By Brenna R. Kelly
Now that they know what Jason Smith can do, the students at Isonville Elementary might feel a little cheated when their cafeteria manager serves plain dinner rolls with lunch.
Smith recently won Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship – and along with it $50,000. On the seven-episode series, Smith and eight other bakers competed by whipping up holiday-themed goodies during timed challenges.
Smith, who wowed the celebrity chef judges with recipes passed down from his Laurel County family, was the first home baker to win the competition in the show’s three seasons.
“I tell the students every day, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you’re living in a dog kennel somewhere, if you’ve got one pair of pants and one shirt, if you want to be something that you dreamed of and you keep working for it, you will be it someday,” he said.
Smith, who has worked at the 106-student Elliott County school for six years, developed a love of baking in his grandmother’s kitchen on his family’s tobacco and cattle farm. Instead of working in the fields, Smith would work in the kitchen.
“I was OK doing the farm work when I needed to,” he said, “but I’d rather be in the kitchen helping granny, my aunts and my mom get food together for everybody that was working.”
As his interest in baking increased, Smith would read cookbooks or look up techniques on the Internet.
“I would try and if it didn’t work, I would just throw it out to the chickens and start over,” he said.
He honed his skills even more during his senior year at North Laurel High School, when Smith took a home economics class.
“My teacher pulled me aside in the first semester and said, ‘You’ve really got a knack for this,’” he said. Then-Family Consumer Sciences Teacher Melissa Jennings asked Smith to help her with the class and encouraged him to pursue culinary school.
“I can remember that he was nervous in the kitchen at first, but I could tell I had a natural-born talent for cooking and baking,” Jennings said. “He paid attention to detail and was creative. I knew he would go far. He’s just like he appeared on Food Network, hilarious, genuine and a true joy.”
But after high school, it took Smith a while a find his way back to cooking. After starting in cosmetology, Smith became a floral designer and was named best floral designer in Kentucky in 2003.
“When the economy started taking a downturn, I thought, at my age I need to start finding something that I enjoy, that would have benefits and insurance,” he said.
He began substituting in Elliott County schools cafeterias until the full-time position opened at Isonville Elementary.
Smith doesn’t get to use his baking skills often at school because of nutrition regulations, but he has made cupcakes for the school’s monthly birthday celebrations.
“It’s a little extra treat, especially for the ones that might not get it very often,” he said.
Sitting home watching Food Network on a snow day this past February, Smith decided to apply for the show. Producers called him the next day. After three weeks of intense baking and interviewing via video chat, Smith finally got the call while standing in a Wal-Mart checkout line.
“I looked at the cashier and said, ‘Here’s my money clip; it’s an emergency phone call. Just check me out, put the rest of the money in your pocket and I’ll be back,” he said.
Smith wasn’t supposed to tell anyone where he was going when he flew to California for two weeks in April and May to film the show, but because he needed the time off work, he had to tell Elliott County Superintendent C. Thomas Potter. Not even Smith’s mother knew where he was.
When the show began to air in early November, Smith became an instant celebrity among his students.
“The kids would come in on Monday morning and they’d say, ‘You did a great job last night,’” he said.
They also picked up on the homespun one-liners Smith uttered on the show. After the episode when Smith exclaimed, “Lord, honey this is excitin’,” students repeated it all day long, he said.
“And with the little ones, it was hilarious when they would say it back to me,” he said. “They loved it. The students were a big support through the whole thing.”
Smith’s winning episode, and a second contest – the Adults vs. Kids special, which Smith also won – aired after the holiday break had begun. When students returned to school Jan. 2, there was the Holiday Baking Champion cooking in their cafeteria.
“Our students were thrilled that Jason won and cheered for him when we announced that he had not only won the Holiday Baking Championship, but also the Holiday Baking Championship Adult vs. Kids,” said Principal Dolly Fannin.
The district also held a celebration for Smith at its January school board meeting, she said.
“I am very proud of Jason, not only for his win but also for the compassion and dedication he exhibits on a daily basis for our school and students,” Fannin said.
Cafeteria staff such as Smith play a vital role in Kentucky’s schools, said Lauren Moore, director of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Division of School and Community Nutrition.
“Not only do they provide daily meals to students, which is essential to achieving learning success, but they put a supportive and friendly face with each meal they serve,” she said. “Child nutrition staff, through the positive relationships they build with students, are key in encouraging kids to take a chance and try something new.”
Something new is exactly what Smith wants to do with part of his winnings – a total of $60,000 from both contests. He plans on starting a program for eastern Kentucky children.
“I want to bring in food from all over the world that kids in our area may never have heard of or maybe not get to taste until they get older, to teach them what’s out there in the world,” he said.
The idea stems from a student at his school who had never seen a pineapple.
“They just thought that pineapple came out of a can,” he said.
So working with 4th-grade teacher Felicia Dickerson, Smith brought in a pineapple, kiwi and mango and let students see and taste the fruits.
Smith also tries to expose his students to fruits and vegetables as part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Isonville Elementary is one of 146 schools in the state in the program, which provides free fresh fruits and vegetables to students as a way to get students to enjoy healthy snacks.
Smith wants to start his program, called Taste the World, in Elliott and Carter counties, then expand to the rest of eastern Kentucky.
He hopes learning about fruits and vegetables they have never seen or tasted will inspire students in the area to realize that there’s always something new to learn.
“The time to stop learning is when you are dead,” he said. “There’s something I learn every single day. I thrive on that.
“I always tell people never stop believing in yourself, never stop learning and always keep pushing for your dreams and you will achieve and reach your goals of what you want to be,” Smith said. “I try to teach the kids that every day and with this, doing what I have done, I think it has shown them that they can.”
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