Usually, the hardest part of cooking the perfect pot of jambalaya is getting the rice right — not undercooked, but also not too greasy or too wet. On Sunday, as competitors at Gonzales’ Jambalaya Festival were cooking huge batches of the Cajun rice dish over wood fires, they faced another challenge: rain.
“The wood has been terrible this weekend” because of the moisture, said Scott Duplechein, of St. Amant, who was competing for his seventh time. “It’s really hard to burn. Everyone’s been struggling all weekend.”
It was the biggest challenge 23-year-old Lee Elisar, also of St. Amant, said he’d ever faced while cooking jambalaya. But Elisar got lucky — at the end of the day, he was handed the Golden Paddle and named the youngest Jambalaya Champion of the World in the festival’s 48-year history.
Or maybe it had something to do with genetics and a lifetime of attending the festival. His brother, Kirk, was his co-cook. Their father, Todd Elisar, is a longtime cookoff judge, though he wasn’t a judge this year, and uncle Jody Elisar was the champion in 2008.
“I’ve been doing this since I was little bitty,” Lee Elisar said. “My dad’s a big cook. Him and his brother are. Now it’s been passed down to me and my brother.”
Jambalaya Champion of the World is a title people in this Ascension Parish town have dreamed of holding since 1968 when the festival started.
“We were having jambalaya at all these events and still do,” said Wally Taillon, president of the Jambalaya Festival Association.
The dish is a fixture at Gonzales-area funerals, weddings, political rallies and other functions.
“We said, ‘Let’s have a jambalaya festival,’ ” Taillon said.
The event has since grown to include a carnival, music and dancing, a 5K run and other activities that are spread over four days, drawing about 65,000 people. The highlight, though, remains the cookoff that whittles more than 100 contestants down to 12 semi-finalists and finally down to one champion.
This year was only Elisar’s second year to enter the contest — but Taillon, the 1993 champion, said it took him 13 years before he won.
“Your life is around that jambalaya and you look forward to it every year,” he said.
Most competitors know from experience that anything from bad weather to accidentally scorching onions or adding too much salt can lead their jambalaya on an unexpected turn for the worse.
Cooking jambalaya is a difficult science that is made harder by the final round held on Sunday when contestants have to use 60 pounds of chicken and 20 pounds of rice. They have three hours to come up with a final product, most of which is spent working over a hot fire with spicy smoke billowing out of the pot.
Judges consider both appearance and flavor. The rice is key — it has to be fluffy and pretty — but the overall balance of flavors is also important, Duplechein said. Nothing should overtake the flavor of the chicken.
Duplechein’s wife, Kellie, helped on Sunday to stir the pot and get the vegetables ready to add while he manned the fire. They’ve worked as a team at the festival before, and as former high school athletes, they enjoy the competition at the festival, Kellie Duplechein said.
“It’s intense at first, but then you’ve got a little laid back time when your rice is steaming,” she said. During that break, some contestants chat with one another.
Scott Duplechein, the 2013 champion, said he learned a lot just by entering competitions and asking questions.
Organizers provide the wood and ingredients — rice, chicken, yellow and green onions, celery, garlic, bell peppers, hot sauce, black and red pepper, salt and oil. All contestants have to bring is their pot, stand and paddle.
Though everyone uses the same ingredients, “It’s hardly any two gonna be the same,” Taillon said.
“There’s always something a little different and you can do the same exact thing, but it doesn’t come out,” said Amy Melancon, who was helping her husband, Heath, cook.
Most cooks work with a helper — wives, brothers and friends in many cases.
“I tell [Heath] it’s the only time I follow his orders,” Melancon said with a laugh. “I get all our seasonings. I get all the onion cut, just whatever he needs — ‘I need more water’ or ‘I need more wood’ — just to kind of help so he doesn’t have to stop. Because it’s such a hot fire, you can’t let it sit. You don’t want it to burn.”
Melancon grew up coming to this festival, but it’s “cool to see it from the other end,” she said.
Even though Elisar, another lifetime attendee, has joined the competitive part of the festival, the meaning of the event hasn’t changed much. It’s about good food, having fun and enjoying others’ company.
“All these guys are great competition,” he said. “It’s really fun — a great atmosphere.”