Lee Elisar thinks it would be “crazy” if he repeats his win last year at the 49th annual Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales next weekend. At 23, he was the youngest jambalaya cook champion in the nearly half-century-old competition.
“I grew up around cooking,” Elisar said of his upbringing. Both his father and his uncle have competed in the jambalaya cooking contest. His uncle, Jody Elisar, was the winner in 2008. Lee Elisar won last year in only his second year as a cook, though he competed as a helper three years before that.
“I was absolutely surprised,” Lee Elisar said of his unexpected victory year. “It just doesn’t happen that soon. My uncle cooked for 20 years before he won.”
Beginning Friday along Irma Boulevard, 106 cooking teams will be winnowed down to a final 12 teams for Sunday’s cooking championship round. According to Jambalaya Festival Association President Wally Taillon, most of the teams come from around Gonzales and Ascension Parish.
“They are mostly from here, local,” said Taillon, who has headed the annual event for 16 years.
Each team of two contestants — a cook and a helper — pays an entry fee of $300. The fee includes chicken, rice, seasonings and oak wood for fuel. The teams must furnish cast iron pots, pot stands and accouterments such as knives and stirring paddles.
Eight heats fire up Friday and end Saturday with the selection of 32 teams to compete in the semifinal round Sunday morning. Sixteen teams will begin cooking with the remaining 16 teams beginning an hour later. The dozen finalists begin cooking later in the day.
“Finalists will cook a total of three times during the weekend,” Taillon said.
The jambalayas are tasted by five judges. Layne Gautreau, a five-year jambalaya judging veteran, said there are about a dozen different criteria he and the other judges look for.
“The most important ones are how well the rice is cooked, the color and the taste,” Gautreau said. The rice should be firm, not “hard and crunchy” or too wet. The color should be a light, light brown or dark tan. The taste should be “an overall pleasing” flavor of chicken, evidently one of the most difficult elements to achieve.
“Chicken jambalaya is the hardest one to cook,” said Gautreau, explaining that it is much more difficult than jambalayas made with pork, sausage or other ingredients.
He added that the final round is the most difficult to judge
“At that level, the jambalayas all look like they came out of the same pot,” Gautreau said.
The champion jambalaya cook receives $2,000 from the Jambalaya Festival Association, a ring donated by Layne’s Jewelry and a 13-gallon pot from Pearce Foundry.
Besides the big contest, there will be mini-pot competitions Saturday morning; divisions are men, women and children. The competitors cook small pots of jambalaya that also will be judged.
Saturday evening features the Champ of Champions jambalaya cooking contest, when past champions make their signature jambalayas. Lee Elisar plans to cook for this event, too.
Jambalaya cooked by the association will be available for purchase throughout the weekend as well as festival foods sold by various vendors. Also on-site will be crafts and souvenirs for sale.
Carnival rides get started Thursday and last through the weekend. Music, always a staple for the festival, will be performed on two stages and inside the Gonzales Civic Center. Taillon said headlining acts include Na Na Sha and The Chee-Weez on Friday, Sammy Kershaw on Saturday and LeRoux on Sunday.
The 5K race and 1-mile fun run start at 7 a.m. Saturday; a car show begins at 10 a.m. Sunday.
Taillon said the festival is free and open to the public; tens of thousands of people usually attend. He added that parking is “where you can find it” surrounding the festival site.
Editor’s Note: This story was changed on May 26 to correct the date of the Champ of Champions contest.