Taillon tames Jazz Fest crowd hunger

Wade McIntyre
The crew at Wally Taillon’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival jambalaya booth are, from left, front row, Claude Forsythe and Bob Williams; and back row, Kim Taillon, Wally Taillon, Kelly Taillon, Kayla Denoba and Chris LeBlanc.

When it’s time for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival, Wally Taillon always has a full plate.

For the second year in a row, the JFA president and World Champion Jambalaya cook operated a popular food booth at Jazz Fest during the last weekend in April and first weekend in May.

By the time Taillon cleaned his cast iron pots and changed his socks after the big New Orleans show, it was time to prepare for the Jambalaya Festival Memorial Day Weekend, where he oversees the annual hometown extravaganza.

“I stay so busy, sometimes I have to go to my job just to get some rest,” Taillon joked during the last day of Jazz Fest.

He and his crew cooked and sold five 40-gallon pots of jambalaya a day at $5 a serving.

The lines to the booth were long and steady, though on May 2 when the festival drew its biggest one-day crowd since Hurricane Katrina, the lines swelled even more.

“When Bon Jovi kicked off, it was wall to wall people,” Taillon said, smiling broadly.

The classic rockers from New Jersey had help from the alternative Kings of Leon, who packed the Gentilly stage at the opposite end of the New Orleans Fairgrounds.

The crowds were so large Taillon had ten people helping with the booth. “And, I needed them all,” he said.

Although every customer ate jambalaya cooked by Taillon, they did not receive the brown-colored jambalaya that made Gonzales famous.

The Jazz Fest Foundation prefers a Creole style jambalaya that is red in color, the traditional way of serving in New Orleans.

So Taillon put four gallons of tomatoes in each big pot to give his jambalaya the required hue and a slightly different flavor.

“I had to bring a sample to their main office to see if it was good enough,” he said.

That sample for about 25 people was “cooked red” and included one pork and sausage jambalaya and another with shrimp.

This year, Taillon also participated in an interview session at the grandstand, where he shared information about the early history of the Jazz Fest and the Gonzales champion cooks who were there in the early years.

“I found an official document from the Jazz Festival in 1969 thanking the jambalya cooks for being part of it,” he said.

1969 was the first Jazz Fest at Congo Square, before it moved to the Fairgrounds a few years later.

Forty years later, some things haven’t changed.

“The people at Jazz Fest like music and food,” Taillon said. “Whatever you want to listen to, it’s here. And, they have everything to eat.”