Chef Rob McDaniel Taps “By-Catch Fish” for the Great American Seafood Cook-Off

The competition is hotter than ever at this year’s Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans, La. set to take place on Aug. 3.

The first eight years of the Cook-Off were dominated by Southern chefs. Alabama’s own Chef Jim Smith, executive chef for the state of Alabama, took home the ultimate prize in 2011, and chefs from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Georgia were crowned champion in earlier years.

That all changed in 2012 when Oregon’s Chef Gregory Gourdet took home the top prize, defeating veteran chefs representing 15 other states from Maine to Hawaii.

This year, Alabama is looking to bring the title back to the South. We’ve got a formidable challenger in Rob McDaniel, executive chef of the acclaimed SpringHouse restaurant, located in the Russell Crossroads area of Lake Martin. A successful restaurateur, McDaniel also serves as general manager of Lake Martin’s Kowaliga restaurant. This past spring, he was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef South.

And he’s looking forward to putting an inventive spin on Alabama Gulf Seafood once again.

“I was extremely pleased to have been asked to represent our state,” McDaniel said. “I love what’s going on in the food world in Alabama right now. Alabama has one of the best opportunities to become known for our food.”

There will be another Alabama celebrity chef at the Cook-Off as well. Martie Duncan, a Birmingham native and finalist in the eighth season of “Next Food Network Star,” will be one of three emcees for the event.

Alabama has certainly become a major player in the farm-to-table movement, and Alabama Gulf Seafood has been a big part of that.

But McDaniel isn’t interested in showcasing Alabama’s one of most popular fish, like Red Snapper, Grouper or Flounder. He’s more concerned with taking a lesser-known fish like Sea Bream, officially named redbone porgy—what he calls a “by-catch fish”—and proving that our underappreciated species can be just as tasty as the household names.

“I decided to use a by-catch fish that most people don’t use,” McDaniel said. “We’ve been using [Sea Bream (porgy)] at SpringHouse too. There are a lot of great things in the Gulf, and it’s unfortunate that a lot of what people eat and know about are just the popular things.”

McDaniel’s dish for the Cook-Off will be Pan Seared Gulf Sea Bream and Bayou La Batre Shrimp with Baby Okra, Silver Queen Corn, Heirloom Tomato, Lake Martin Chantrelles and Shrimp Broth.

To get ready for the competition, McDaniel began preparing the dish two or three times a week at SpringHouse since the beginning of July. With a couple weeks to go before the competition, he began preparing the dish every day and timing himself to make sure everything goes according to plan on August 3.

McDaniel has another edge when it comes to preparation; both Smith and Chef Chris Hastings, last year’s Alabama representative at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, were colleagues of his in the kitchen of Birmingham’s Hot And Hot Fish Club years ago.

Both former Cook-Off contestants will be providing advice for McDaniel before he leaves for New Orleans. The only problem will be keeping the conversations focused.

“I spoke to Chris earlier this month,” McDaniel said. “We got caught up talking about heirloom tomatoes and not about the competition.”

The opening ceremony for the Great American Seafood Cook-Off will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 3 with closing ceremonies beginning at 4:30 p.m. The event is open to the public, and tickets are now on sale.

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