Food Network Star Winner, Chef Jason Smith
Formerly a floral shop owner, caterer and elementary school cafeteria manager, chef Jason Smith was at home on a “snow day” in Kentucky, binge watching episodes of “Holiday Baking” and decided he had what it takes to compete. After applying online, he was chosen as a contestant and crowned the winner of Food Network’s season three of “Holiday Baking.” Once he stepped on the stage and in front of the camera, Smith, 38, finally knew that was where he was supposed to be, cooking and showing people how to cook. Next, Smith took on “Holiday Baking: Adults vs. Kids,” while paired with Jackson Fujimori, winning $10,000.
Smith continued his winning streak and won Food Network Star, season 13. His first chance to shine as a star on the network will be as a judge on “Best Bakers in America,” which will air tonight at 9 p.m. Central Time.
Are you still working at the school as cafeteria manager?
I am not doing that any longer, but I am still in contact with the school and the kids. I had to decide. I talked to my superintendant and to my colleagues and they said to me, “Jason, this is your dream. Don’t do anything that’s going to mess your dream up. There’s no way that you can do both of these.”
How long did you work for the school system and how many children were at the school? Have they been excited to watch you on television?
Honey, they have been over the moon and back. I get messages from them every few days of, “We hope you’re doing great. We love everything we’re seeing. We can’t wait until the new show starts. We can’t wait to see what else is coming up.”
I had been in the school system for a little over six years. We had 110 to 115 students. I had one of the smallest elementaries in our county.
Did most of them eat school lunch or did many bring their own lunch from home?
I had a few when I first started that brought their lunch, but the more they noticed what kind of cooking we did, and that it was kid friendly and yet it was good for them–those that were bringing their lunch every day faded out and just stopped bringing their lunch. The majority of the kids always ate breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef or a cook?
Yeah, I always wanted to be in the food world. I started cooking with my mom, grandmother and aunts in the kitchen when I was six years old. It was just something that I grew to love. From the very first day that I helped, I can remember being in the kitchen, helping with the meals, thinking, “This is so neat.” Food is one of those things that makes people so happy that you can just see it in their eyes. You can see them smile. You can be having the worst day in the world and then sit down to a good meal and it can just change your whole day.
My family calls me the peace keeper. Somebody can call me in the family and say, “I can’t believe so-and-so did this.”
I’m like, “Ok, just calm down. I’m bringing over a meatloaf. This is gonna help and here are some flowers.” Those are two things that always help.
Where do you get your vibrant suit jackets? Oh my goodness, I love the white one with the colorful nutcracker print especially.
That one, my Christmas jacket is one that everybody likes. They’re like, “Oh, you’re coming to do an interview? Can you wear that one?”
It’s July! Do you really want me to wear a nutcracker coat in July? That a very popular one.
I do a lot of research. I don’t have a specific place that I buy my clothes. I buy a jacket that’s crazy, or a shirt or shoes that are crazy, that fit into my personality and my style anywhere I can find them. One of my favorite places to get jackets is a store in Louisville, Kentucky, called the GQ Men’s Store. They always carry the most different jackets. You can’t have too many crazy clothes.
What can you share about Grayson, Kentucky?
It is a very small town, very small county, but a very close-knit place. Everybody knows everybody. The population of Carter county is maybe 30,000 to 35,000. It’s one of those places that if you’re in trouble and you need something, people are there for you, ready to help you in any way they can. I’m lucky to live here. I’ve only lived in Grayson for about fifteen years now. It’s a beautiful county. I live on Grayson Lake, which is a huge lake, one of those places, you can just sit on the porch and watch deer come into the yard. You just feel like you’re in your grandmother’s house. We are known to be in the heart of the parks. We have a lot of state parks around us in Grayson.
How far are you from Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby?
I’m about two hours and fifteen minutes from Louisville.
Makes me think of Derby Pie and upon researching for this, I found that’s a hot topic since there’s a registered trademark for that name and a history of lawsuits and controversy. Who knew? Bakers have become creative calling it things such as Thoroughbread Pie and “Not” Derby Pie.
It’s one of those pies that we try not to use the name. It is like the feud of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Everybody claims it’s theirs and they started it. I was Kentucky born and raised and nobody can tell you who started Derby Pie. It’s really just a pecan pie with chocolate in it. They say the original Derby Pie is actually with walnuts. People fight over it and say it’s with pecans. What I call Horse Race Pie so I don’t get in trouble actually has walnuts and pecans. And chocolate. And Kentucky bourbon. It’s a really good one and not one I share very often. I’ve been waiting years to put it in a cookbook.
You know what Kentucky is known for, as far as food and the Kentucky Derby, is Hot Browns. A Hot Brown is something that everybody knows and loves. It’s trademarked, but nobody cares about it.
Never heard of it.
(Surprised) You never heard of a Hot Brown?
No. What is it?
Oh my! They call it a Hot Brown because it’s a “hot” entree dish and the reason why “brown” is because the Brown Hotel in Louisville actually started it back in the 1930s. You take pieces of white bread, toast them, put it in the bottom of a dish, then you take thinly sliced country ham, thinly sliced turkey, put it on the bread. You take a white Mornay cheese sauce and put that over the top, then you put slices of bacon, tomato, then shredded cheese, and stick it under the broiler and brown it until it’s bubbly. Honey, it’s a party in your mouth every bite you take. It is so simple, but it’s so good. Look up Kentucky Hot Browns–it’s always the same recipe across the United States. You’ve got to try it.
I love your old-fashioned, handwritten recipe notes.
Well, thank you. That’s one thing I pride myself in because people look at those handwritten recipes and they say, “This reminds me of my grandmother,” or aunt.
What are some of your most popular desserts that people go crazy over?
My Italian (pronounced “eye”talian”) Cream Cake, which is what I used in the Holiday Baking finale and won.
The other one that people go crazy over is my Bacon Maple Nut Tart.
Are there any foods or recipes that intimidate you to make?
When I get a recipe that’s written in another language and I’m like, “What on earth?”
I’ve had people try to teach me Spanish and French and they’re like, “With your accent, it ain’t never gonna work.”
That’s what intimidates me, recipes that go by weight, even if they’re written in English, because that’s different. The French do every recipe by weight. When you change it over to cups and teaspoons and tablespoons, it’s off somewhat. I’m not big on recipes that do weight measurements.
How many episodes will there be of your new show that premieres tonight, Food Network’s “Best Baker in America” series?
There are seven shows. It will run for seven weeks. The finale is on November 1.
Are you still working or taping the show or is it finished?
It’s pretty much done and in the books.
How difficult was it to be a judge on the show, giving criticism to others?
Being a judge is a different world. I have the utmost respect for the judges because I know how difficult it is now that I’ve been in their shoes. I know what they went through when I was a contestant. Deciding whose stuff was good, who is moving on, who kind of failed. Now I’m holding somebody else’s fate in my hands.
How does it feel to be in the spotlight and have so many fans who recognize you now?
I’m loving every minute of it. I love to meet fans and see the diversity in ages. To get to inspire people and the joy I’ve brought is what humbles me. I get stories every day and one that sticks in my mind is this woman. She came across me when I was on “Holiday Baking” and said, “You saved me from taking my own life. By watching you every week, I got out of my deep depression. You brought me back into reality. I want to thank you for being there, even though I couldn’t physically talk to you, I felt like you were my best friend.”
It was a little overwhelming when people started recognizing me when I would be out in public, but I’ve gotten used to it and I love it.