How Chef James Major “Chopped” His Way to Celebrity Status

In our new world of celebrity chef-dom and 24-hour networks with shows dedicated to cooking, baking and eating, epicurean stars come and go as quickly as Halley’s Comet. Chef James Major, the new executive chef for Funky’s Catering Events, is the latest bright light in the city’s cooking constellation, thanks in large part to one of those afore-mentioned cooking shows.

But before he was on the New York set of Food Network’s “Chopped,” Chef Major was a kid from the east side of Cleveland, learning to cook by watching his grandmothers.

“I come from two families that were Croatian and Italian, and were surrounded by food. My mom and dad both worked so I was raised by my grandmas, and I stood on a stool and cooked with them.”

Restaurant jobs followed, from washing dishes to breading KFC, through high school and into community college.

“I went to school for law enforcement, I was going to be a police officer. And for anybody that knows me, that’s the farthest thing from me I could ever be. I was in a rut and Food Network was new. I was watching that and I thought maybe I should go to school and be a chef. So I joined the Navy.

“I signed up and they told me I could pick any job I wanted. Well, I wanted to be a cook. They said, ‘Son, you can pick any job you want in the Navy, any job, nuclear sub, anything.’ And I said, no, I want to be a cook, I want to cook in the Navy.”

That decision sent him around the world for four years, cooking on board ships and throughout Europe for presidents and heads of state. Once his tour of duty wrapped up he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated top of his class (Top Chef?), worked in NYC for a time, then came home to Cleveland.

“I was trying to find my first job back home and I was getting married two months later, so I got a job with a wonderful chef who was in the process of building a restaurant called The Harp, an upscale Irish pub.

“Catering didn’t really hit until I left there after six months and went to Johnny’s downtown where I spent five years. We had a party room so I started catering, doing parties for 25 up to 100. That was my foundation until I got an offer to run a jazz club in the university/art district. I came on as chef, and then they sold it to me so all of a sudden, I became a restaurant owner of a jazz club.

“It was the best, worst job ever. It was a lot more pressure and I was a little too young at the time, but I can say I did it and I got it out of my system. That’s where I started learning and getting the bumps and bruises of catering. Then I sold it to the hospital next door to put up a new cancer center. I like to say it was the business that paid off culinary school because I paid off all my student loans with the sale.”

Next up was Delaware North, the parent company for hospitality services at hundreds of venues around the world, including the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds ball parks. He quickly became executive chef there, introducing several culinary initiatives like Dinner on the Diamond and the Go! Foods healthy menu selections for the Indians.

Through Delaware North’s partnership with teams across the country, he directed the 2009 St. Louis MLB All-Star Gala and All-Star Pre-Game Party as well as events for the 2010 World Series at Texas Rangers ball park and the February 2014 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium. That experience paid off when Chef Major transferred over to Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, where he organized MLB All-Star Game food festivities here in 2015 for thousands of people a night.

Sounds like a daunting task, right?

Well, for someone who is used to serving hundreds if not thousands at a time, Chef Major is methodical in his explanation on how it all happens. “It’s being organized. It’s planning, checking and double checking because there are so many check systems to go through before the party leaves the door.

“Every All-Star Game I’ve done, every Super Bowl, every World Series big event, every gala, I pull together the 50-100 chefs that work with me and I read the St. Crispin Day speech. ‘For he today that sheds his blood with me, we shall be brothers and sisters forever.’” (The entire speech is William Shakespeare’s version of ‘win one for the Gipper’ for the English army getting ready to face the French.

Want to see Kenneth Branagh’s take on the speech from Henry V? Check it out here.

Little did Chef Major know that his move to Cincinnati would open the doors to the Food Network’s popular cooking competition show, “Chopped.” “I got a phone call one day when I was with the Reds saying the Food Network wants your resume. I said, I’m not interested, I’m good.”

“And then I got a call from the president of Delaware North saying, ‘I guess you don’t understand. Send your resume to Food Network.’ I did, and they interviewed all the baseball park chefs. They narrowed it down to half, then we each did a Skype interview.

“At this point, I thought if they’re going to make me do this, let’s do it up big. So I went into what used to be the Riverfront Club, the IT guy helped me set up the computer so when they turned on the Skype they saw the GABP scoreboard and boathouse in the background. I think at that point, that’s when I got selected.”

Chef Major was one of four baseball stadium chefs picked for the “Chopped” competition. And if you’re wondering, yes, they shoot the entire episode in one day on a New York sound stage. “We start about 5 or 6 in the morning, so if you’re calling your wife at 9:30-10 o’clock at night, that’s a good thing-you either came in second or you won.”

And he won, finishing the day with popcorn ice cream for dessert.

“It was a great feeling and I felt a lot of pride for the city.”

The Reds were pretty proud of his win as well.

“I got a call from the owner of the baseball team. Now I talk to him all the time, but when you get the call saying, ‘please hold for Bob Castellini,’ you think, did I forget a lunch? Did I mess something up? I answered the phone and said, ‘Mr. C, how are you, sir?’ And he said, ‘You really did it son, way to make us proud.’ That’s probably one of the best phone calls I ever received.”

The win led to a second appearance on “Chopped,” called “Chopped Impossible,” where he returned as a fan favorite. He won his qualifier, making him a two-time Chopped champion, before falling in the finals. Still, it’s pretty impressive adding Chopped Champion to his resume.

“Now, I’m recognized but better yet, now I’m locally recognized. I was a late bloomer in Cleveland and to be adopted by the city of Cincinnati, the city has made me their own and it’s great to be part of it.”

In his new role at Funky’s Catering Events, Chef Major not only oversees the catering for private events at venues such as The Transept and Pinecroft Mansion, he also serves the catering needs of Riverbend Music Center. (Yes, he has all kinds of backstage stories that rival Van Halen’s brown M&Ms, but he is discreet enough not to put a name to a quirky request).

Requests, though, are what he and his team try to fulfill every day from brides-to-be, event organizers and fundraising planners who have seen the latest food trend on Pinterest and want it replicated. Organic chicken? No problem. Flaming donut station? Of course—with Graeter’s ice cream, even.

“It’s when guests come to us and say this is what we’re looking for, then it’s time for us to start doing the research. As we look for menus we’re seeing what people are eating, what the trends are out there.”

Keeping up with food trends is one key to success: Another key, Chef Major says, are the men and women he works with, who he considers his family.

“In the culinary business, we don’t accept failure and we don’t like it so we strive to be great all the time. It’s a positive attitude. I say good morning to everybody, and it’s very important to me that I walk around and say ‘how are you today?’ And at the end of the day, I try to say thank you to everybody.

“In this business you’re in a hot kitchen, you’re constantly under pressure, there’s noise all day long. The best kitchen is a quiet one at the end of the day. You try to make it as wonderful of an experience while they’re here, and know that they are appreciated and that they know that I genuinely appreciate them.”

To learn more about the hospitality options by Chef Major and Funky’s Catering Events, visit www.funkyscatering.com.

Alex ReillyPROFILES