'Chopped' winner James Major '90 speaks to VASJ's culinary arts students

“Have you made the Joe’s sign yet? Because I have!” That is the question James Major ’90 couldn’t wait to ask his classmates after his recent visit to VASJ. Major, executive chef for the Cincinnati Reds and recent winner of the Food Network’s reality TV show “Chopped,” has had the honor of seeing his name in many lights and on many signs and scoreboards. But pulling up to Lakeshore Boulevard and East 185th Street and seeing his name on the sign at VASJ tops them all. “That’s the coolest thing,” Major said.

James Major '90 returned to VASJ after winning on the Food Network's
show "Chopped" to speak to the students in the culinary arts class.

Major described his visit to VASJ as magical. “You spend four years trying to get out of here and a lifetime trying to get back,” Major said. “It’s been fantastic to see the place. It looks great and smells a lot better – the ladies have brought a nice scent with them,” Major joked about the school being all-boys when he graduated in 1990.

Before going to the Cincinnati Reds, Major served as the executive chef for the Cleveland Indians for six years. He also catered last year's Super Bowl in New York. Major has been at the top of his cooking game long before taking top “Chopped” honors.

Despite his talent and success in the kitchen, Major didn’t know right away that his calling was cooking. In fact, he was just 10-15 hours short of a law enforcement degree when the Food Network came out. While watching the professional chefs on the channel, a little spark went off. “The TV chefs got me on track,” Major says.

It made sense. He had been working in restaurants since the age of 14 and cooking with his family even earlier than that. “The only place I’ve ever worked is in kitchens,” Major says. “It’s all I’ve ever known and I love it.”

He looked into culinary arts programs and quickly realized it was something he couldn’t afford. So he joined the Navy as a means to attend culinary school. “The Navy really molded me as a chef,” Major says. “When you’re cooking for people in the middle of the ocean, you don’t want to screw it up.”

He learned a lot of other important lessons in the Navy which he shared with the students in VASJ’s culinary arts class. The most important thing he learned in the Navy is the importance of never giving up. “I quit my first run and I vowed I would never quit again,” Major says. “No matter how painful it is, cross the finish line.”

Major came to VASJ to share his experiences competing and winning on the show “Chopped,” and to give a cooking demonstration of his winning entrée, the Roman Coliseum Sausage Sandwich. But he ended up teaching the students at VASJ much more than how to blend the perfect Pesto or cook the tastiest sausage.

“You’re going to hear people say, ‘You won’t. You can’t. You’ll never,’” Major says. “Never ever let them stop you from your dreams.”

James Major '90 with students in one of VASJ's culinary arts courses. 

Major is the second VASJ alum to be named "Chopped" Champion. Sean Scotese '98 was the show's winner in October 2012. Read more about the 2012 episode of "Chopped" here.