By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
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.”