My Rouses Everyday, May & June 2018
“Piyahhh!” shouts YouTube sensation Jason Derouen, and recipe ingredients are suddenly chopped through the magic of video editing. It’s become his trademark phrase, heard by hundreds of thousands around the globe on his Cajun Ninja cooking shows. The videos run the gamut from traditional New Orleans cuisine (red beans and rice) to first-order comfort food (baked macaroni and cheese). They are filmed in his home kitchen and involve the sort of everyday hardware and ingredients that remove the intimidation factor from the recipes. You watch him cook and you say, “Wait — I could make that, too!” And then you do.
There’s a charming simplicity to Derouen’s show. Each week he evokes the very earliest cooking shows of Emeril Lagasse, before he “kicked it up a notch” — before “Bam!” and adulatory studio audiences and superstardom. Derouen cooks with a sort of placid exuberance. He knows what he is doing, and yet seems as happy as the viewer that the recipes are turning out as intended. His food is beautiful. It’s appetizing. He cooks and, look! It’s all coming together — just look at that! You can almost smell the kitchen through the screen. And he’s serving up Southern fare, so you just know it’s good.
“I’m touching a lot of people who have struggled in the kitchen,” says Derouen, a Baton Rouge native, “and I know that feeling.” When he started Cajun Ninja, he was surprised by how many people in Louisiana didn’t know how to make a roux, or weren’t familiar with how to cook jambalaya — staple state recipes. “It’s because they didn’t know where to start. So it’s been really cool to help people who were just like me.”
He learned how to teach at an early age. A lifelong student of taekwondo, he was made an assistant instructor at his dojang at the tender age of 11. It was his job to help newer students learn techniques and forms. He learned that it feels good to teach, to explain, to demystify, to “pour knowledge into someone,” as he describes it. That love of martial arts and teaching is where the “ninja” half of his cooking show gets its name. The “Cajun” part is more obvious, from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns hat he wears, to the zydeco intro music before each show. Taken together, it’s who he is by birth and by training.
Derouen had no intention of being a cook on social media. “Like a good recipe, it happened by accident,” he says. The extent of his formal training includes having a mother who is a great cook; working as a busboy — and later, a server — at Copeland’s in high school; and even later working at Outback Steakhouse. (The Outback job only lasted six months, though he met his future wife there, so it was time well spent.) The jobs taught him a new appreciation of food and forced him to learn how to really put himself out there, to go up to strangers of every walk of life, again and again, every single day, and introduce himself.
Three years ago, he was laid off from his job in the oil business. He had spent the previous seven years working for starched-shirt companies that frowned upon social media use by employees and associates. It was still new at the time, social media, and management hadn’t yet come to grips with the idea that people could have an online presence after hours and during the day on breaks. They took it as goofing off on company time.
Derouen had always wanted to start a website. He had money saved, and now that he no longer had to worry about offending corporate types, it was as good a time to get started as any. He created a Facebook page.
At first, he posted videos of whatever he found funny. Jokes and slapstick. When his sister introduced him to Snapchat, on a lark, he filmed himself cooking gumbo in six-second clips. When he was finished, he was about to upload it to his personal profile when he got cold feet. Most of his friends already knew how to cook gumbo. He’d probably catch flak from them. It just wasn’t worth it, the ribbing he would receive. So instead, he uploaded the video to his Cajun Ninja page. He had 400 followers. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something, and maybe one of those strangers from around the world might enjoy it. He didn’t think much about it.
Meanwhile, Disney was getting grief from Louisiana natives for posting a video recipe called “Tiana’s Healthy Gumbo” on the official Princess and the Frog page on Facebook. In it, Louisiana’s own Disney princess — a New Orleans chef at that! — prepares a gumbo … with whole wheat flour? Kale? Quinoa? Well, it was an abomination. Where is the roux, Tiana? As far as scandals went in 2016, it ranked pretty low overall, but for locals, it was a real tempest in a cast-iron pot. The timing was right, and when Derouen posted his gumbo video, he wrote: “Take note, Disney” followed by a smirk emoji. He thought it was funny — as if Disney needed to take notes from him.
As it turned out, maybe they did. The next morning, 11 people had shared the video. He was elated. Nobody shared his stuff. It was weird. It was wonderful. By lunch, 150 people had shared it. Was … was his clip going viral? It was certainly viral by his humble standards. That night it had been shared 600 times, and it was just a great day all around. Six hundred shares!
The next morning over a million people had seen his video.
His page follower count had skyrocketed. It was dizzying. It was great. It was terrifying. All at once, he had put himself out there for the public in a big way … and with it came negativity. People take gumbo personally. (Ask Tiana.) He had prepared a simple chicken and sausage gumbo. It used Rouses rotisserie chicken. It was delicious! Everyone who had ever eaten it or made it themselves loved it. But suddenly, people who had never made it — people who had their own way of doing things — trained their vainglorious ire on Derouen. “You don’t know what the heck you’re doing!” and “You’re bad at cooking!” and “That’s not gumbo!” (Those were the polite versions.)
By day three of this, Derouen had had enough. He sat with his wife, Misty, and told her that he was done. It just wasn’t worth the sheer meanness of people. He was going to delete the whole page. He had tried. It wasn’t for him. He was out. And just when he was about to make Cajun Ninja vanish forever into the dark night, he got a positive comment. And another. And another. “Shares” on social media meander like the Mississippi River, branching off and coming back together. Sometimes those branches make rough, inhospitable waters, and sometimes they find spirited, friendly channels. The gumbo recipe was now in an amiable area of positive people on the Internet. “Wow,” said one, “this is awesome! I didn’t know how to make a roux!” Another: “I’m trying this tonight for dinner!”
It gave Derouen perspective. “You know what?” he says. “I realized that anything you do, there’s gonna be someone who doesn’t like it. But if you don’t share your knowledge, the people who don’t like it will never know who you really are and what it’s about.” Today he embraces the ones who bring negativity to the discussion. They come at him and he responds professionally. When they really come at him (negative people are relentless), Derouen reminds them that he didn’t find their page. They found his.
After that roller-coaster initial success, he decided to run with it. People wanted entertaining, step-by-step, first-person cooking, and he was going to serve it up. Egg rolls, jambalaya, pork chops, spaghetti. Soon, people weren’t waiting for him to cook something — they were making requests! “That was it from there,” he says. “Before that, I never really had any intention of doing this. It fell into my lap. But I enjoy cooking. I have a passion for it. I love how you can put something together through a process and then present it to someone, and they have it and say, ‘Man, this is so good.’ To cause that reaction — that warmth they felt when they took that first bite — makes it worth your labor. I love it,” he says.
ROLLING WITH IT
Though his profile has grown, his process hasn’t changed much. On screen, the Cajun Ninja persona is the same as ever because it’s just who Derouen is. (“Most of what you see is the natural me in my natural state when I’m excited.”) Off screen, he still uses his iPhone camera to record his videos, though he no longer does it through Snapchat. Once he started making longer videos, he had to learn how to edit video on a laptop and piece clips together. He watched clips created by his friends and asked them to teach him how they did various tricks and techniques. He learned how to make transitions, how to add music and sound effects. Learning to make cooking videos is a lot like learning how to cook: “You just learn over time,” he says. “That’s the real beauty of doing all this, to me, is that I’ve gotten better in things that I never would have dabbled in had I not put myself out on a platform and run with it. It makes me wonder how many people out there could be great at something, but they’re afraid of messing up.”
Derouen’s family is supportive of his newfound fame. “Misty understood that I’ve been holding back this feeling of entertainment for a long time. She knows it’s who I am. I love to make people smile, make people laugh, spreading positivity.” When the Cajun Ninja page took off, she was as surprised as he was, and has continued to help him reach his audience. The videos take all day to make. It requires quiet in the kitchen, so she keeps the kids entertained elsewhere. She helps with cleanup. (“She’s so OCD about cleaning — she’ll come back out and clean everything. I never expect that of her. She’s such great support.”)
Today, Derouen runs Cajun Ninja Products LLC. He’s recognized in public. People ask to take selfies with him. “I’m so excited that they’re excited,” he says. “It seems like we’re sharing the same feeling.” People make his recipes and share pictures of the finished product. “It’s humbling, to be honest. Super humbling.” With the onset of crawfish season, shows centered around that ingredient are planned. His request list is long. More meet-and-greets are in the works. “It’s a life-changing thing for me. I don’t worry as much. I control my destiny at this point.”