.
The 150-square-foot kitchen -- a fraction of the space Nelson enjoys in Bush's condo -- snaps alive.
"Sometimes you get caught in the weeds, but you have to get it under control, for morale," says Nelson. He and sous chef Will Jones and Rare Cuts founder Henry Albert execute plates behind and between each other, with playbook smoothness.
"There's no question Gason's a gifted chef," says Mike McKenzie. (How many pounds of meat can this bunch put away in one sitting? Nine.)
The holdout, Favorite, is on a restricted diet. He gets a mango-rice pilaf loaded into roasted red peppers. "Chef Gason has a great reputation [among pro athletes]," Favorite says. "That carries a lot of weight."
Outside these elite circles, Nelson stays on the public's radar as the executive chef at Rare Cuts, catering private dinners in a side room. It's a kind of reservation-only pop-up.
Albert, the founder, will expand to a second location and add private catered lunches. Nelson sees a chance to build a real brand, with Rare Cuts cookbooks, bottled sauces and seasonings. Eventually, he'll coach others in executing the menus he's crafted.
"It gives me a platform to play, while I'm investing in something that will take care of my family," he says. Every time Rare Cuts hosts a dinner, Nelson gets a cut of the proceeds, whether he's there or not.
Popular local sentiment is that a certain commissioner is to blame for the Saints sitting out this Super Bowl ("Pro football's not supposed to be two-hand touch," grumbles Nelson) but he concedes the hoopla will "be amazing. We're alive and still here."
The end's come early for the Dolphins, too. In Miami, Nelson watches the final play of their game against the Patriots: in Bush's hands, but he's stopped 14 yards short of breaking 1,000 for the season.
Bush has invited Nelson to stay the week in his swanky beachfront condo, but the chef is restless. "I've watched the approach these athletes take," he says, "so I challenge myself. If I did 100 sit-ups today, I'll do 105 tomorrow."
Instead of sunning, then, he packs up his tennis rackets, cookbooks and chef's coat, which he'll wear to cater a dinner for DirecTV executives during Super Bowl week.
A season has ended, and he's coming home.
Anne Berry is a freelance writer in New Orleans specializing in spirits, food, travel and lifestyle stories. She got her start as a newspaper journalist, and has since been published in Random House's "Operation Homecoming" anthology, and written for OxfordAmerican.org, Zagat, Edible New Orleans, and Food Network's CityEats.com.