Let’s start with the obvious — it was much more fun that judging a karaoke contest. Do they still even have those? Is karaoke still a thing? Do people still gather around the mic and sing “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Patches” by Clarence Carter? Has anyone actually ever really sung “Patches?” or is that just my dream?
But yes, being asked to be a judge at the Mississippi Seafood Cook-Off on Thursday was pretty awesome.
I was among the five judges who tasted 10 dishes prepared by 10 chefs from across the state. Other judges were Chef Jim Smith of Montgomery — a contestant on “Top Chef”; Chef Alexei Harrison, instructor at Culinary Arts Institute in Jackson; Chef Vishwesh Bhatt, head chef of Snackbar in Oxford, nominated for James Beard Foundation’s 2017 Best Chef South; and last year’s winner and Chef Alex Eaton of The Manship Wood Fired Kitchen in Jackson, who happens to be the national seafood cook-off champion.
Participating in the competition were Billy Cresswell, Scarlet Pearl Casino in D’Iberville; Cole Ellis, Delta Meat Market, Cleveland; John Fitzgerald, Restaurant Tyler, Starkville; Michael Greenhill, Walker’s Drive In, Jackson; Matthew Kajdan, Estelle Wine Bar and Bistro, Jackson; Louis LaRose, Lou’s Full-Serv, Jackson; Jean-Paul Lavallee, Oak Crest Mansion, Pass Christian; David Leathers, Forklift, Tupelo, Robert Tushton, Local 463, Madison, and David Dickensauge, Corks & Cleaver, Gulfport.
My good friend and former roommate Mitchell McCamey, Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, Tupelo, was on the list to participate but he did not make it. That’s both too bad, because Kermit’s is my favorite restaurant, but also good because Kermit’s is my favorite restaurant and Mitch is one of my boys.
The winner of the contest was Chef Dickensauge’s Mississippi Seafood Pho. When Dickensauge was describing his dish to the judges, he said he wanted to do something that paid tribute to the Coast’s Vietnamese community.
The pho had a very flavorful broth that tasted of star anise and cinnamon and coriander and ginger. It was poured over a large head-on shrimp, jumbo lump crab and crawfish. It was topped with a snapper jowl and it had homemade rice noodles. Dickensauge made his own kimchi and fish sauce and hoisin sauce. His attention to detail was flawless.
But the best bite of the entire dish was the son-in-law egg, which was a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg that was cut in half and fried in tempura batter.
My other favorite dish was Lavallee’s honeysuckle-infused shrimp and grits. The flavor profile of the dish was perfect. Although everyone on the Coast thinks they can make better shrimp and grits than the next person, Lavallee brought it with his labor of love.
Although the level of pressure for a judge is not nearly the same as that of one of the participating chefs, it was still a fairly intense competition. The food was plated and delivered to the judges’ table and then there was 10 minutes to search for the perfect bite, make notes, grade the dish and move on the next one. It was a lot of food spread out over two hours.
After it was over, my friend Bucky Cole approached me and said, “Hey, man, you want to go to the Waffle House?”
Nah man, I’m good.