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James Nelson Talks MasterChef & Bravado Spice Co.
The final-five contestant shares his future culinary plans.

Molly Dunn

James Nelson's run on FOX's MasterChef is over, but this top 5 finalist's cooking career isn't. The chef and co-owner of Bravado Spice Co. in Houston spoke with Eating...Our Words about his experience on the show and his future culinary endeavors.

In the final episode Nelson competed on, he started off with a bang by winning the mystery box challenge, in which the judges' children filled a box with the most random ingredients for the contestants. You can only imagine what young boys would choose from the MasterChef pantry.

Nelson steered away from desserts the majority of the time in the MasterChef kitchen, but ironically, during this challenge, he made a dessert and was selected the winner. Unfortunately, another dessert was his demise in the pressure test challenge, where his panna cotta, despite being full of flavor, according to the judges, did not firm up like a true panna cotta.

Now that two Houstonians have made it to at least the final five in the past two seasons of MasterChef — Christine Ha won season 3 — America can see just how talented cooks from Houston are.

Originally, Nelson didn't want to audition for MasterChef; he says reality television shows really weren't his thing.

"I never saw myself as a reality TV star, but the lure of MasterChef was different — the premise is about cooking," Nelson says. "I look back on it, and it's one of those experiences you couldn't pay for. I am really glad I did it. I grew so much as a chef and as a person. It prioritized the reality of food."

Nelson says that competing on the series has given him the courage to take more chances in the kitchen, as seen in his risky move to make a dessert in his last mystery box challenge.

"The most beneficial thing is having faith in yourself and having the courage to take huge risks," Nelson says. "I gave so much. It opens your eyes — 'Why don't I try this, or do this?' Be willing to give anything a shot."

While Nelson loved all the challenges, the toughest one was the restaurant takeover, in which teams of three had to create 30 perfect dishes requiring highly evolved skills at using a wok and various ingredients. Oh, and Gordon Ramsay was the expeditor. Yikes!

"That was grueling. I barely had a team — pretty much had to do that by myself — compared to all of the challenges before," Nelson says. "But being able to pull that off, I have learned so much."

Anyone who watched Nelson compete knows that he kept his focus on the challenges so he could make the best dish every time, while some other contestants spent more time antagonizing and arguing with one another.

"It wasn't pleasant having negative energy; [with] something that is so demanding, you don't want negativity," Nelson says. "I disregard that stuff, [so] for me I didn't really give a shit."

Nelson continues to keep in touch with several of the contestants, including Bri, Johnny and Luca, who Nelson predicted would be the winner of MasterChef Season 4 as he walked out of the kitchen.

"Out of all the contestants on the show, Luca was the guy who learned the most. He never acted like he knew everything," Nelson says. "Luca has the most drastic swing in getting better — he absorbed everything."

It's no secret that Nelson looks up to last season's winner, native Houstonian Ha, so the challenge during her guest appearance on the show was Nelson's favorite competition.

"I got to play to the regional strengths," Nelson says. "What's so badass about the part of the world we live in."

And Nelson gets to continue to play to the culinary strengths of the great city of Houston at Bravado Spice, where he has shifted his focus now that he is not competing on MasterChef anymore. Aren't we so lucky?

"It's all about Bravado Spice," he says. "We are going to do these pop-ups; me and the guys get to make awesome food. That is just so much fun."

Nelson says the Web site for Bravado Spice relaunches on September 14 and the company will be able to ship products internationally.

"We have moved forward 100 percent with Bravado Spice," Nelson says. "From the moment I got home, it has been every day, 'How can I take this local company and expand it?'"

Right now, Nelson says, he and the guys at Bravado Spice are taking a bit of a breather for the month of September, but will have their next pop-up dinner in October; it will also be the last one at Royal Oak. He says the menu is about 75 percent complete and will be the most decadent one thus far.

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Kaitlin Steinberg