By David Rainer
If there’s one thing that will pique my interest without hesitation, it is Alabama’s fresh seafood.
Hence, I didn’t hesitate when invited to the Alabama Seafood Summit and accompanying Alabama Seafood Cook-Off at The Wharf in Orange Beach last week.
The Alabama Seafood Cook-Off opened the festivities at The Wharf’s Heron Pointe, where four top Alabama chefs were pitted to determine who would advance to the Greater American Seafood Cook-Off later this summer in New Orleans.
The culinary competitors were Chef Gillian Clark of Kitchen on George in Mobile, Chef Leonardo Maurelli III of Ariccia Trattoria in Auburn, Chef Brody Olive of Perdido Beach Resort and Chef Josh Quick of Odette’s in Florence.
While Miss Kay Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame chatted and posed for photos, the judges had the unenviable task of choosing the top dish. They managed to persevere and made the choice.
And the winning dish, drum roll, please; it was red snapper, of course, the tasty reef fish that basically made Orange Beach a mecca for anglers who want to catch this species that abundantly inhabits the vast artificial reef zones off the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Chef Quick’s winning dish was Berbere Spiced Gulf Red Snapper with Crushed Potatoes and Andouille, Shiitake Mushroom Nage, and Dandelion Green Pesto.
Chef Quick also automatically qualifies for the 2016 World Food Championships, which will also be held at The Wharf this September.
With the champion crowned, the Alabama Seafood Summit moved to its goal of promoting Alabama’s delicious seafood through education and networking among the producers, distributors and end-users.
After being welcomed by John McMillan, Commissioner of Alabama Agriculture and Industries, and Alabama Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship, attendees heard from Chris Sherrill, the Executive Chef of Flora-Bama Yacht Club.
Sherrill, who deals with the price of fresh seafood on a daily basis, has been on a quest to take underutilized species, like sheepshead, gafftopsail catfish, jack crevalle and even bonita, and prepare dishes that appeal to a wide array of customers.
To help accomplish that goal, Sherrill formed the NUISANCE Group, which stands for Nuisance Underutilized Invasive Sustainable Available Noble Culinary Endeavor.
“Now that’s a big acronym but it encompasses everything I’m passionate about,” Sherrill said. “It started out of frustration with some of the limits and regulations. When we first moved down here from Birmingham, all we served was snapper, grouper and all the great fish everyone talks about. As things got tighter and tougher, we were falling into the trap of imports. We wanted to get out of it but didn’t know how.
“So I started looking at other species out there that I could turn into great culinary experiences. We started eating weird things out of the Gulf, and then it turned into a passion.”
The start of Sherrill’s quest coincided with the start of an invasion of a dreaded species of fish into Alabama waters. The lionfish is a prolific invasive species that can take over a reef system in a short period of time. The main avenue of harvest of lionfish is through the diving community, which makes it difficult to deter the spread of the fish.
Sherrill said he got a call from Blankenship, who suggested the chef develop some lionfish recipes and help get the word out about how delicious the white, flaky filets could be. Of course, another goal was to dispel the rumors that the fish’s meat is affected by the venom in the fish’s fins.
“We got our hands on them and found the lionfish to be one of the best-eating fish in the Gulf of Mexico,” Sherrill said.
Sherrill said a lionfish derby was held in Pensacola, Fla., recently and divers brought more than 8,000 lionfish to the docks during a 72-hour period.
“And the lionfish are getting bigger,” he said. “We used to see mainly 8-inch fish. Now we’re seeing 12- and 14-inch fish. So ask your restaurant about lionfish, and if you get an opportunity to try them, please do.”
One species that fishermen consider a bycatch is the jack crevalle, which yields a bloody filet. However, Sherrill has overcome the stigma of that appearance.
“We treat it like beef,” he said. “We marinate it and grill it like we would beef. Chris (Blankenship) had a group of congressional staffers down to show them how many red snapper were on our reefs. That night, we fed them at our restaurant. I cooked the snapper several different ways, and I also grilled some jack crevalle. When dinner was finished, there was snapper left but all the jack crevalle was gone.”
A grocers’ panel and food service panel followed before Capt. Troy Frady shared his experience in the charter boat business and how he adapted to the regulations and limits that Sherrill mentioned. He changed his business model to appeal to a certain niche of Gulf Coast visitors.
“On my website, I asked what my customers wanted to do,” Frady said. “To my amazement, 85 percent said they just wanted enough fish for dinner. The people who want coolers full of fish, they’re not my customers. I target families and people who just want to go fishing and enjoy the experience.”
After Jason Burnett shared his obsession with oysters (oyster-obsession.com) during lunch, Director Blankenship deemed the fourth Alabama Seafood Summit another great success.
“I think coupling the Alabama Seafood Summit with the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off worked really well,” Blankenship said. “We had four great chefs cooking some great seafood. That gave us an opportunity to highlight the great seafood we have in Alabama.
“I appreciate Chris Sherrill speaking about his NUISANCE Group. That’s really a good initiative that we’re trying to push because we have species like Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, mullet and sheepshead that we land an abundance of commercially in Alabama that aren’t usual items on restaurant menus. Using great chefs, like Chris Sherrill, to highlight those dishes with the underutilized species is very important to get those species on the menus.”
One new feature that was discussed during the summit is the ability to track fish from the time it’s caught to the time it hits the plate in the restaurant.
“There are several initiatives to track fish when they’re caught,” Blankenship said. “There’s a Gulf Wild program, FishTracks and Trace Register. The programs track when and where the fish was caught, through the distribution chain and into the restaurant.
“And we urge people to find out about the seafood they’re being served. ‘Ask, Never Settle’ is one of our slogans. We want people to ask, ‘Where is this shrimp from? Where is this fish from? Where is this crab meat from?’ We want to ensure that people are getting the best seafood, and they’re getting what they paid for.”
Blankenship said business relationships developed by commercial interests, like seafood processors, restaurants, retailers and distributors, are the main reason for the Alabama Seafood Summit.
“I talked to some people who have been doing business with people they met at the first Seafood Summit,” he said. “Now two companies in Bayou La Batre are this large distributor’s main suppliers for oysters and crab meat. Success stories like that are why we do the Summit.
“All four years of the Summit we’ve partnered with the Department of Agriculture and Industries. We really appreciate Commissioner McMillan’s support. We really think it’s great foresight on his part to help seafood businesses just like they do agriculture and farmers. We really value this partnership.”