The four finalists at the recent 7th annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off at The Lodge at Gulf State Park gave the five esteemed judges a difficult task in determining who will represent the state in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans.
With a variety of creative dishes to sample, the judges voted the more traditional fare as the top creations, awarding Jeffrey Compton of Homewood’s The Battery restaurant the $2,500 top prize.
This year’s Cook-Off judges were Jim Smith, chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission and Executive Chef at The Hummingbird Way; Steve Zucker of Bob Baumhower’s Aloha Hospitality restaurants; Chris Nelson, Vice President of Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc.; Jason Burnett, founder of Oyster Obsession and digital director of Flower magazine; and Chef James Balster, Executive Chef of The Lodge at Gulf State Park.
The contestants had one hour to prepare their dishes, and the presentations were awarded up to 20 points each in five categories: presentation, general impression and serving methods; creativity and practicality; composition and harmony of ingredients; correct preparation and craftsmanship; and flavor, taste and texture. The teams started preparing the dishes at five-minute intervals to allow the judges to taste the dishes at peak readiness.
Compton’s winning Butter-Poached Redfish consisted of Alabama redfish, new potato blue crab salad, late spring vegetables, lemon aioli and garden herbs.
Compton, who was assisted by Kyle Kirkpatrick, grew up in the Florida Panhandle and went to Auburn University to continue his education. However, he was lured to the kitchen of Acre restaurant in Auburn and developed his meal preparation skills before opening a new restaurant in the Birmingham suburb.
“I grew up in Destin working on the beach, so I’ve always been around redfish,” Compton said. “I used redfish because it still has that white meat, but it’s a little firmer. That’s why I poached it in butter. I plated with a nice, light blue crab and potato salad. I thought those two paired well for balance.”
Cook-Off emcee Pete “Panini” Blohme said Morgan McWaters’ presentation “screamed Alabama” and was deemed runner-up in the competition.
McWaters, head chef at The Depot in Auburn, prepared a dish called Fried Green Snapper, which combined green tomatoes, Gulf red snapper, spicy creamed corn, jumbo crab, Granny Smith apple and red cabbage slaw, and Alabama white sauce.
“I really wanted to highlight fried green tomatoes, and I wanted to do it in a way to bring it to the next level,” said McWaters, who was assisted by Blaze Farrell. “I decided to wrap red snapper. That’s where the inspiration came from. I pan-seared my red snapper. I took it off and wrapped it in green tomatoes. I dipped it in buttermilk and coated it with a flour-cornmeal mixture and deep fried it.
“When I think of Alabama, I think of fried green tomatoes. I used red snapper because it has a mild, white flesh.”
Sam Adams of (small batch) pop-up tasting events in Birmingham offered her Seafood Tamal dish that was prepared with Alabama Gulf blue crab, black garlic masa, shrimp stock, fermented corn, shrimp pico de gallo, oyster emulsion with candied habaneros and local radishes.
“I made this because I thought it was very different, and Hispanic cuisine is near to my heart,” said Adams, who was assisted by Liz Brody. “I added the crab to the tamal with some tomatillos and jalapeños with vinegar to add some super bright acid to stand against the rich black garlic. We used beautiful Royal Red shrimp in the pico to get the richness from the shrimp. And the oyster emulsion is just a full, creamy experience in terms of textures.”
Robbie Nicolaisen of The Hound restaurant in Auburn presented an Asian twist in his seafood dish of Binchotan Grilled Cobia, which consisted of Alabama Gulf cobia, Chubby Belly XO glaze, crab fat rice middlins, green tomato dashi, nuoc cham braised cabbage and collard green togarashi.
“Every component in the dish has some influence from the ocean,” said Nicolaisen, who was assisted by Fernando Justiniano.
Judge Chris Nelson, whose family has been in the seafood business since the late 1880s, said it was a difficult task to determine the best dishes in the competition, and the winners were chosen by razor-thin margins.
“I thought it was a great representation of all the seafood products we have available here on the Gulf Coast, especially here in Alabama,” Nelson said. “I particularly liked the shrimp dishes, but I’m a little biased in that direction. The fish was excellent. Everything was prepared really, really well. I was impressed because the environment they had to cook in was probably not at all what they would normally prepare these dishes in.
“All my scores were within a point of each other. I had a tie, and they asked us to rank it to break the tie. I made a call on how practical the ingredients were. Some of the preparations were really complicated, so that detracted a little bit. But it all tasted wonderful.”
Scott Simpson, Executive Chef and co-owner of The Depot in Auburn, was the 2021 Cook-Off winner. Simpson’s winning dish last year combined pan-seared Gulf yellow edge grouper and Gulf shrimp with poblano chiles, sweet corn and Conecuh bacon risotto with cilantro crema.
“Everything was really delicious with beautiful presentations all the way around,” Simpson said as he presented the winners. “What a great group of competitors and culinarians to represent Alabama. It just shows the level of young talent the state is developing. It’s very encouraging.”
Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, oversees the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, which was established in 2011 to promote Alabama’s seafood resources. Commissioner Blankenship was pleased with the competition and support from all who enjoy Gulf seafood.
“It was great to have the competition at The Lodge at Gulf State Park,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We have all these great chefs right at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, taking these fine Alabama seafood products, preparing them with other Alabama products, like produce and fruit. When they use their creativity and talent to put that together in a dish, you know it’s going to be spectacular.
“I think all four of the participants really did a great job. They had a tough time picking a winner. But Jeffrey Compton prepared a great dish, and he’s going to represent us in New Orleans against the other states in August to try to be king of American seafood.”
– David Rainer – Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources