The annual Champ of Champs contest at the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival pits jambalaya champions from previous years against each other in a three-hour competition to see who can serve up the most delectable jambalaya.
Bragging rights are on the line for a title that’s hard to capture.
Jambalaya Festival Association President Wally Taillon said the overall jambalaya-cooking World Champion title, which qualifies a cook to compete in Champ of Champs, is no joke to win because, “I won and it took me 13 years, some of friends of mine took 21 years, the guy who won this past year took 14 years to win. It’s not a feat most people can accomplish in one year.”
This year’s Champ of Champs winner, Joey Cornett from St. Amant, who also served on the Jambalaya Festival Association board and won his World Championship title in 2010, explained his secret for making the best jambalaya.
“You just have to try to be consistent. You gotta get good color and you gotta cook really good rice, you gotta have big fluffy rice. We call it split rice, and it kind of looks like a mini hot dog bun whenever it’s done right. It also has to be good and even flavored, nothing that stands out in the way of pepper or salt; you want a good consistency.
“We get three hours and it will take every bit of that,” Cornett said. It can take a half-hour solid just to cook the rice.
Aside from his love for cooking, Cornett enjoys the camaraderie the festival offers.
“I like coming out and hanging out with all the guys. It’s really a family event, and we’ve been doing it so long, you get to be friends with a lot of these guys.”
Since most of the contestants in the Champ of Champs contest have been vying for cooking titles for years, they know each other like family.
“Everybody is on the same playing field,” he said. “You gotta use what they give you. Everybody gets the same amount of ingredients, and as far as dry seasonings, the only thing we can put in it is salt, granulated pepper, red pepper and black pepper.”
All Champ of Champs contestants are given 15 pounds of rice, 30 pounds of pork and sausage, garlic, black pepper, red pepper, salt, and they also have the option to use bell pepper, celery, hot sauce or garlic in their dish.
The Champ of Champs contest holds a special place in the heart of James Marchand of Gonzales.
As an overall winner in 2003, Marchand said his mom and dad were very involved in the Jambalaya Association.
“Both of them passed away in December of 2002, and it’s like I said on the stage when I won, they put the love in the pot that I couldn’t and they helped me win.”
Marchand has yet to win a Champ of Champs contest, and explains his cooking process is a bit unconventional.
“I don’t measure any of my ingredients. I cook to taste,” Marchand said. “It’s a little different, most people measure everything to the gram, and I don’t. My mom taught me how to cook jambalaya. That’s the way she did it, that’s the way I do it.”
Taillon said dishes in the contest are judged on four categories: appearance, texture of the rice, meat flavor in the rice and overall flavor.
In terms of appearance, he said, cooks don’t want broken pieces of meat in the rice “and you don’t want it to look too greasy. The rice has to be a certain color.”
Taillon went on to explain contestants can be booted out on very small contingencies.
“It depends on the judge and what they like, one might have a taste for the bell pepper, while another might not like mine because I used the bell pepper. You can have judges pick one winner, bring in five more judges and you’ll have a different winner. You just gotta hope for the best. One point plus or minus can take you out of that winners bracket.”
Crowning the king
The overall World Champion jambalaya cooking title was won by Lee Elisar, 23, of St. Amant. Elisar and his brother, Kirk, lifted the golden paddle in victory Sunday after the final round cooking in the three-day contest that saw more than 100 contestants vie for the title.
Lee Elisar, the youngest man to win the title, has a long jambalaya cooking pedigree. His father, Todd Elisar, is a longtime cook-off judge and his uncle, Jody Elisar, was the champion in 2008.
Todd Elisar did not judge this year, however.