By Kaci Yoder
We’ve been following along with local food personality Jay Ducote’s journey on this season of Food Network Star all summer, and there’s only one episode left to determine his fate. Though he made it to the top three last week, this week’s episode threw a curveball at the remaining chef’s: the return of a previously eliminated finalist, who had the power to knock one of the top three out of their spot in the finale.
But Ducote wasn’t sweating it, and he escaped this week’s elimination and finished the episode filming his pilot with Rachael Ray in New York City. DIG caught up with the man himself once again to get the details on the episode and find out how he’s feeling going into this week’s finale.
DIG: Congrats on making the finale!
Jay Ducote: Thank you!
DIG: How does it feel?
JD: Pretty awesome. It was a good way to get there for sure, so yeah, it’s pretty surreal right now. Being in the finale and being one of the three that gets his own pilot is as good as you could really hope for going into the season. It feels great to have accomplished that goal no matter what happens at this point and certainly to have done it doing as well as I have been—it’s pretty awesome.
DIG: This week, Dom jumps back into the fight. What were your thoughts on his return?
JD: We all had a sneaking suspicion that we hadn’t seen the last of Dom… but honestly were surprised. We had no idea who was going to be returning contestant that walked in the room, so our reaction to Dom walking in, that was a real reaction. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Rue or Alex either, and I don’t think it’s any surprise that they were the final three in the Salvation part of the challenge.
But Dom was always clearly one of the best cooks that had ever been on the show, and we just kind of knew that if he could figure out any sort of presentation skills that he had a chance to come back. So it wasn’t a totally big surprise to see him come in the room. I think it was scarier than anything because he was kind of that guy that we knew that if he went away and worked on his presentation skills and got the some mentorship in the Salvation part of it, that he could be a real threat.
DIG: We have all of the contestants coming back into the kitchen to join you for the challenge this week. How did it feel to have that reunion?
JD: It was great to see everybody, and really that was the first time that we got to see any of those contestant since they had gotten eliminated. So it was good to see some smiling faces, actually get to chat with them again real quickly even though it was all on camera. Getting to pick one of them to be our sous chef was definitely enjoyable. That was a twist we didn’t know. We knew were going to be cooking timed and got to talk a little bit about or think a little bit about how that would be. We thought it was just going to be us making it and having an hour to make it, and they kind of gave us a little twist saying we have 45 minutes to make it because we have a sous chef.
It was nice having an extra pair of hands for sure. That actually changed the dish I was going to make. I knew I didn’t want to make something with a roux if I didn’t have somebody else there to help out with everything.
DIG: What made you choose Emilia as your sous chef?
JD: Well, I may have picked Alex if I would have got the first pick, just because he was right there in the final four and Alex and I got along really well. But Alex was gone, and then Dom picked Matthew—who I definitely would not have picked, so that didn’t change my decision there at all.
But Emilia was my partner in a challenge that we were on the top with. She was the only one of the contestants that I had actually worked with on a team before, just the two of us. And I really think she got eliminated more for an error judgment on her presentation than for anything with her food, and she has some southern roots and understands Louisiana food. I knew that what I needed my sous chef to be doing, which was a lot of knife work and getting the trinity right for the étouffée and just kind of helping season and cook everything. I knew I could trust her, and I also just knew from working together before that she would have my back. And of all of the contestants there at that point in time, I knew she wanted be on my team. And I knew that I would be able to trust her to be able to work hard for me in 45 minutes.
DIG: The judges call your pitch video flawless, and it definitely seems to come naturally to you. When you started out on your food career, was having a Food Network show always goal that you had in mind?
JD: I think as I got in my career with food blogging and food based radio and everything else I’ve been doing, you kind of look at that profession of culinary media—the pinnacle of that really is having your own show on one of the major international or at least nationally televised networks. Absolutely I think the idea of having my own show on Food Network is kind of a goal. It’s something I looked at five years ago and was like, “Hey, how cool would that be if that’s where I could end up?”
So now being a week later finding out if that is going to become a reality is definitely something pretty surreal, but it’s also I think the preface you gave to that question—it is kind of the skill set that I’m working on, you know. I didn’t completely just wake up like this necessarily. It’s been a lot of work. It’s been a lot of effort. It’s been a lot of trial and error. It’s been a whole lot of time of reframing my skills. Talking about food, writing about food, doing things on camera or certainly on the radio and all sorts of things like that have really prepared for this show. I think I’ve gotten a lot of credit for being a great storyteller, but it’s not just being able to tell stories—it’s being able to deliver it to cameras and in a very finite amount of time. If they say one minute and you have to film that minute, you can’t go one second over, and so I think that’s kind of the real challenge of it. There’s a lot of people out there that can tell good stories, but to be able to do it concisely but still get enough content in there is definitely tricky.
I would say that I’ve learned a whole lot about that process by going through the show. I think that that presentation that I gave in that one minute challenge on this past episode kind of showed the progress that I’ve had from the beginning to the end just with being on the show, let alone the last five years work that I have done to get there.
DIG: You were very confident in your presentation, but then you saw Dom come in with so much improvement. Was that making you sweat?
JD: Well, you know fortunately this challenge was to go again to four back down to three, so you know we usually don’t have to win necessarily that one minute challenge to be one of the top three and to get a pilot. And so Dom coming out as being incredibly improved, I think made it really tough for Eddie and Arnold. But at that point I knew I was getting a pilot, so I wasn’t nervous about anybody else doing well or performing poorly. After I went out there and we watched my video and Bob said it was flawless and Bobby talked about, “Well, thefood better be good,” and then it was—I knew that I was going to be one of the ones that got to shoot a pilot.
I think more than anything I was proud of Dom. I thought it was pretty great that he kind of rose to the occasion whereas Eddie and Arnold both kind of felt the pressure a little bit and let it get to them. I was really cool to see.
I think with that particular challenge it’s probably the best job that I’ve done in the whole show with managing my nerves because there was so much on the line and we had one take and a one minute video, and I was able to really just relax and come down and just deliver what I could deliver and not be too rushed.
We saw Eddie fly through his and talk way too quickly and try to cram so much into that one minute, and that was the kind of mistake that I was making earlier in the competition. And then we saw Arnold try so hard to tone it down and to breathe and actually he did it too much. He lost his charm, and he lost his delivery style that makes it fun to watch. Those are those things that happened to me before, maybe not quite that, to those extremes. But it was something I kind of had kind of in my mind—just don’t go to fast, don’t go to slow, make sure you slow down enough to where it’s not rushed and it’s just fluid and that it’s that charm there. And I was able to just go out and do that for that one-minute. It felt good that’s for sure.
DIG: Was it shocking to see Arnold go home after y’all had just made it into the top three last week?
JD: Yeah, it was hard. I don’t think it was shocking. We knew someone was coming back. It was Dom, and then I think we all knew—it’s not over yet. We’ve all got to fight to actually earn the pilot. I felt bad for him for sure. It was definitely not Arnold’s day. It was really tough to see because we all—me, Arnold, and Eddie all really just kind of knew—we had one more shot. We had one more challenge that we had to get through and it was about keeping your cool and unfortunately Arnold kind of did the opposite and really Eddie almost did too. I don’t think either of their plates, the food wasn’t as good as they would like and both of their presentations were a little off. So one of them ends up getting eliminated, and it was Arnold. You asked if it was a shock. I would say that from the beginning me, Eddie, and Arnold were kind of the best three, we were on top. So, it’s kind of a shock to see Dom take that spot from Arnold, but, I mean, it happens.
DIG: What was your take on meeting Rachael Ray and moving into this final stage of this competition?
JD: We flew to New York to film our pilots, and I walked into the restaurant where I’m filming mine and Rachael Ray is sitting there to be the guest director, which I thought was really cool. She was a blast to work with. She really made me very comfortable right from the beginning and just let me do my thing and do it my style. She was very supportive of that. She drank a bloody mary while we were in there filming. It felt like me and her had worked together before, when we definitely haven’t. That was the first and only time I’ve met her, but it was just that kind of connection right away. We just really got along. We saw eye-to-eye.
That first take of the first cut of that video that I just kind of nailed it on the first take, she was like, “Yeah, first take, that’s it. That’s all you need.” And right then I knew that even if I needed more takes later on, I knew that she just kind of got me and got my style and knew how to work with me. And so it was a really comfortable setting. She really had some great ideas, and it was fun to work with her and have her there to direct that pilot.
Join the rest of BR for the Food Network Star Finale Party, Sunday, August 16 at 6 p.m. at The Varsity Theatre!