By Saturday afternoon, the cooling overcast skies of the morning gave way to a typically warm late-spring Louisiana day. But the warmth of the sunshine couldn’t match the heat generated by the fires and the heated competition of the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival Champion of Champions cooking contest.
And a slip of the hand may have led to victory in the contest. What sometimes seems a defeating mistake can often turn into a winning error.
“We kinda did everything the same but, this time, we used more garlic than usual. And not on purpose,” said Kevin Braud, of Gonzales, after being named Champ of Champs. “I can’t believe we won this cooking today.”
“You could say that,” added Kevin’s helper, his brother Jason Braud, a St. Amant resident. “I had doubted it until we won it.”
According to the men, several elements of their jambalaya made them doubt the eventual victory. They thought maybe they had too much meat and too many onions, let alone the spilled garlic, for their entry. And after the cooking finished, they noticed there were black specks of apparently burned rice in the pot; black specks are reason for judges to substantially lower a contestant’s final score.
But the Braud brothers soldiered on, placing the weighted pot lid on for the traditional steaming after the burning logs were removed: “When we took it off,” said Kevin, “all the black specks were gone.”
And, so, apparently, were their worries – except for the garlic, onion and meat woes.
“The best ones are the ones you don’t expect to win,” said Kevin, who won World Champion in 1998 and Champ of Champs in 2007.
While the main title of the weekend was given out on Sunday when Robert “Hoss” Reine was named world champion, the Champ of Champs title brings prestige to those who have already lifted the golden paddle in victory.
The Champ of Champs contest began in 1994, 26 years after the first jambalaya championship cooking contest in 1968. It pits former champs against each other and differs in format from the main contest, in which contestants cook only hens for the meat ingredient, by requiring pork and smoked sausage as the meat ingredients.
“I’ve been waiting for him to quit,” said Carlos Braud of his helper, Luke Gautreaux, “but he keeps saying he has one more time in him.” Braud, who won the Jambalaya Champion crown in 2000 and three Champ of Champs title in 2006, 2008 and 2010, said he and Gautreaux were “two of the oldest out here” Saturday.
Carlos Braud, 60, admitted he could see the possibility, though maybe not the probability, of retirement: “If we win the big one, that’s it.” The “big one,” of course, is the jambalaya championship.
The Champ of Champs contest Saturday featured one woman competitor, Tootsie Gonzales, who was the helper for her husband, Mike Gonzales, Jambalaya Champion in 2006. The roles were reversed last weekend when Mike was the helper. She labored over cutting ingredients – pork, sausage, onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic – as Mike tended to the fire and had little time for chitchat.
As in the main contest, all ingredients are furnished by the Jambalaya Festival Association; the pots must contain a predetermined amount of meat and rice, while the amounts of aromatic vegetables are subject to each contestant’s choosing.
“I guess we hit it every seven years,” Jason Braud said of the time span since their last win. They hope to decrease that span, however.
“We’re gonna do it again next year, at least the Champ of Champs,” said Kevin.