By E-CHING LEE
What could be better than eating fresh, local seafood prepared by the coast’s top chefs? Perhaps getting free samples and learning how to make delicious dishes from those chefs. And maybe discovering the state’s coastal culinary treasures along the way.
Come the first weekend of October, the 24th North Carolina Seafood Festival in Morehead City will provide just this opportunity. The third Cooking with the Chefs: A North Carolina Seafood Experience will feature chefs that represent the four local seafood branding programs — Carteret Catch, Brunswick Catch, Ocracoke Fresh and Outer Banks Catch.
For Stephanie Mclntyre, director of the Seafood Festival, Cooking with the Chefs is an educational event that features “sea-to-the-table” offerings. Local chefs get to showcase their skills and highlight the richness of the state’s seasonal seafood bounty.
“We can show the people this is local seafood, this is where you get it, this is how you cook it,” she says.
In 2009, the Chefs event won the Gold Pinnacle Award as the “Best Event within an Event” from the International Festival and Events Association.
For some, eating seafood is a new experience. Some people have never tasted wild-caught shrimp before, Mclntyre notes, nor have they seen one with the head on.
Thus the cooking demonstrations serve many purposes.
“Consumer surveys conducted by North Carolina Sea Grant and Carteret Catch mirror a national trend that shows the public prefers seafood that has been harvested by local fishermen,” says Barry Nash, North Carolina Sea Grant’s seafood technology and marketing specialist who also serves on the N.C. Seafood Festival Board of Directors.
“Typically people are unaware when popular commercial species are seasonally available, how to discern seafood quality, and where local seafood is sold. Sea Grant collaborated with the N.C. Seafood Festival and Carteret Catch to address these issues by creating a culinary program that informs as well as entertains,” he adds, describing the lesson behind the engaging event that draws capacity crowds.
North Carolina Sea Grant is an education sponsor of the Cooking with the Chefs event this year.
TRADITIONAL CARTERET COUNTY STYLE
This event is so seasonal that the chefs will get delivery of their seafood only a day before they are scheduled to cook. So Pam Morris doesn’t know what she’s going to prepare during her Cooking with the Chefs session.
“It depends on what’s in season, what’s readily available,” says the education coordinator at the Core Sound Water Fowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island. However, she is an experienced hand, having represented Carteret Catch in the two previous Chefs events. And she has a secret weapon — her native coastal hospitality.
“I’m not a chef I work in a museum. So I’ll make a traditional recipe you would eat in anybody’s home,” she says. In the past, she has prepared scallop fritters — fried chopped scallops in a batter. Another time, she served stewed shrimp, which is a shrimp-and-potatoes stew.
For Morris, Cooking with the Chefs is about education. “We’re using [the event] to get the message out about seafood,” she says. She notes that the crowds who attend the event are taught to make informed decisions about local seafood, including information about available species, their seasons and how to select fresh seafood.
Morris is the former president of Carteret Catch. She credits the catch program for directing people’s attention to local seafood, particularly by tapping into the local and slow food movements.
“This was an idea whose time had come,” Morris adds.
TEACHING A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE
According to Libby Eaton, general manager and co-owner of Bistro-by-the-Sea, in Morehead City, Carteret Catch and the other catch programs are meeting the public’s need to know the source of their seafood and teaching them to value this local source.
In addition, “Cooking with the Chefs is a great opportunity to educate a captive audience,” says Eaton says, who is eager to teach visitors about seasonal seafood and the state’s commercial fishing industry.
Bistro-by-the-Sea is one of several Carteret County restaurants representing Carteret Catch at this year’s event.
The restaurant sources local seafood from local fishers and highlights what is in season. Although this is more common in today’s restaurant market responding to “local food” trends, these practices were cutting edge in 1993 when the Bistro first opened.
“We couldn’t believe restaurants weren’t using fresh, local seafood. There is no comparison for that,” says Eaton. The restaurant promoted seasonal seafood, trying to show customers, both locals and tourists, that fresh seafood was a product that tasted “sweet and great.”
As a supporter of the local seafood industry, Eaton worries about local commercial fishermen.
“What happens if there’s none? Then we’d have to survive on imported seafood.”
Bud Gruninger, the executive chef at Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe in Nags Head, also is concerned about stopping the decline of the Outer Banks’ commercial fishermen. “If there’s no fishing industry, there is no Lone Cedar Cafe,” he says.
The local seafood industry is particularly important because the restaurant will only serve species caught locally. This means that diners might be told that some items on the regular menu are not available.
“We’re willing to accept aggravated customers,” Gruninger says. For the most part, they understand and accept the explanation. However, customers also know that, the crab cakes, for example, are made of the “absolute best crab meat they can have.”
Gruninger is proud of the Cafe’s ability to provide very fresh seafood — served either the day it is caught or no more than two to three days later. He also prints the name of the fisherman who supplied the seafood for the restaurant’s daily menu specials.
Lone Cedar Cafe has two slots in the Cooking with the Chefs program and Gruninger anticipates that he’ll serve a different dish each time. Although this is Gruninger’s first time at the N.C. Seafood Festival, he is experienced at highlighting North Carolina seafood in cooking competitions and demonstrations. In August, he represented North Carolina in the Great American Seafood Cookoff in New Orleans, L.A.
“I’m excited about it,” Gruninger says about the opportunity to represent the Cafe and Outer Banks Catch members at the Chefs event.
“It’s going to be fun,” says Patrick Kelly, general manager and executive chef at Fishy Fishy Cafe in South port. Like Gruninger, this will be Kelly’s first experience at Cooking with the Chefs. He will be representing Brunswick Catch.
“Fresh seafood — there is a lot different about it. Seafood right off the boats is amazing,” he says. Diners at his restaurant and festivalgoers at his cooking demonstration likely agree.
“We use as much local as we can on the menu,” he says. Particularly for the restaurant’s specials, Kelly offers what’s being caught at that moment. The menu also marks what is provided as Brunswick Catch.
Kelly notes that clients, both local and visiting, appreciate the restaurant’s focus on local seafood. He’s even seen comments from travelers on TripAdvisor.com, a travel website, that mention this feature about Fishy Fishy Cafe.
For two previous Chefs events, Ocracoke watermen have taken the ferry across the Pamlico Sound to cook traditional island fish cakes. This year, Vince O’Neal, owner of Pony Island Restaurant, will represent Ocracoke Fresh and kick off its “Caught Today the Traditional Way” campaign.
“Events like Cooking with the Chefs helped raise this awareness that fresh isn’t just healthy, it’s good for the local economy and feels good to know who caught your family’s dinner,” explains Robin Payne, who heads the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association.
The association, with the help of the local community and some grants, saved the local fish house in 2006. Since then, the watermen have provided fresh, just-caught local seafood from their retail storefront, the Ocracoke Seafood Company. In the upcoming year, Ocracoke Fresh will seek to promote the island restaurants that serve fresh local catch.
EATING OFF THE CLOCK
But what do these chefs and local seafood advocates eat at home?
“Deep fried soft-shell crab,” Mclntyre says. “They are the best. Period. No doubt about it. I eat it, legs and all.”
However, a close favorite is clams that she digs from the beach to cook on the grill. Add
Texas Pete — made in North Carolina — or a zesty cocktail sauce and the woman who heads the Seafood Festival is content.
Morris’ favorite is stewed hard crabs, a traditional Carteret County dish that combines crabs, potatoes and dumplings. “If I made them at Cooking with the Chefs, I would have to say ‘sorry’ to the people because I would have to eat them all!” she says with a laugh.
Gruninger likes to kick back with pan-seared or grilled grouper or tilefish prepared with herbs from his wife’s garden. Kelly likes to enhance the sweetness of scallop kebabs cooked on the grill with some fruit-based sauce.
TWO YEARS TO MAKE
The Cooking with the Chefs event, with its multiple featured chefs, flat-screen TVs and two stages, was two years in the making. “I like a challenge,” Mclntyre says with a laugh.
There is a new chef every hour and the two stages allow one chef to start his or her preparations while another chef is finishing a presentation. “We have very little downtime,” Mclntyre says, noting that the Seafood Festival only has two days to showcase the state’s seafood. “We could do it for a week!”
There are seats for 50 people who can watch the cooking demonstrations on stage or on large flat-screen TVs in the tent. The goal is to have audience members rotate through the tent as chefs come and go, but Mclntyre admits that many people stay through several sessions.
“If you feed them, they’re going to come,” Mclntyre says — and, in this case, stay.
Mclntyre is determined to make this event grow by trying to attract big-name chefs and publicity from well-known TV networks. She urges the public to continue coming.
“You never know who might show up at our doorstep!” — E.L.
For more information about the N. C. Seafood Festival and the schedule for Cooking with the Chefs, go to: www.ncseafoodfestival.org. Go online for more about the Local Catch programs: Carteret Catch (carteretcatch.org), Brunswick Catch (www.brunswickcatch.com), Ocracoke Fresh (www.ocracokeseafood.com) and Outer Banks Catch (www.outerbankscatch.com).
This article was published in the Autumn 2010 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.