Chef Scott Simpson, who brings a global approach to dishes at The Depot in Auburn, will represent Alabama at the 17th Annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off. The winner will hold the title of King or Queen of American Seafood.
The competition is set for Saturday, Aug. 7, in New Orleans. Simpson is ready.
“I’m really competitive by nature, whether it’s sports or anything else,” he says. “I look at things quite strategically and do everything I can to give myself the best opportunity to perform well. I’m one of those people who believe that today’s preparation is tomorrow’s performance.”
In 2018, Simpson placed second at the Fourth Annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off. In June, he took first place at the state competition, which led him to New Orleans, where he will compete against 12 other chefs from around the country.
In Gulf Shores, he wowed the crowd with pan-seared Gulf yellow edge grouper, and he’ll cook something similar in New Orleans.
“I’m doing a kind of remake, a new version of it, but the same ingredients, same procedure for each ingredient, just structured together a little bit differently,” he says. “I’m calling it ‘poblano-wrapped seared Gulf grouper,’ and that’s with a saffron Veracruz sauce. And it’s on a Gulf shrimp, Conecuh bacon, street corn risotto.”
The dish is a perfect example of the bold, creative mix of flavors and cuisines this executive chef offers his guests when they come to the restaurant he co-owns with Matt and Jana Poirier in the historic train depot in downtown Auburn. The Depot is a place where Simpson tops wood-fired grilled oysters with a garlic chipotle butter, mixes Mexican-style chorizo sausage into his blue crab dip, and pairs McEwan & Sons organic blue corn grits with a gochujang barbecue sauce on a sweet tea-brined Beeler’s porkchop.
His global inspiration comes from a childhood spent enjoying the foods of an Italian grandmother on one side and a Hispanic grandmother on the other. Surrounded by good cooks and good food from a young age, Simpson says he’s always known he’d make his way in the world through food. And he’s done exactly that.
Simpson grew up in California, and his formal food education and background include training in Florence, Italy, at the Giuliano Bugialli Professional Culinary School (the first English-language cooking school in Italy) and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, California, where he trained under such prestigious chefs as Rick Bayless, Roberto Donna, Michael Chiarello, Terri Sanderson and Karen McNeil.
Then he ventured even farther afield.
With a career spanning 30 years, he has trained other chefs and opened ultra-luxury properties around the world – from across the U.S. to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Jamaica and back home again. He came to Auburn in 2014 to become executive chef and culinary educator for The Hotel at Auburn University and a culinary instructor for Auburn’s Hospitality Management Program. After spending some time in Auburn, he met the Poiriers (founders and owners of The Hound in downtown Auburn) and, together with general manager Richard Tomasello, they opened a Gulf seafood brasserie at the Auburn Train Depot.
Focusing on sustainable and responsibly harvested seafood, Simpson, the son of a marine biologist, became the first fully qualified and certified James Beard Smart Catch chef in Alabama. So he comes to this national seafood cook-off, which promotes the quality and variety of domestic seafood, with a depth of knowledge.
During the Great American Seafood Cook-Off competition, each chef will prepare a dish highlighting the use of domestic seafood while interacting with the audience and celebrity hosts Chef Cory Bahr (Food Network Star finalist, Food Network Chopped champion and former King of Louisiana Seafood), KLFY TV10’s Gerald Gruenig and “Chef Ref” Michael Brewer, also a former King of Louisiana Seafood. A panel of nationally renowned judges will score each dish based on presentation, creativity, composition, craftsmanship and flavor.
Discerning diners look for much the same, and so excellence is always the goal – on a stage or in the dining room.
“For competition, it’s different because you really have a lot of eyes on you,” Simpson says. “There’s a stopwatch that’s constantly on the forefront of your mind, and you have other people who are beside you – quickly moving – that are competing against you. When I’m in the restaurant, we are 100% team, we are 100% family.
“In the restaurant, we certainly take the mentality that we’re going to create a winning dish. We’re going to fine-tune it, and then we’re going to present it to our service staff, let them taste it, talk through it. And then we run that night with high expectations that … we’re going to see nothing but clean plates coming back, and guests are going to tell us that’s the best whatever they’ve ever had. That’s what we go for.”
Simpson says this upcoming competition and the opportunity to represent Alabama is “an amazing validation of all we’ve been trying to do since we opened the doors almost six years ago. We’ve been trying to showcase Alabama, to be comparable to the best in other foodie cities around our country. And we felt very confident that we could do that.”
Perhaps a teacher at heart – and most certainly a lifelong learner – Simpson says, “I’m taking a chef de partie. Her name’s Morgan McWaters. She came from a small operation … so she’s really earned most of her, if not all of her, cooking skills here, and she’s the one that helped me (in Gulf Shores). … And so, I’m looking forward to her now going to this next level and getting that experience. Of course, I get the chance to show her what other chefs are doing … I mean, the kinds of presentations that everyone’s attempting in this hour time frame are very aggressive, and I would say they’re on the edge. … I’m excited to see what everyone else puts out, to maybe have some takeaway ideas from this, to have the camaraderie of meeting some other great chefs from across the country.
“I hope to perform to our best possible ability and to leave everything there in New Orleans that we can possibly put forth and to feel – because of a lot of preparation – no regrets,” he says. “And to know that we gave ourselves every possible chance to showcase Alabama and The Depot restaurant and the whole culinary team – front and back of the house – who’ve done such a great job to develop us.
“This is right in our wheelhouse,” he adds. “It’s like a slow pitch to what we aspire to do each and every night. So I think that it would be great validation and confirmation of everything we’ve been doing and striving for in this restaurant ever since we opened.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)