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Winner named in 2022 Alabama Seafood Cook-Off

Published: May. 11, 2022 at 4:19 PM CDT|Updated: May. 16, 2022 at 8:50 PM CDT
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GULF SHORES, Ala. (WSFA) - Alabama’s Gulf Coast was hot, the kitchen on the beach was hotter and the competition to find the state’s best chef was on fire Monday night as four finalists went head-to-head in the 7th annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off.

The competition got underway on WSFA.COM and WSFA+ at 6 p.m. with each chef taking an hour to put together their plates for hungry judges.

When the competition was over, it was Chef Jeffrey Compton who came away the winner. He’ll go on to represent the state in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, held in New Orleans.

The winner of that competition, a nationally televised cooking event, will be crowed America’s King/Queen of seafood!

Here are the chefs and the dishes they cooked up!

The Chefs

SAM ADAMS

Chef Adams sends her dish to the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off judges.

Chef Sam Adams was born in Kansas City, Missouri, where cooking and baking was born as a hobby. Sam attended Culinary School in Birmingham for Pastry Arts. She revisited her hometown briefly after graduating, and discovered a love for more than just Pastry Arts.

After working in a few restaurants in KC, Sam decided to move back to Birmingham to expand her growing passion for the culinary scene in 2018. She accepted a position at Hot & Hot Fish Club to begin, and eventually migrated to Highlands Bar & Grill, where she would learn an abundance of technique.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Sam and her partner, Brian Dyer, were both furloughed. With their free time, the duo began developing innovative menus to cook for friends, thus beginning (small batch). Creating monthly six-course menus focusing on local and seasonal ingredients has become a passion project for the duo and they have been sharing it with Birmingham Locals ever since.

JEFFREY COMPTON

Chef Compton sends her dish to the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off judges.

Compton is the Food Network’s “Vegas Chef Prizefight” finalist. He was born and raised in Florida, and has been fully immersed in the food scene since he was a child. His main passion is bridging the gap between local farmers and the community.

“It’s our job as chefs to tell the story of where our food comes from and why it is important to us. I want our guests to be as excited about the ingredients as I am by cooking them.”

Jeffrey has assisted in achieving several accolades such as 2018 Southern Living Magazine’s Best Restaurant Alabama, Open Table’s Top 50 Best Southern Restaurants in the Nation, and Travel & Leisure’s Best Farm to Table Restaurant in Alabama at his previous position at Acre in Auburn, Alabama. He recently started a new venture just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, named The Battery, where he will be bringing the food he knows and loves to the city.

MORGAN MCWATERS

Chef McWaters sends her dish to the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off judges

Morgan McWaters is the current Chef de Partie at the historic Depot Restaurant in Auburn, Alabama. The Depot is an award-winning restaurant that focuses on sustainable seafood and heritage meats. As the first restaurant in the state of Alabama to be fully certified for the James Beard Smart Catch foundation, The Depot is raising environmental awareness around responsibly harvested and sustainably sourced seafood, while bringing the bounty of the gulf to Auburn.

Morgan also competed last year and was on the 1st place team for the 6th Annual Alabama Seafood cookoff alongside Chef Scott Simpson. Cooking since she was 21-years-old and originally from Phenix City, Alabama, Morgan has always had an interest in cooking and learning about new cultures and world cuisines while focusing on regional foodways. She decided to officially tie on her Chef’s apron and started her culinary career at a local southern fry kitchen in Auburn called the Mason Jar Kitchen. Finding her passion for the kitchen, Morgan decided to join The Depot to sharpen her skills and work with sustainable seafood. Morgan has also worked on-site at famous cultural and culinary festivals including Gather ‘Round in Atlanta (a Southern Food & Arts Celebration and the Charleston Wine + Food Festival.

As Chef de Partie at The Depot, Morgan enjoys overseeing various prep stations and ensuring each plate that goes out to the dining room is perfect both in presentation and flavor profile. Morgan most enjoys cooking southern food and working with seafood. As Morgan’s second year in the competition, she is excited to bring her knowledge and expertise back to the table, for a chance to win first place for herself this year! (She is competing alongside Chef Blaze Farrell).

ROBBIE NICOLAISEN

Chef Nicolaisen sends his dish to the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off judges.

Executive Chef C.R. “Robbie” Nicolaisen has been nationally recognized in and around the Southeastern United States for his distinctive approach to Southern-style cuisine. Chef Robbie Nicolaisen began his culinary journey during his childhood working on his family’s farm just outside of Asheboro, North Carolina. Chef Robbie was never far from the kitchen table as he became fascinated with everything from harvesting to preserving, pickling, and canning fruits and vegetables with his grandmother. When he entered the workforce at the age of 14, he held several different positions with family-owned restaurants in the Raleigh/Cary area. Eventually he ended up working with his dad who was a corporate chef at the time, and this is where he was inspired to pursue a career in the culinary industry.

Chasing his passions, Chef Robbie attended the highly-accredited Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, graduating with honors. Shortly after graduation, Nicolaisen became an Executive Chef for Hilton Hotels at the age of 24 and worked at the world-class waterfront four-diamond Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina, followed by the Sea Trail Golf Resort in Sunset Beach, and Shoals Club at Bald Head Island before becoming the Executive Chef at the four-star, four diamond Marina Inn in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

However, in 2013, Chef Robbie relocated to Auburn, Alabama, and in 2017 he accepted an opportunity to lead the culinary operations at The Hound. Serving as the Executive Chef of the famous and locally-loved restaurant and bourbon bar, Chef Robbie focuses on high quality southern products that are thoughtfully sourced from local or regional growers. This is evident on his menus with such items as heritage breed, all-natural, and humanely-raised proteins, as well as pristine produce from local or specialty growers.

Expanding his culinary repertoire and lineup, Chef Robbie has recently launched his own new pop-up concept, The Chubby Belly Noodle Shop, highlighting his admiration of Japanese cuisine. Featuring traditional and more modern interpretations of Ramen, Chef Robbie incorporates ingredients and flavors into his creations, blending old and new. Not confined to one cuisine, Chef Robbie is redefining New American Southern food in the heart of Auburn, Chef Robbie is proud to be plating up some of the finest food in all of Alabama.

Chef Robbie is affiliated with Southern Foodways Alliance, Eat Ya’ll, an honorary member of Chaine des Rotisseurs, and active member of the James Beard Foundation. Chef Nicolaisen has served on the board for the Chef-Farmer Coop Initiative through Clemson University and has also been publicly recognized for his talents by winning multiple awards from national publications and organizations such as the US Blueberry Council and California Almond Board. Chef Robbie Nicolaisen currently resides in Auburn, Alabama, with his wife Rachael, daughter Paisley, and son Charlie

The Judges

JAMES BALSTER

The Connecticut native comes to Gulf Shores from Biloxi, Mississippi, where he honed his skills at the Beau Rivage Casino, an MGM International Resort. Classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Balster also learned the art of cooking as a Chef at the renowned Ritz Carlton, Reynolds Plantation and Circa at DuPont, in Washington D.C.

James’ pursuit of his culinary career stems from spending time with family.

“The first experience I remember about cooking was on my grandparent’s farm in Iowa,” says Balster. “Cooking was always a family event growing up. All family gatherings seemed to end up in the kitchen or at the table, and always involving a large meal. Being a part of the creation of these amazing times brought me closer to my family, and I realized that it made unforgettable memories by making people happy.”

James is still in pursuit of creating memories for his guests by making them happy. Chef Balster has many favorite recipes he likes to prepare, and he relishes in designing experiences that are unique and satisfy the most discerning palate.

When dining at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, make a point to try a daily Chef’s special which always includes local and regionally sourced ingredients and always is a representation of The Lodge’s support of local farmers, fishers, ranchers and producers.

Balster has received several accolades, including the Distinguished Restaurants of North America Award and Forbes’ Recommended Best Chefs. Chef Balster has led the culinary efforts at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, A Hilton Hotel, as part of the pre-opening team. The Lodge officially opened November 1, 2018.

JASON BURNETT

As digital director at Flower Magazine, Jason Burnett leads the digital content and social strategy for the lifestyle brand focused on entertaining, flowers, gardens, design, and travel. Flower debuted in 2007 and is available in all 50 states and 17 countries. The brand is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with advertising sales representatives across the United States.

In 2015 Jason founded Oyster Obsession, a community of more than 20,000 people who love oysters (raw and cooked) and sharing their oyster recipes, discoveries, and businesses. Jason is also the founding editor of MyRecipes.com; is a past digital content director at Allrecipes, the world’s largest community-driven food brand reaching more than 60 million home cooks; and has served in digital leadership roles with other food brands ranging from Cooking Light, to AOL Food.

Jason graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a double major in English and history. He is the author of EARLY BESSEMER, a photographic history of Bessemer, Alabama’s first fifty years. Follow his cooking, dining and gardening obsessions on Instagram @oysterobsession and @waytasty.

CHRIS NELSON

Chris Nelson lives in Magnolia Springs, Alabama, with his wife of 32 years, Susan Jurkiewicz Nelson. They have two children – Emily, 27, and Andrew, 22.

Chris grew up in Bon Secour, Alabama, working at Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc. He received a B.S. in Biology from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and an M.S. in Marine Environmental Sciences from SUNY Stony Brook. Chris was a Congressional Sea Grant Fellow in Washington, DC; serving as a legislative assistant for Senator Ted Stevens. Following this fellowship, he worked for the National Fisheries Institute in Washington as a project coordinator.

He has been at Bon Secour Fisheries since 1989 and is now President. Among his many duties he is oyster procurement and production manager. In addition, he handles government and regulatory affairs for the company. The Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC) is among the several professional associations in which Chris participates. He is also a Commissioner on the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission. In the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill was asked by then Gov. Bob Riley to serve on the Coastal Recovery Commission of Alabama.

Chris was later selected to participate in Leadership Alabama Class XXV. He also serves on the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission.

In 2012 the Mobile Press Register recognized him with the “Connecting Coastal Alabama” award. In 2013 he accepted, on behalf of the company, the “Supplier of the Year Award” from the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Alliance.

JIM SMITH

Jim Smith is Chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission and Executive Chef of The Hummingbird Way. Chef Smith was the Executive Chef of the State of Alabama for eight years serving multiple Alabama governors. As the state chef, he has placed an emphasis on using the best local ingredients and has made strides to encourage support of local farmers and Alabama fishers. He used his position as ambassador of food to promote farmer’s markets and events that support Alabama food products.

In 2011 he was crowned the King of American Seafood by winning The Great American Seafood-Cook-Off and became the national spokesperson for Alabama Seafood, American Sustainable Seafood, Gulf Seafood and the NOAA. As the winner he traveled the country educating the Americans about the benefits of sustainable seafood.

As Chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, Chef Smith is proud to be a part of the great work being done to promote Alabama Seafood and Chef Advocate for Wild American Shrimp. He also works closely with The James Beard Foundation as a Boot Camp for Policy and Change Alum, supporter of James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch Sustainable Seafood program, and Scholarship Programs.

Chef Smith is best known for his appearances on Seasons 14 and 16 of the acclaimed Bravo television cooking competition show, Top Chef. With a top ten finish and fan favorite support he proud of his competitive efforts and has high hopes for the future.

STEVE ZUCKER

From Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, Steve has been a team member at Aloha Hospitality since January 2005. He received his Bachelor of Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island.

Throughout his career, he has been a chef in New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Kapalua Maui.

Steve has been named one of the “Ten Chefs to Watch” by Esquire, one of two “Great Young Chefs” from Southern Living, “Louisiana Chef to Watch” from Louisiana Cooking, and one of “Three Top Chefs in Las Vegas” by VIP Magazine.

In 2009, he received Manager of the Year award from the Mobile Restaurant Association. He and his wife have been married for 25 years with 1 son. Steve enjoys golf, fishing, and cooking.

SCOTT SIMPSON

Chef Scott Simpson will offer non-point counted feedback to chef participants as last year’s...
Chef Scott Simpson will offer non-point counted feedback to chef participants as last year’s winner.(Source: WSFA 12 News)

Last year’s First Place Alabama Seafood Cookoff winner, Scott Simpson, is the Executive Chef and Co-Owner of The Depot, located in the historic train station in Auburn.

Prior to Alabama, Chef Scott was working in some of the most prestigious hotels and restaurants around the world. Trained at both the Giuliano Bugialli Professional School in Florence, Italy, and the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, Chef Scott’s professional culinary career spans over 30 years in multiple continents. Chef Scott has worked for JW Marriott Hotels, Renaissance Hotels, and Capella Luxury Resorts in locations including: Ecuador, Chile, India, Thailand, Mexico, Singapore, Bali and Jamaica.

Hailing from California with a passion for authentic worldly flavors, Chef Scott and his team are now bringing globally-inspired cuisine to the heart of Alabama while raising awareness for the importance of sustainable seafood.

As the state’s first James Beard Smart Catch fully-certified restaurant, The Depot is committed to continuing initiatives that protect our waters and delicate ecosystems as well as being an advocate for Alabama seafood. Plating up invasive species, by catch, and lesser known Gulf varieties, the Depot also showcases one of the largest daily oyster selections in the state of Alabama.

Chef Simpson will offer non-point counted feedback to chef participants as last year’s winner.

The Host

“PANINI PETE” BLOHME

Chef Pete Blohme AKA “Panini” Pete currently owns & operates 4 unique PP Hospitality concepts. The newest concept is Squid Ink Eclectic Eats & Drinks “A First of its Kind” gastro pub in downtown Mobile. The popular Sunset Pointe, “A Gulf to table restaurant” on the Eastern shore of Mobile Bay, serving Fresh Gulf Seafood and local produce also Voted one of Alabama’s hottest new restaurants in 2015. The Legendary Ed’s Seafood Shed in Spanish Fort, Alabama, on the Causeway serving “Southern Seafood with Soul.”

Chef Pete is a Graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and also currently sits on their Alumni Advisory Council. Pete with fellow Alumni Robert Kabakoff founded the “Run for you Knives” Scholarships 5K Race & Walk at the CIA Hyde Park campus. This annual event provides much needed Scholarship for current students. Pete has achieved headlines nationwide being featured with Guy Fieri on his Live Road Show performing in 25+ Road Shows and featured on a host of Food Network shows such as Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Guy’s Grocery Games, Guy’s Big Bite and The Great Food Truck Race with Tyler Florence on Food Network as well as CMT’s Sweet Home Alabama.

Chef Pete is Member of BCA Best Chefs of America. His proudest accomplishment is in being a Founding Member of “The Messlords” a group of Celebrity Chefs that travel the World boosting moral for our US Troops through culinary training and mass feedings in amazing locations like Japan, Spain, Italy, Africa, Bahrain, Romania, Cuba, Europe, as well as onboard Aircraft Carriers and Submarines!

To keep up with his Panini Pete Adventures you can listen to Pete on his Podcast “The Raw Ingredients”! (www.hotppodcast.com) look for him cooking, hosting or demoing at great events around the country. Recently headlining at the Super Bowl 51 Players Tailgate as well as Nightclub and Bar convention in Las Vegas! Mostly he likes cooking Beignets in the Fairhope Location!

Competition Scoring

As the judges critique an entry/display, points are awarded in categories and then averaged to yield a single score for the entry/display. Entries are scored with 100 points possible.

20 points – Presentation, General Impression and Serving Methods

20 points – Creativity and Practicality

20 points – Composition and Harmony of Ingredients

20 points – Correct Preparation and Craftsmanship

20 points -- Flavor, Taste and Texture

How It’s Judge

The chef teams will serve the judges and give a short verbal description of the dish. Following that time of judging, plated dishes will be displayed for viewing and photography and identified by the information on the submission forms.

Presentation, General Impression and Serving Methods: Fresh, easy to eat, correct temperature, hot/ cold serving plate, stylistic but practical. Dish was completed/served within the one hour time limit.

Creativity: The dish shows a degree of difficulty and creative flair, rather than something copied and overused. If using an old or classical idea, new, creative ideas have been used to transform the dish. Degree of difficulty, artistic achievement, work involved, and originality are evaluated.

Composition and Harmony of Ingredients: Ingredients are compatible. The seafood should showcase compatibility. Ingredient colors are visually pleasing. Ingredient amounts are correctly portioned to give a perfect harmonization. Taste and colors should enhance each other and display practical craftsmanship.

Correct Preparation and Craftsmanship: Classical names should correspond to original recipes and methods of preparation. Preparations must display mastery of basic skills.

Flavor, Taste and Texture: The stated flavors in the menu and recipe are key. Serving temperatures are correct. The textures correspond to what was implied in the recipe. The flavor of the sauce reflects the recipe’s description and has a pleasing consistency. The dish portrays a high level of skill and exactness.

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