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David Rainer: Odette’s Ogden crowned Alabama Seafood Cook-Off champ

A dish prepared with one of the tasty fish species that can be reeled in from Alabama’s beautiful beaches was crowned champion of the 9th annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off at The Wharf in Orange Beach this week.

Odette Chef Ogden carefully plates the winning stuffed pompano dish at the Cook-Off. (Photo by Billy Pope, ADCNR)

Chef Kyle Ogden of Odette Restaurant in Florence, Ala., prepared his “Spring Tide” dish with pompano as the centerpiece, and it proved to be the winning preparation against three other finalists – Chef Emilio Urban from CoastAL in Orange Beach, Chef Justin Fridley of The Depot in Auburn, and Chef Laurence Agnew of Villaggio Grille in Orange Beach.

Ogden and sous chef Taylor Bradley prepared pompano stuffed with shrimp and crab meat, flavored with the sweet and sour agrodolce sauce, plus fresh Alabama vegetables and herbs for pesto.

“We use pompano quite a bit in the restaurant,” Ogden said. “I wanted our dish to be something you could get in the restaurant while still elevating it to competition level. It really kind of showcased some of the Alabama seafood we use on a regular basis as well as the local produce we use on a day-to-day basis. Kodachrome Gardens is a 501(c)(3) charity garden in Florence. They donate a lot of produce to the community as well as sell to the restaurants. When they sell to us, the proceeds go to the community aspect of their garden. We also used some micro greens that one of our cook’s grandmother grows, called MeeMaw’s Greens.

“This was a really great competition. I was kind of surprised we won. Everybody’s dishes looked great. I had a friend taking pictures so I could see their finished plates. I’m just really happy we were able to win. Thankfully our plate came out exactly how we do it in the restaurant, so I was very, very happy with it.”

Chef Emilio Urban and sous chef Chelsea Holbrook are all smiles after completing their shrimp dish at the Cook-Off. (Photo by: Billy Pope, ADCNR)

The judges, Chef Jim Smith of The Hummingbird Way restaurant in Mobile, Chef Brody Olive of Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Chef Arwen Rice of Red and White Restaurant in Mobile, and AL.com food writer Bob Carlton, were presented a variety of seafood preparations to judge. The dishes were awarded points in five categories: presentation, general impression and serving methods; creativity and practicality; composition and harmony of ingredients; correct preparation and craftsmanship; and flavor, taste and texture. Each category was worth up to 20 points for a total of 100 points.

Commissioner Chris Blankenship of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off is a great opportunity to market the seafood industry in Alabama.

“A lot of people don’t know what all we do have on the Alabama Gulf Coast,” 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.”

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.”

Chef Fridley and sous chef Benjamin Rosen had to step in at the last minute after Chef Robbie Nicolaisen of The Hound in Auburn had to drop out of the competition. Fridley and Rosen prepared jerk-marinated red snapper with grilled watermelon salad with a molasses vinaigrette and goat cheese. Rosen snatched the snapper out of the oven at the last second and the team plated their dish just before time ran out.

“We used fresh citrus, a little bit of sugar and different hot peppers,” Fridley said. “We marinated the snapper as long as possible, so we knew that fish was going to come down to the wire. We hit it on the grill and threw it in the oven to finish it off. Following that theme, we wanted to add fresh season ingredients as well. Snapper is a great fish. We got the call really late, so we had to use what we had on hand. The Hound is a sister restaurant, so we had to step up and support them as best we could.”

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 Chef 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 something prized in my neck of the woods.”

Chef Ogden also gets a chance to follow Olive’s path by competing in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off later this summer in New Orleans.

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