Baton Rouge food blogger and media personality Jay Ducote dishes about his humble rise to fame, that gumbo moment during his run on Next Food Network Star and his secrets for making the perfect gumbo at home.
Jay Ducote launched his popular food blog Bite and Booze in 2009. It started out as a hobby — and excuse to eat and drink at restaurants and bars around Baton Rouge — but Ducote’s lively personality and talents on the grill took off. A year later, he was auditioning for his first reality TV show, Fox’s MasterChef. He was cast in the second season and realized he loved being on camera. At the same time, he was making a name for himself as a tailgating cook and host of a radio show. And it’s been all uphill for Ducote since then. He was able to quit his day job and commit to blogging full time and recently made it to the finals on Next Food Network Star, where he’ll be remembered for making a bad gumbo.
Here, Ducote talks about what went wrong in that gumbo challenge, how he usually makes it at home and why the stew has become a favorite dish served on Christmas Eve in South Louisiana. He also offers some advice for aspiring bloggers at the end, so keep reading.
JL: Did you always like to cook?
JD: Well, I always liked to eat. That’s good. Keeps you alive (laughs). I never really would have said that I loved to cook before all of this. I grew up in a typical Louisiana/Texas hunting and fishing kind of a family. So I had been around good food. I had grandmas that cooked, parents that cooked. And like I said, I really like to eat. So, when I was a freshman at LSU, I went to my cousin’s tailgate party and he handed me our grandfather’s old barbecue utensils and put me in charge of the grill. I kind of started cooking then.
I ended up throwing that tailgate party for about eight years. I learned how to make a gumbo in a 12-gallon propane burner cast iron pot before I ever made one in a small pot on the stove. I learned how to use an outdoor deep fryer and a charcoal grill before I ever did anything in a kitchen. And I think that has a big influence in my cooking. I’m still more comfortable in an outdoor kitchen with tailgating equipment then I am in a professional kitchen in a restaurant.
JL: Speaking of professional kitchens, what made you first decide to audition for reality television?
JD: The first time I auditioned for reality TV was around 2011, basically a year after I started my blog. The summer of 2010 was when the first season of MasterChef aired on Fox. That was pretty much my introduction to food reality TV. I had just started this blog, I was getting myself into the food world. As I watched that first season of MasterChef, I was really impressed with the simplicity of it just being home cooks who loved cooking and loved food. I looked into casting for season two and discovered they had an open casting call in New Orleans.
At this time, I was still working my day job, but the growth of the blog was continuing. I was also in the midst of a recipe contest/cookoff that was tailgating-based and then was able to be cast into the second season of MasterChef [which filmed and aired in 2011]. And although I didn’t make it very far, it was an eye-opening experience. I liked that world. Being behind the camera and producing food television and/or food videos I realized was something I really enjoyed. Right after MasterChef is actually when I started my radio show in April 2011. That chain of events was all pretty crazy, but definitely laid the foundation of building blocks for everything else that has happened.
JL: What year did you start blogging?
JD: I started blogging in September 2009. It started one 100 percent as a relief from boredom at my day job.I wasn’t even trying to make a hobby out of it. I was stuck at a computer all day. I was writing grants about health information technology and researching health care policy. And I was bored. But I had to be at a computer and look productive, so I started writing about what I had for lunch.
JL: When did you start noticing that your blog was taking off?
JD: By November 2009, I began to realize that people were reading it. I started to care a little bit more as I started realizing that I wasn’t just writing a food journal. I was writing a public blog. I started researching successful food blogs, and I started paying attention to the metrics of how many people were coming to my site. I started to take it seriously. In October, I blogged my butt off. And by November, I was using social media as a platform to help keep people interested.
JL: What’s been the toughest part of putting yourself out there?
JD: That’s a good question, because it has always been something that has come naturally to me in one sense, but has been very unlike me in others. I’m never the loudest person in the room. I don’t necessarily like to be the center of everybody’s attention in a group of friends. I’m a listener before a speaker. But when the camera rolls or radio microphone comes on, or if I’m sitting down to write something, there is a switch that flips and I’m able to open up. The toughest part, though, is probably always having to think of something interesting, relevant and new to say.
JL: What happened on the gumbo episode of Next Food Network Star?
JD: So, the gumbo episode was episode three. It was a team challenge, and the challenge was making a five-course meal, where each team member was assigned and responsible for one dish. There were a couple dishes that I just really didn’t want. I did not want dessert … We got in our little huddle and Dom [Tesoriero] said “When I think slimy soup, I think gumbo. Jay, make a gumbo.” My reaction was cool, I’m not doing dessert. I left the group right after that because we only had 45 minutes to make our dish so I needed to get started right away. It was definitely tricky because I wasn’t able to just stand there and stir the roux. I had to be chopping vegetables while the roux was cooking. So I used an oil-based roux, because I didn’t want it to burn.
Part of the challenge was the rule that you had to stay at your assigned workspace. You couldn’t bring your chopping board over to the oven to do that work there, so I had to run back and forth. Chop an onion and now go stir the roux. Go back and chop a bell pepper. OK, go stir the roux. And all of that just took longer than I needed. Dom was using the chicken breast, so I had to get the chicken hindquarters and use them. And I found some okra, so it ended up being just a chicken and okra gumbo … I just did my best to get everything into the pot as quickly as possible so I could let it simmer. I also had to cook rice during this, which ended up not being fully cooked. And before I knew it, time was up.
By the end of the 45 minutes, we had to have two dishes plated for camera while everything else had to be ready to be put on a cart to go get refrigerated, since it would be a few hours before the judges would even taste anything. We were given 10 minutes to heat everything up and plate the dishes for when we brought it out to the judges. So, my two bowls of gumbo for camera didn’t really matter if the rice was slightly undercooked. What really mattered was what was in the pot. And it ended up sitting for three hours before we came back to film to present. I got the pot of gumbo on the stove and opened the lid, and the okra and roux, after being in the fridge for three hours, had all congealed. I spent 10 minutes stirring it, adding water, and just trying to reconstitute it. But on the TV show, the main shot of the gumbo that they kept showing over and over again was that moment right after I lifted the lid, so it just looked like this blobby mush of a gumbo. And it was, but that isn’t exactly what I served to the judges. Still, they asked for a slimy soup and that’s what they got. It was truly one of the only times on the show that I stumbled. If I could do any challenge again, it would be that one.
JL: How do you prepare your gumbo at home?
JD: I still always use a cast iron pot. I use flour, butter, occasionally a little vegetable and canola oil to make a dark roux. Stir it with a wooden spoon. Most of the time, I like to make my own chicken stock so I’ll get a whole chicken and boil it in a separate pot with a lot of the vegetables. I’ll use the chicken in the gumbo, as well as the chicken stock.
JL: How long does it take?
JD: About three hours or so. I can usually do it in an hour and a half or two, but then I would want to let it simmer for a bit.
JL: Any gumbo secrets or tips?
JD: If you’re afraid of burning the roux and you’re making a butter-based roux, butter will burn quicker than oil. So, if you cut the butter with a little bit of oil, you don’t risk burning it as much. Basically, you can go half butter and half oil with flour. And you’ll still get a lot of that butter flavour, but you won’t risk burning it as quickly.
JL: What makes gumbo such a holiday staple?
JD: When the weather starts getting colder, you want warmer foods. You want hot, you want comfort, you want soup. And gumbo is just that qunitessential Louisiana soup. In Italy, maybe it’s minestrone. In Ireland, maybe it’s some sort of lamb and potato soup. But down in the South, gumbo is our version of that comfort soup. I just think that there’s something about gumbo’s simplicity yet complexity that makes it such a great dish.
For the most part, gumbo is made using ingredients you can get from anywhere in the world. It’s flour and butter or oil to make a roux. Then it’s chicken and chicken stock and sausage, which is probably the hardest thing to duplicate outside of Louisiana. And then it’s onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic and nothing really complicated. Why can no one else outside of Louisiana make a decent gumbo? I don’t know! It’s one of those mysterious dishes that you’ll never eat as good as the one your grandma made.
JL: Any advice for aspiring bloggers?
JD: If you’re trying to be a fashion blogger, it’s different. If you’re trying to blog about politics, it’s different. But the average person eats two or three times a day. If I ever get stuck on a topic, I can just go try a new restaurant or talk about any of the meals I had today or this week. Food is just one of those things, from a writer’s perspective, that there is always new content to talk about. And from the reader’s perspective, everybody is always hungry. Even if you just ate a big meal, you’re going to be hungry tomorrow. Food is a topic of content that people are constantly drawn to, and I think that’s what makes it unique. Food is a very universal language.
For more from Jay Ducote, check out his blog and tune in weekly to the Bite and Booze Radio Show, which airs Saturdays from 3-7 p.m. on Talk 107.3 FM in Baton Rouge. Jay D’s Louisiana Molasses Mustard and Jay D’s Louisiana Barbecue Sauce are now available online and in stores.