After 14 years, Reine crowned jambalaya champ

Robert “Hoss” Reine didn’t count on being crowned World Champion Jambalaya Cook for 2014 but his dream came true Sunday night when he was handed the golden paddle at the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival.

The coveted paddle was awarded to the Gonzales resident by Scott Duplechein.

“I’m not sure what to say. I am not sure at all,” said the 46-year-old Reine as he fought back tears.

Earlier in the day, after cooking with the help of his 17-year-old son, Brett, and loading their ice chest of jambalaya to be taken to the judges, Reine turned to his neighbor and competitor, Jimmy Theriot, and held out his right hand to him. The men shook hands and Reine said, “Good luck to you, Buddy.”

As the trailer carrying his dream headed away, Reine sat down and breathed a sigh tinged with as much exhaustion as relief: “I’m tired, I can tell you that,” he said after the final competition that pitted 12 finalists against each other.

Sunday’s trip to the finals was Reine’s second, the first coming in 2011. He has been cooking in the contest 14 years.

During the post-ceremony interviews and picture-taking session, Reine’s wife, Michelle, who was ecstatic, grabbed at the golden paddle and told her husband she wanted to hold it, but he had a death grip on it.

“He won’t let me hold it!” she said.

The festival weekend was marked with perfect weather: no wind and no rain. Thousand of festivalgoers enjoyed live music performed at three different venues on the festival grounds along Irma Boulevard near downtown Gonzales.

“I’ll be back next year,” said Ricky Wolf, of Jackson, Mississippi, who attended Sunday’s final day with his wife, Kim. “We were visiting friends in Hammond and they talked us into coming down here.”

Wolf relaxed under a large tent, sipping on cold Bud Light beers: “So far, we have had a wonderful time. We’re working on eating some jambalaya as soon as we find some.”

By late afternoon, Wolf decided he was most impressed with the quality of bands he’d heard playing much of the day on the Ledet’s Auto Sales stage. Across Irma Boulevard inside the Gonzales Community Center throughout the weekend, various big bands played music suitable for dancing and hundreds of dancers and listeners sat in stadium chairs they brought for the free event. Outside in the center’s parking lot, soul- and blues-oriented bands rocked the Eatel Stage.

A carnival offered scream-inducing rides to the brave and skill-testing games to the risk-takers on its midway. Vendors sold all manner of festival-style foods from huge corn dogs to boudin, snowballs, funnel cakes and beyond. Merchants sold goods ranging from spa tubs to hot pepper sauce.

A “mini-pot” jambalaya cooking contest was part of the weekend’s festivities. Contestants in various age and gender groups cooked tiny pork-and-sausage jambalayas over small wood fires in cast-iron pots that yielded about a quart of the concoction.

“This is my fourth time cooking, and I’ve tied for fourth place every year,” said Mike Waguespack, of Gonzales, as he tended his mini-pot. “But everyone ties for fourth place since they only (name three winners in each division).”

Jambalaya Festival Association members cooked 1,500 pounds of pork-and-sausage jambalaya in two 135-gallon, propane-fired cast-iron kettles through the festival’s three-day run. It was sold to hungry attendees for $6 a plate. Add to that the jambalaya cooked by 102 competitors during eight preliminary heats, two semifinals and the final contest — more than three tons of hen and more than a ton of rice — and also sold to the public.

Officials noted the money made from the festival is plowed back into the Herculean effort of putting on the event — as well as charitable causes — that has attracted more than 50,000 attendees in years past. Since there is no official head count — it’s a free festival so ticket sales cannot be used for a count — no one hazards an estimate of how many attended the 2014 festival.

For the cooks, even the veterans, it’s an exhausting undertaking. Festival Chairman Wally Taillon, a longtime cook and former World Champion, knows that feeling. He prepared to cook Saturday in the Champ of Champs contest, which pits past champions against each other.

“As much as I like to cook, I’ve been dreading this. I hate that (hot, burning) wood,” he said.

But he started — and finished.