By Kaci Yoder
A big smile, a warm hug, and a genuine passion for Louisiana food—that’s the formula for local foodie Jay Ducote, who introduced himself as a “big southern teddy bear” on the season premiere of Food Network Star.
Hosted by TV cooking icons Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis, Food Network Star pits a dozen chefs and food lovers from around the country against each other in challenges that involve screen tests, cook-offs, and personal charisma. Ducote has previously appeared on cooking competition shows like MasterChef and Cutthroat Kitchen, but this time the stakes may be the highest yet: his own show on Food Network.
Sunday’s premiere saw Ducote receiving nothing but positive feedback from the judges and even his fellow competitors, thanks to his friendly, honest style in the kitchen and maybe a little help from a seersucker sweatband. After finishing in the top three of the season’s first episode, far away from elimination, Ducote stands as the cook to beat.
Following each episode, DIG will be breaking down the new twists and turns of the show in a chat with Jay Ducote. The man himself gives us his behind-the-scenes take in our first Food Network Star Q&A.
DIG: Your big premiere was last night. You’ve been on shows like this before, but this might be the biggest spotlight you’ve had. What was it like to see yourself up there?
Jay Ducote: It was definitely kind of a surreal experience watching the show unfold at the viewing party and knowing that people are watching across the country and all over the world even. When we filmed it, I knew I did well, but watching it and seeing how great everything looked and how well I feel like I came across in that episode was an awesome feeling, and certainly something that I’ll remember and really appreciate. I had a lot of fun doing other shows that I’ve done, but I don’t think I’ve ever put it all together like I was able to do in this premiere episode of Food Network Star. This certainly the biggest stage and the biggest spotlight now that I’ve been in on any of these shows, and it just makes it all the better to have really made a good first impression.
DIG: What kind of response did you get from the people in the BR community who came out to your premiere party downtown or watched the show?
JD: The response has honestly been pretty overwhelming. I can’t really keep up with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and everything else right now—in a good way. It’s been really cool to see all the people, my friends and family but also the Baton Rouge community and even people other places that have been reaching out and congratulating me on the first episode and boosting my spirits, telling me that I’ve already positioned myself as the one to beat on the show. That’s pretty cool, just getting out of the gate strong and being the frontrunner early in the season. Now it’s just the pressure on to keep that up.
DIG: Going into the screen tests and the first cooking challenge, what was your strategy?
JD: The very first challenge was the Spotlight Challenge, where we really just had to step out into the spotlight in the middle of the floor and had 30 seconds to tell Bobby and Giada who we are and make that first introduction and first impression on the people that would be mentoring us through this journey. And it was extremely nerve-wracking. That was literally the first time we laid eyes on Bobby and Giada. It was the first time we saw our fellow contestants. It was the first time we stepped foot into the Food Network Star kitchen with the lights and the cameras and just knowing that we’re in that moment now, and the cameras are rolling, and this is it. We’re filming this TV show, but it’s also real. There’s no second takes here, and that part of this reality competition just sinks in, and it’s pretty overwhelmingly nerve-racking to be in that situation.
But I’ve done a fair amount of this kind of stuff before, maybe not on this big of a stage, but I’ve worked with bright lights and cameras, and I’ve had to make sure I got a message across in 30 seconds or less on the radio before. So I knew what that time frame was going to feel like, and I just wanted to get out there and smile and talk about my passion for food and Louisiana and try to get it all in and get out in 30 seconds. And fortunately, I was able to do that fairly well right away and got really nothing but fantastic feedback just about that 30 second challenge.
And then we had to go on and basically do it on camera, straight into the lens of the camera. That was something I was also able to do pretty well, so when they showed that video at the Food Network Festival it went over very well. The kind of feedback that I saw on the episode, you know, with Bob Tushman saying something along the lines of “he really just makes me smile…” that was new to me. I had no idea that they had said those kind of things until the episode aired because I wasn’t standing there as I was watching them as they were saying those things. Seeing things like that was really cool.
DIG: Were you expecting that much of a warm reception when you walked in?
JD: I certainly was not expecting that much of a warm reception. I was hoping to be able to get over any nerves and just present myself genuinely and authentically and really just display my passion for food that I’ve built a career for myself out of. And I think I was able to do that. It certainly wasn’t easy, and I had no idea that I would be as successful at it as I proved to be. But it was cool to see those results and to finish in the top three in the first challenge. It was right where I wanted to be.
I knew I could do it. I knew I would be able to go there and hopefully not let nerves get the best of me and take a deep breath and explain who I am and what my food is all about. I feel like I had a strong enough point of view and a strong enough culinary style to be myself and not try to go in there and make something up or try to do something that’s not authentic. I wanted to go in there and just tell the judges and mentors how I learned to cook and where my love of food comes from—growing up hunting and fishing, learning how to cook at an LSU tailgate party, that’s what I needed to share with them.
DIG: It’s great that you’re bringing Cajun and Louisiana cuisine to the global scale. Do you think the world is ready for food that spicy?
JD: Yeah, absolutely! I actually didn’t think my food was that spicy. When you hear them comment on the spice level of the food, you’ve got to remember that not everybody is from Louisiana and isn’t necessarily used to that. But it wasn’t spicy to me! But, you know, different palates. I think there was flavor there, and clearly a couple people said it was spicy, but it was really good. So I’ll take that any time. If I’m going to present food that’s representing Louisiana, I certainly can’t have people call it boring.
DIG: You’re spending time with Bobby and Giada, and you posted recently that you met Wolfgang Puck in L.A. What is it like to be around all these culinary icons?
JD: Well… [laughs] Wolfgang Puck was just dining at his restaurant and just happened to be there, which was pretty cool to be able to see him and talk to him for a second. I got to talk to him about Food Network Star a little bit and to take a picture with him.
As far as Bobby and Giada go, it was really a great experience just getting time with them as mentors, because they really know what they’re doing. They’re extremely professional, and their job on the show is to make us better. They have to get rid of somebody every episode, but as long as you’re on the show, you continue to get really outstanding feedback. It’s a crash course in how to food television. They don’t really have the time to teach you have to cook; you’ve got to know that already. They’re going to give you some tips here or there about your food, maybe some advice from all the knowledge they have, but what they’re really mentoring and teaching is on the being a star side. It’s pretty cool to be in a room with them, and to hear firsthand their critiques and evaluations and advice. Off camera, they’ll talk about a lot of things that they might have gone through or how they get over their nerves or just advice like that that’s just extremely valuable.
DIG: Coming out of the premiere episode, who do you think might be your biggest competition on the show?
JD: I really thought right away that the three of us at the top all did really well and kind of set ourselves up to be people to beat. That would be myself, Eddie [Jackson of Houston, Texas], and Arnold [Myint of Nashville, Tenn.]. Just being on the top of that first challenge, being able to get through it to present a point of view and food and have that combination to be in the top three from the very beginning, I really felt like that’s kind of the three of us putting ourselves as people to beat. I certainly felt that was the case.
And then I would say that I was really impressed in that first episode, not having tasted any of their food, with Sita [Lewis of New York] and Rue [Rusike of Brooklyn]. I thought Rue just really had a great quality. It’s a natural smile and shine that she has that I felt came across really well. And then Sita, I thought, presented really well. I found out watching the episode that nobody really liked her food all that much [laughs]. But I thought that she was kind of a force. She has such experience and such passion.
And then, he was at the bottom, but Matthew [Grunwald of Scottsdale, Ariz.] was still on my radar as well, just as someone to watch out for. Despite the fact that he was on the bottom, he didn’t get eliminated, and it was because of his food. And I kind of knew that if he could put his presentation together to match the food that he’d be a force to be reckoned with as well. Those were my first reactions.
DIG: Is there anything else you wanted to add about the experience, the show, or the premiere?
JD: I would definitely just like to thank everybody for their support! Throughout the process, but especially everybody that came out to the premiere or watched at home and put it on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else. I really appreciate it. It’s been really cool to have just such overwhelming support, from especially the Baton Rouge community. I’m grateful for that, and next Sunday we’ll do it again!
If you’d like to show Jay Ducote your support and watch the show with some great food and drinks, head to Schlittz & Giggles downtown this Sunday for another viewing party beginning at 7 p.m. No matter where you watch, make sure to follow along with Food Network Star every Sunday at 8 p.m.