The fact that no rain fell, despite the weekend’s wet forecast, is likely what helped make the Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales a resounding success. Tens of thousands of fans of jambalaya, music, dance and carnival rides converged on the festival site along Irma Boulevard for the three-day event.
But when it was all said and done, no one could have been happier than the 2016 World Champion jambalaya cook, Robert “Hoss” Reine, and his helper and son, 19-year-old Brett “Hossfly” Reine. The elder Reine received the golden jambalaya stirring paddle from last year’s champ, Lee Elisar, during the festival’s closing ceremonies Sunday evening.
But it was not the Reine team’s first time holding the coveted paddle; they were the winners of the 2014 contest, too. And in an odd twist, Lee Elisar and his helper and brother, Kirk Elisar, received the paddle from Reine at the end of the 2015 contest.
“This is awesome,” said the elder Reine. “All these cooks are good friends of mine.”
Reine and his son survived three rounds of cooking to claim the top prize.
Reine said he knew his jambalaya was golden — literally and figuratively — the moment he saw the finished product.
“When I took the lid off my pot, I saw exactly what I wanted to see,” said Reine.
Among the 12 finalists who cooked Sunday afternoon were three former champs: Reine, Elisar and Scott Duplechein.
Duplechein and his wife, Kellie, worked diligently through the afternoon trying to repeat their 2013 win. “This is our eighth year cooking together,” Kellie said.
“It’s definitely a good team,” said Scott, who won the Champ of Champs pork-and-sausage jambalaya cooking contest Saturday night. That competition pits former champions against each other and is considered a very important event during the festival weekend.
In spite of being top-flight jambalaya cooks, though, the Duplecheins admit to shying away from the rice-and-chicken dish when they are not actually competing or cooking for an event. “We don’t eat much of it,” Kellie said.
“We cooked a good one,” said Lee Elisar about halfway through the 3½-hour final round. “All 12 are going to be good. It’s going to be tough.”
In an adjacent stall, rookie Brandon Henry and his helper, Robert Husk, both of Central, were stirring and hoping. “This is the first time I cooked at any festival,” Henry said. “I was a helper last year for the winner of the Swamp Pop Festival.” That is another festival, held in July at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, that also features a jambalaya cooking contest.
“This is my seventh time cooking,” Husk said.
“We just got a lotta luck,” Henry said of their meteoric rise to the finals.
Henry’s best friend, Chad Douglas, sat just outside the barricade watching the cooking process with Henry’s father, Wayne Henry. Practically in unison, the men said, “He’s doing great.”
The elder Henry added that he supports his son’s pursuit of cooking and called it a “good hobby.”
There was another, virtually unknown factor in the cooking conditions met by the 104 teams that started out in the contest: wood. Cooks and Jambalaya Festival Association officials alike lauded the quality of the oak logs procured to fuel the fires beneath the huge cast-iron pots.
“Last year, the wood had sap in it,” said Mike Gonzales, JFA treasurer and contest cooking chairman. “You couldn’t get it to light.”
“This is the best wood ever,” Scott Duplechein said.
Each team of finalists was monitored by a field judge wearing a neon green T-shirt. One of those judges, Joey Cornett, explained the judges’ role as mainly “making sure the cooks have what they need.”
Cornett, the 2010 champion cook himself, said the judges must also ensure cooks follow the rules. Those rules call for the cooking of a mandated amount of chicken and rice during each level of the competition and flavoring ingredients — salt, pepper, cayenne, celery, onion, etc. — in any amounts the cook wants. All of the ingredients are provided by JFA; cooks are prohibited from bringing their own ingredients — even water — to cook with.
Overseeing the entire festival was 16-year veteran Wally Taillon. The festival president made his rounds through the fest grounds in a golf cart. He said he and other JFA officers estimated 65,000 to 70,000 people visited the festival from Friday through Sunday.
As large as that number seems, Taillon said it is far less than in the early days of the festival, which celebrates its 50th year in 2017.
“When it was out on the streets, in the 1970s, it was rowdy as hell,” Taillon said of the early festivals, held downtown during the waning days of the Vietnam War. They were attended by more than 100,000 people and fistfights were a common element during those days, he said.
Today, a large police presence and plenty for the crowds to do — three music venues and a midway carnival among them — make the Jambalaya Festival one of the most popular events in Southeast Louisiana, especially if you are a champion jambalaya cook.
“It’s incredible to be a winner twice,” Brett Reine said. “Now all we have to do is win Champ of Champs, and we’ll be golden.”