Local chefs show off local fare at Alabama Seafood Cook-Off

Local chefs show off local fare at Alabama Seafood Cook-Off
Emilio Urban from CoastAL, Laurence Agnew from Villaggio compete; Brody Olive of PBR among judges

By David Rainer
Al. Dept. of Con. & Natural Resources
In addition to the winning dish prepared by Chef Kyle Ogden of Odette Restaurant in Florence, the recent Alabama Seafood Cook-Off at The Wharf in Orange Beach included dishes prepared by two Orange Beach based chefs: Emilio Urban from CoastAL and Laurence Agnew of Villaggio Grille. Justin Fridley of The Depot in Auburn also competed.
Chef Urban and sous chef Chelsea Holbrook presented the judges with his “Fruits of the Gulf” dish with jumbo shrimp sauteed in a chili-citrus infused oil with a mackerel fume and roasted bell pepper beurre blanc. To finish the dish off, chicharrónes were made from the mackerel skin.
“We try to use every aspect of the fish,” Urban said. “We want to make sure we get everything out of the fish to show respect. The mackerel skin is very nice if you fry it up real nice and add the proper spices – chili pepper and salt. It adds a nice little crunch.
“I started cooking in kitchens a long time ago. I came to the coast when I was 18, and I just fell in love with the seafood scene down here. We are able to get fresh products down here and really showcase the talent that’s down here on the beach and the progression of our cuisine. The culinary scene has increased 10-fold down here, and I’m extremely happy to live on the Alabama Gulf Coast and produce the seafood dishes we do.”
In an attempt to emulate Chef Olive’s winning dish from last year’s competition, Chef Agnew and sous chef Terrance Johnson went with a couple of far less utilized species to prepare “King Billy Whelkomes You,” a play on one of the ingredients, oyster drills that are part of the whelk family. Agnew chose butterflied croakers for the fish preparation and oysters for a stew. A fennel salad was also prepared as well as a salsa verde. The team also made a focaccia bread crouton with a crab butter spread.
“Oyster drills are known to destroy oyster beds,” Agnew said. “By using oyster drills, Gulf whelks, we could not only create an interest in eating them but also adding a unique item to Alabama seafood production. At the same time, we can eat something delicious and help out our oyster farmers. The drills are purged, like we do crawfish, and then quickly blanched in a courtbouillon style. Then I cooled them down and sliced them razor thin to add to the oyster stew.
“I worked for a chef in New Orleans 20 years ago, and we made tripletail a fun fish to eat, and it’s delicious. It’s all about what more can we use that’s in the Gulf and not overfish any specific species.”
Speaking of Olive’s winning dish of gafftopsail catfish (gafftop or sailcat), he went on to win the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans.
“That gafftop was a result of a bad day of fishing,” Olive said. “We cooked our bait buckets too – sand fleas and bait shrimp. We turned those into complementing sauces. It was something to have a lot of fun with and challenge ourselves.”
Olive also had fun in New Orleans with the gafftop, a fish that most anglers throw back.
“It was great to be able to shout ‘Roll Tide’ to (Louisiana) Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser,” he said. “We were right next door to Team Louisiana with all their LSU Tiger stuff. It was such an exciting event, showcasing my two loves in life – being outdoors and fishing and being able to share that experience with friends and family. My parents were there and my wife and kids, so it was an excellent win.
“I always knew I was going to use some underutilized species in the competition. I really just wanted to showcase my true fishing ability, which is not great. It’s better to be lucky than good when it comes to fishing for me. I grew up freshwater fishing (Smith Lake), and catfish was always prized in my neck of the woods.”
“A lot of people don’t know what all we do have on the Alabama Gulf Coast,” Dept. of Nat. Resources Commissioner Blankenship said. “We had coastal chefs, but we also had one from Auburn and one from Florence. They are cooking great seafood from one end of our state to the other. They’re serving it in Birmingham, Montgomery, Florence, Huntsville, Auburn and Tuscaloosa as well as down here on the coast. Anywhere in Alabama, you’re able to get that good, fresh local product.
“Like always, it’s great to get these chefs down here using Alabama seafood. We had snapper. We had croaker. We had shrimp. We had pompano. All four chefs used different types of fish and seafood. They mixed it with good local produce and herbs from Alabama. It’s great see them take Alabama seafood and put it together with other great Alabama products to make dishes that are just outstanding. I appreciate these chefs who take their creativity and really turn it into something special.”
Pictured: Chef Emilio Urban and sous chef Chelsea Holbrook are all smiles after completing their shrimp dish at the Cook-Off.