Kentuckian Jason Smith in Food Network cooking competition
UPDATE: On Aug. 13, Jason Smith won the Food Network Star contest. You can read the Food Network interview here.
Jason Smith wanted to ensure that his cake would be incredibly moist. After all, this was Food Network’s 2016 Holiday Baking Competition, and he was the only home baker and cafeteria manager among a group of classically trained bakers in the nationally televised contest.
On the line was a $50,000 grand prize, bragging rights, and the professional respect and new opportunities that come with winning a prestigious competition.
Smith called on the baking knowledge he learned from his grandmother and aunt growing up on the family farm in Laurel County, served by Jackson Electric Cooperative. He decided to add….sauerkraut.
“My grandmother, Granny Creech, told me that her grandmother used sauerkraut because it made the cake moist,” Smith recalls, “and they didn’t always have the money to buy all the ingredients that you would normally use in a cake.”
For Smith, the sauerkraut meant more than a tasty cake: it allowed the Grayson resident, who is served by Grayson RECC, to honor his grandmother by using her recipes on national TV.
Smith went on to win the competition—the first home baker ever—and now he has been chosen to compete in Food Network Star, Food Network’s elite competition series. Smith and 12 other competitors will showcase their cooking and on-camera skills during 11 episodes, beginning Sunday, June 4, at 9 Eastern Time/8 pm Central Time.
During this competition, Smith said he will continue to showcase his Kentucky heritage as he tackles a variety of culinary challenges.
Fans can expect to hear “Lord, Honey” when Smith talks about his creations. Italian creations will become “Eye-talian” as Smith describes them, and they may even be good enough to “make you slap your brains out wanting more.”
Smith’s flashy outfits will also return as will his ever-present smile. It’s all part of what Smith calls his “country bling” approach to cooking.
The bling came later, but the country has been a keystone of Smith’s life. The 39-year-old grew up on a 300-acre family farm in Laurel County. The family raised cattle, pigs, and chickens as well as tobacco and vegetables. Smith says he still remembers his grandfather plowing with mules until his family insisted he get a tractor.
As a young child, Smith worked in the fields with his family, often hoeing in the tobacco field. At age 6, he asked Granny Creech if he could help her prepare food for the family instead of working in the fields.
“I got to noticing that my grandmother worked so hard for every meal we had,” Smith says. “She made every meal an outstanding meal. It was so rewarding to see everyone eating and having a good time. I wanted to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps and take on her legacy. I wanted to make people happy with food as she did.”
Young Jason began by helping his grandmother prepare each dish. As he gained skill and confidence, he started preparing several dishes while his grandmother prepared several others.
“My first memory is of making chicken and dumplings,” Smith recalls. “It is my favorite meal of all times. We would go out in the morning, kill the chicken, get it dressed, and stew it. Grandma would let me pull the meat. As we put the dough into the broth, we always pushed it down. We didn’t stir it because the dumplings would break apart.
“I still make it the same way to this day; I just don’t have to kill the chicken. I like to take the recipes I learned over the years and make them a little more modern.”
Smith says it takes a true Southerner to make the recipes just right.
“My cooking is rooted in Kentucky recipes,” he says. “Southerners have that extra touch to make those recipes really good. I’m not sure what the Southern touch is, I can’t pinpoint it, but maybe it’s that we are more laid-back. We don’t rush. We don’t try to take a recipe that should cook in 6 hours and try to cook it in 30 minutes. We take so much pride in our food.”
Smith has tried other occupations. He has a nail technician certificate and owned a flower shop, City Florists, for seven years. He even won numerous awards for his floral creations, including Florist of the Year.
However, people kept calling: “We have this event coming up,” or “We are having a wedding. We need a cake,” or “I need a pecan pie tomorrow. Can you make it?”
“I got three or four calls a day,” Smith says. “It kind of outdid the floral arranging. I think God was leading me back to where I’m supposed to be.”
In the meanwhile, Smith was offered a job as cafeteria manager at Isonville Elementary School. He rises each day at 4 a.m., finishes his work by 1 p.m., then goes home to Grayson and bakes for his catering business.
His school and community have been as thrilled as Smith himself with his newfound fame.
“They can see me working so hard for my dreams,” Smith says. “They tell me that just because I am their favorite manager and cook in the county, they don’t want to keep me from my dreams. It’s what gets me through. I have such a good life.”
Smith returns the favor, particularly when it comes to children.
“Kids in a lot of rural areas believe they don’t have opportunities,” Smith says. “They say, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I can’t do that.’ I tell them the way to achieve their dreams in life is to always remember the word try. If you don’t try, you are never going to do it. If you start with the word try, you can reach any dream. I proved it. At 38 years old, I won the Holiday Baking Championship. I have never stopped trying to reach my dreams, and I still try every single day. If you have a dream, try.”
Even with so many constants, some things have changed. Smith can no longer go to the grocery store unnoticed. A recent trip for a gallon of milk, for example, turned into a two-hour affair filled with selfies and autographs.
Indeed, the contest has turned into a life-changing experience for Smith.
“I love it,” Smith says. “When you put me in front of a camera, the Jason comes out, the Kentucky boy. I always say that God gave me cooking and baking and being in front of a camera.”
But Smith’s motivation to keep cooking doesn’t come from the promises of fame; it comes from his Kentucky heritage, from knowing and seeing that good food brings people joy.
“All of these years, it has been such a joy to see the smile that eating good food brings to people. They are so happy. During hard times or the death of a family member, when you give them a dish of food, it always puts a smile on their face. I can always make people happy with food.”
The Food Network Star Season 13 winner will be crowned on Sunday, August 13, at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Follow Jason on his Facebook page or #LordHoney or #FoodNetworkStar.