After COVID-19 canceled it two years in a row, Gonzales welcomed this weekend’s Jambalaya Festival with open arms.
The 55th edition of the festival, which began Friday and continued through Sunday, included 5k and mile races, carnival rides, food and the family-oriented Mini Pot competition. But the main event was the cooking competition on South Irma Boulevard for the title of World Jambalaya Champion.
Teams of two consisting of cooks and helpers competed for a grand prize of $3,000 and competed in three rounds. The prelim, in which teams cooked 10 pounds of rice, was held on Saturday. From there, 32 teams advanced to the semifinals on Sunday morning where they will cook 15 pounds.
In Sunday afternoon’s final, the top 12 teams will cook up £20 – and the first world champion since 2019 will be crowned.
Previous champions were allowed to compete in a more relaxed competition just to show off: the Champ of Champs competition, held at 2:30pm on Saturday.
“It’s more about the showing off than the money,” said Mike Gonzales, board member of the Jambalaya Festival Association. “This is one of the friendliest competitions you will ever see. When this guy doesn’t make it to the next round, he draws after someone. They are all friendly and help each other; it’s not really a competition.”
All 77 competitors get the same amount of rice and chicken. Their skill will be measured by their preferred use of spices – and their patience as they cook over the scorching heat of an open wood fire for three hours.
The jambalaya is judged on five criteria: overall appearance, rice texture, meat flavor in the rice, meat tenderness, and overall flavor of the dish.
The return of competition, jokingly dubbed the “Paddle Battle,” is a return to post-COVID normalcy.
“It’s a pretty big deal for us here,” explained one of the chefs, Eric Guitreau. “We look forward to it all year and are planning things around this weekend because we love it so much and love being a part of our history and the culture we grew up with. Good music and good food is what it’s all about.”
The lifelong resident of Gonzales was taught over a wood fire by his mother from the age of 7 and has been cooking competitively for about 7 years. Guitreau prepared with three test runs, trying to mimic as closely as possible the environment he would be cooking in on Saturday, including the type of wood used and the ingredients provided.
Featuring country and classic rock games, the festival is a laid-back affair for visitors, but not for chefs like Guitreau. They make more than just food for hungry customers – they are artists perfecting their craft.
Working over a log fire with freshly split wood in the summer heat with a cast iron pot isn’t easy. After 8 years of cooking, 2015 Champion Lee Elisar has learned that hydration and patience are the keys to putting together a World Championship worthy Jambalaya.
“But that’s part of the fun,” says Elisar, who has been cooking since his father and uncles taught him the family tradition as a boy. “You just have to go with the process and take your time, and everything will come through.”
Despite the competitive nature of the competition and the money and bragging rights at stake, Jambalaya chefs do not view their competitors as rivals but as members of a fraternity.
“I can’t stress enough the camaraderie here,” said Ricky Bonneval, a 70-year-old retired chef who has attended the festival for 21 years. “You make friends year after year; Even if you cook against them and they advance and you don’t, you become lifelong friends.
The return of the Jambalaya Festival and its competition signaled a return to a tradition that dates back to 1968. Participants said it is an integral part of the fabric of the community that is not only unique to Ascension Parish, but unique to Gonzales.
Despite lower turnout than previous years, chefs believe the future is bright for Jambalaya, with older chefs leading the way for a new generation that will keep it alive.
“We’ve got more and more[people]enjoying the culture and heritage,” Guitreau said. “And I think the biggest thing is that we keep it going so we don’t lose[the tradition].”