I get invited about six times a month to judge an upcoming cooking competition.
I used to accept most of these invitations because it was a way to educate my palate and become a more discerning diner and a better food writer. These days, I rarely agree to judge, mainly because as a new parent I have less time outside work to devote to such activities.
But when the N.C. Seafood Festival folks asked me to judge their chefs’ competition earlier this month, I couldn’t pass it up. It was an opportunity to taste the food of chefs from up and down the North Carolina coast – food I would otherwise likely never get to taste. I suspected it would give me a dining to-do list for future trips to the beach. That’s exactly what it did.
The seafood festival, now in its 27th year, attracts an estimated 180,000 people over three days to downtown Morehead City. The festival is part miniature state fair with carnival rides, music and funnel cakes, part arts and crafts festival and part celebration of all things seafood. For the third year, it has included a chefs’ cooking contest. Eight chefs competed: two in each round tried to produce the best dish using the secret ingredient of sea trout. Four other judges and I helped decide which two chefs would advance to the finals. The public chose a winner after tasting the finalists’ dishes.
I tasted a lot of excellent food that afternoon, but I was most intrigued by these three chefs:
Chef Gerry Fong, who owns Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant in New Bern, served one of the most flavorful dishes of the competition: a sea trout filet on top of fried rice and a medley of sauteed vegetables, including shiitake mushrooms.
Fong, 39, grew up in Laurinburg, where his parents owned a Chinese restaurant. His father, who once ran a restaurant in Flushing, N.Y., used to take the family back to New York City for these grand eating adventures. They would dine at The Palm and Peter Luger Steakhouse. They would venture into Little Italy or seek out an Armenian restaurant that his father loved. Fong despised working at the family restaurant as a teenager.
Deciding college was not for him, he ended up attending the Culinary Institute of America and was immediately hooked. After cooking in California, Cleveland and at Ashten’s in Southern Pines, he opened his 248-seat restaurant on the Neuse River in downtown New Bern.
Chef Jason Smith of Black Pelican Oceanfront Restaurant in Kitty Hawk won the competition. For the judges, he prepared sea trout three ways: Asian, Italian and Southwestern. The trio was an amazing dish, partly because each piece of fish was perfectly cooked – not an easy feat given how intricate each dish was on its own.
Smith, 37, started as a salad cook under master chef Angelo Serpe at Pasta e Pani, an Italian restaurant in the Virginia Beach. “He took a guy who was raw and had minimal cooking experience and showed me the ropes,” said Smith, who moved to the Outer Banks because he worked there during the summers as a high school student. He has been the executive chef at the Black Pelican for nine years.
Chef Scotty Anderson owns Boone Docks in Holden Beach. He served what was likely the most adventurous dish of the competition: a play on candy apples paired with the sea trout. It was apples sauteed with vinegar and maple syrup, dusted with peanuts and served with the sauteed fish filet.
Unfortunately, the dish was not that successful, but I can see the potential in Anderson’s vision. If he had served it with red cabbage coleslaw, it would have provided crunch and more acid. If he had been able to smoke the fish in some way, that would have added another wonderful note – like a smoked trout salad.
In the end, I was most intrigued by Anderson’s performance and want most to dine at his restaurant. I’d rather eat a meal by a chef who swings for the fences than one who plays it safe any day.
Weigl: 919-829-4848 or email@example.com; Twitter: @andreaweigl