Great American Seafood Cook-Off finds regional chefs topping field of nation’s best

Chefs from Gulf Coast states captured the three top prizes at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off on Saturday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, with Florida chef Terry White being crowned King of American Seafood.

White, who co-owns Sage Restaurant in Tallahassee, won with his dish of country ham-crusted Gulf cobia with spiny lobster gyoza, caramelized baby bok choy and a Florida orange and saffron emulsion.

Second place went to Larry Delgado for his Texas Two-Step dish, which featured all Texas ingredients, including Gulf shrimp and prickly pear cactus. His restaurant is house.wine.&bistro in McAllen.

Louisiana’s representative, Aaron Burgau, chef-owner of Patois restaurant in New Orleans, came in third, with a dish of sautéed grouper, grilled Gulf shrimp, sweet corn sabayon, charred okra and smoked Creole tomato vinaigrette.

Eighteen chefs representing states from Alaska to New York took part in the 11th annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off, presented by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board in New Orleans through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Considered North America’s premier seafood cooking competition, the event “is dedicated to promoting sustainable and domestic fisheries.”

The chefs competed at cooking stations under their state flags set up in front of bleachers filled with their family members and friends and attendees to the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s 61st annual Louisiana Foodservice & Hospitality Expo. Each chef had one hour to prepare a dish using seafood native to his or her home state. Then, they described their dishes to the six judges who made the final decision.

Mississippi chef David Crews, the 2013 winner, put the king’s crown on White’s head.

White, 37, has been cooking since he was a little boy, said his mother, Bonnie White. “I have a picture of him at four at his grandmother’s stirring a pot,” she said.

His entourage also included his business partner, Craig Richardson, who described their restaurant’s cuisine as “American based on classic French cooking.”

Shortly after his win, White said he chose to spotlight cobia “because the fish is near and dear to me.” He described it as an “under-utilized fish that I wanted to showcase.” He said he wanted his dish “to be simple and pure; I wanted that fish to shine with the spiny lobster.”

Burgau, who won the right to represent Louisiana when he beat nine other chefs from across the state in May at the seventh annual Louisiana Seafood Cook-off, said he chose to focus on grouper because “it’s one of my favorite fish.” The New Orleans native said he kept his dish simple on the advice of former Louisiana competitors.

“This is another event that puts a spotlight on Louisiana and especially New Orleans,” Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said while watching the competition. “It is the signature event for the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board which gives us the opportunity to promote Louisiana seafood as the premium product it is.”

Many states hold seafood cook-offs in the spring and early summer to qualify chefs to compete in New Orleans. In addition to the Florida, Texas and Louisiana chefs, those competing Saturday represented Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

Judges were Brian West, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio; Ben Pollinger, executive chef of Oceana in New York City; Kris Moon, senior director of the James Beard Foundation; Susie Selby, winemaker and proprietor of Selby Winery; Steve Green, founder and president of #Foodiechats; and Barbara Mathias, publisher/vice president of Food Arts magazine.

Hosting the event were actor Anthony Anderson, who hosts the new Food Network program, “Eat America,” and whose new ABC sitcom, “Black-ish” will premiere this fall; Baton Rouge food blogger and chef Jay Ducote, of Bite and Booze; and Cory Bahr, chef-owner of Cotton restaurant in Monroe who was winner of the 2011 Louisiana Seafood Cook-off and the winner when he appeared on the Food Network’s “Chopped.”