By Kaci Yoder
Once again, local radio personality and foodie Jay Ducote breezed past the competition on this week’s episode of Food Network Star. Ducote aced the episode’s first challenge to make portable versions of favorite brunch dishes with tailgate-inspired andouille breakfast tacos, scoring his first win in a mentor challenge. His advantage in the following round: choosing the menu item each team of finalists would prepare in their food truck challenge.
Ducote’s team was the only pair not to face the final chopping block, strengthening blog and social media buzz that our hometown hero might take home the title this season. We sat down with Ducote again this week to get his behind-the-scenes take on the episode.
DIG: How does it feel to be in the top five?
Jay Ducote: It’s pretty awesome! This week was pretty huge for me. I had done really well on a whole bunch of challenges but not necessarily been declared the victor in one of the mentor challenges or won a team a challenge straight up like we did. So it was a really good, a really good couple of challenges, and it kind of showed me being able to put it together with both food and presentation to really prove that I deserve to be one of the top contenders for this season.
DIG: In the mentor challenge, once again your tailgate experience saved the day. How do you think a Louisiana background gives you a unique advantage?
JD: For a lot of challenges on this show, it is more home-cook or food party or tailgate party oriented stuff where I’m in my comfort zone rather than restaurant worthy challenges. The idea of taking my favorite brunch dish and executing it in 20 minutes and making it in a to-go type package, that didn’t faze me at all. I immediately thought breakfast taco, and then I knew I wanted to make sure that I had Louisiana flavors in there. An andouille hash was the dish that I threw out, so making an andouille hash taco just made sense. So I just added eggs and cheese to the potatoes and the andouille and onions and then garlic and a little big of jalepenos that I cooked down and made a nice little breakfast taco that had a good Cajun kick and the smokiness from the andouille.
Thinking about things to make when you’re out there at a tailgate party and you want to make something that’s easy to eat while you’re standing around tailgating and not necessarily sitting down at a table and also something for breakfast to feed people that come out that early to set up—this is something that we’ve done before. It definitely fell right in my lap this time.
DIG: You get the advantage after the first challenge. What was your strategy in choosing what everyone would cook?
JD: I knew right away when they said what the foods were going to be that I wanted the burgers. Burgers are right up my alley as far as something that I actually cook all the time, on a backyard grill, on a cast iron skillet, whatever the case might be. I’ve eaten a lot of burgers, I’ve cooked a lot of burgers, and I could say the same thing for tacos, but I felt more confident with being able to really make a signature burger that represents my point of view. So I didn’t even necessarily consult with Arnold who was my teammate. I just kind of said, “We’re doing burgers.” Fortunately, that’s the one that he actually wanted as well.
I knew that this was going to be a challenge that people were going to choose which truck they go ate off of. They hadn’t announced that yet, but I’ve seen this show enough and know how it works. If we’re cooking for a crowd of 100 people, they’re not all 100 going to try each of our trucks. They’re going to have to choose which one they want to go to. I really thought the burgers done correctly could have the most appeal as well. That’s why I went with that.
Then there was the team of Dom and Alex. And Dom has a mac and cheese truck in New York, so he’s at least very familiar with starch and cheese. And then Alex is the sandwich guy, so I didn’t want to give him grilled cheese either. I basically didn’t want to give Dom the cheese and I didn’t want to give Alex the sandwich, so I just figured I’d give them tacos. So [that] left the grilled cheese to Eddie and Michelle, and I was happy with that as well. I figured that Eddie, if he wanted anything, it would be the Caribbean flavors and put it in a taco, so giving him the grilled cheese I thought was the right decision as well.
I think it played out somewhat strategically on my part. I don’t think there was necessarily a weak menu item. Grilled cheese or tacos or burgers could all be done well. But I think I at least made them have to work for it a little bit more.
DIG: How did you feel about your team’s performance in the food truck challenge?
JD: Well, Arnold and I really got along well. We work together extremely well. We’re complete opposites, but in this sense we didn’t clash because of that. I think it actually helped because were so different that we just kind of complemented each other where we needed to, and then got out of each other’s way when we needed to. It was really cool to work with him. I had been admiring his food and his plating since the beginning of the show, and so to be able to be on a truck with him and actually cook right next to him and team up on some stuff and help each other out a little, it went really well. So I have nothing but great things to say about the cooking experience.
Then I think we both delivered on our burgers, and we delivered on the potato chips with our two dipping sauces, so yeah, there wasn’t a weak link on the team. We got along great, we both made great food, we teamed up well on the side item, and so I don’t think it was much of a surprise that we were announced as the winners at the end of the episode.
And we did have a pretty long line and it took us a while to assemble all those burgers, and get them out. We were able to keep people in line and still have the most tickets at the end of the night so it wasn’t all bad. It was pretty much all good I’d say.
DIG: In the end, your team was the only one not on the chopping block. How did you feel about how the judges came down on the other teams?
JD: I felt like the judges kind of gave them a fair shake. I mean, I do think that Arnold and I had the best video to just tell people what they were going to get, and if they just had one ticket to spend why they should come spend it with us. I thought we were fun and enthusiastic enough but also really described the flavors that we were going to be presenting, and that’s what drew people in. And I think the other two videos were maybe fun or weird or certainly energetic and had some enthusiasm, but they didn’t really make people excited to eat the food that those trucks were dishing out, so I think that helped lead to our success. I didn’t get to taste anybody else’s food. I tasted my burger and Arnold’s burger and our potato chips, but I didn’t taste anything that came off of any of the other trucks so I really don’t know how they truly did. Certainly by watching it looked like Alex really struggled cooking his pork on that flat top and it looked like the tomato soup was pretty bland. It looked like all of Eddie and Michelle’s food was pretty sub-par really. They promised ooey-gooey cheesy weesy grilled cheeses and didn’t quite deliver.
DIG: This episode had a big first for Food Network Star: a contestant choosing to leave the competition. What were your thoughts on Michelle’s choice to leave?
Well, it was pretty surprising. When we were all in the back room before they called the four on the bottom back out, Michelle was kind of hinting that she might be thinking about just quitting. We were all just kind of in shock, and it was just like, “Oh she’s just saying that she just doesn’t want to get eliminated, so she’ll quit before they cut her, but I don’t think she’s going home so why would she quit?” And so we kind of just blew it off, and then Arnold and I stayed behind and we weren’t in the room when she actually quit, so watching it last night was the first I had ever seen anything about how it actually went down.
They really made it look like they were about to cut Alex and then Michelle kind of chimed in and said she was quitting, and so I never saw Michelle again after that. I never got a chance to talk to her to see what she was thinking. The three guys came back in the room and said that they were all still alive and Michelle quit.
It was a pretty big shock for sure. It was surprising that that’s how she went out, and certainly it’s hard for me to understand what was going through her head, and by no means should I give her any sort of mental evaluation on how much she was missing her kids and just needed to go. But it was definitely surprising that somebody would get that far and seemingly not be the one that was about to get eliminated, and so she would have been in the final five, at least you would imagine. To just walk away from that opportunity was pretty crazy.
DIG: Anything else you want to add?
JD: The other thing that we all kind of thought was interesting at this point is that with Michelle quitting, and it being the five guys that are left, it’s definitely a Food Network Star first to have started with six girls and six guys to have the final five of all guys. And it also is, if you go back to episode three, where there were 10 of us and Dom picked teams. He picked guys versus girls, and they kind of gave him some whiff about it. He was like, “I’m not trying to pick guys versus girls, I’m trying to pick the best team possible, and these are the strongest contestants.” And so it looked like he picked the right team.