Chef Jim Smith, Chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission and Executive Chef of the State of Alabama, was a recent contestant on Season 14 of Bravo’s Top Chef. He represented our state well, competing in 7 of the season’s 14 episodes before being sent home.
We love seeing Alabama chefs in the national spotlight, so we sat down with Chef Smith to discuss his Top Chef experience. Whether you’re a fan of the show or just a fan of Alabama Gulf Seafood, check out what he had to say.
When did you find out you’d been selected to compete on Season 14 of Top Chef? Was it an application process or were you invited?
I first found out almost exactly a year ago. Late March, early April. Just making it on the show is incredibly difficult—I believe there were over 30,000 applicants for last season. It’s a long process, and it involves interviews and sending in lots of recipes and pictures of your food, and the people who pick the cast have a really difficult job.
Once you got the good news, how did you start preparing for the competition?
I did probably more prep work than a lot of people do before going on the show. I’ve been a fan of the show for a long time, but I went back and rewatched almost every season and took extensive notes. I also took a trip to Charleston to scout locations and get to where I thought parts of the competition might happen. So I really spent a lot of time, in the short bit of time before filming, really studying Top Chef. I also spent time at The Optimist in Atlanta, just to sort of get back in the pace of what it’s like to work in a busy restaurant.
As you were preparing for the competition, did you reach out to any previous contestants for advice?
Yes, I reached out to Wesley True, who’s a good friend of mine. He was on Season 13, and lots of Alabamians know him from his restaurants in Mobile and Montgomery. He was the chef at The Optimist when I was there. He was a big help with giving me some advice and helping me get ready.
You mention making a trip to Charleston. Do you feel that being a native Southerner gave you any sort of advantage, since the competition was nearby?
I don’t really think I had an advantage, but I think that a lot of the challenges that I experienced were challenges that I should’ve performed well in. Lots of times I did, sometimes I didn’t. Really everyone who is a competitor is so good—you might think you have an advantage, but maybe that thought creates a disadvantage. Everyone is so talented, you never really know what’s going to come next. So even the challenges that had a Southern tilt to them, everyone found space for their unique perspective as a chef.
I know Top Chef is pretty rigorous. How quickly did you adjust to the rigors of a competition like this?
Yeah, it is really a rigorous schedule. And there’s always sort of this element where you never really know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. But for me, I did a lot of exercising beforehand to make sure I was physically in shape to compete. I don’t think you ever really get used to it, but you don’t ever really stop the adrenaline pumping, and those sorts of things help out. Even if it’s been a super long day, you know there’s something to fight for at the end.
Were you allowed to use Alabama Gulf Seafood in the competitions?
You know, I would’ve chosen to use Alabama seafood at any and every opportunity. We do a lot of shopping at Whole Foods, and because of that, the seafood that we used was either what we could find at Whole Foods or what was caught in the Charleston area, which was excellent. In one challenge, I served some South Carolina shrimp which were absolutely beautiful. I didn’t really get a chance to use any Alabama seafood, although I would’ve loved to. You’ve got to create with what they give you. We had a great trash fish challenge on the show which focused on secondary species that were caught in the Atlantic off the Carolina coast, and it was a lot of fun. There were a lot of fish that I’m used to working with, but they came from different waters.
How close did you become with the other contestants? Have any of them expressed interest in potentially featuring Alabama Gulf Seafood on their menus?
Yeah, definitely. I’m really close with almost everybody in the cast from this season. In fact, last weekend I did a dinner in Arizona with John Tesar, and in April I’m doing an event with several other chefs from our season. I think probably everyone on the show would love to use Alabama seafood.
Any plans in the works along those lines?
Nothing formally planned, but I know that the chefs on the show like to use the best ingredients possible, and they heard me talk a lot about Alabama seafood. I know that lots of them—all of them—are interested in Alabama seafood, and when you’re using the best ingredients possible, there’s no way you could exclude Alabama seafood from that list.
What would you say is your favorite memory from this past season?
I think my favorite memory was the Edna Lewis challenge. It was really great that the show featured such a prominent Southern chef that a lot of people may not know about. For me, it was really a chance to let the soul of my food shine by getting inspiration from someone like Edna Lewis. Other than that, coming away from the show with such great friends is an amazing highlight.
What would you say is your biggest takeaway from Top Chef Season 14?
I definitely learned a lot about myself as a chef. I learned a lot of cool techniques and ideas from other chefs on the show. It was fun to watch all of us go through the same sort of trials and watch how we approached them. It was wonderful to see chefs like Shirley [Chung] and Sheldon [Simeon], who cook in ways so different from Southern food, be inspired by Southern ingredients in the Southern-inspired challenges. It was just a great experience working with a lot of really talented chefs.
What’s next for Chef Jim Smith?
I have a box that’s being released that people can buy. It’s from Crate Chef, and it features all Alabama ingredients, or things that are produced in Alabama. I included a shrimp recipe that calls for Alabama shrimp. It’ll be available for purchase in April or May. I’m really excited about it.