Jim Smith, Alabama's executive chef, recently earned that coveted title at the 2011 Great American Seafood Cook-Off event in New Orleans. And now he's spreading his love of Alabama seafood, as well as produce, game, grains, honey -- you name it -- throughout the South and beyond.
Recently he was joined in the governor's mansion kitchen by some fellow Seafood Cook-Off champions, the 4-H team from St. Martin High School in Ocean Springs, Miss., which took first place in the 4-H division. Smith took the helm of the steamy kitchen as seniors Cory Martin, Ariana Wilson, Jarod Harris and Sarah Soares followed his intricate instructions, preparing a three-course meal for first lady Dianne Bentley and her guests.
Smith, who graduated at the top of his culinary class from Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., has studied food, wine and service under acclaimed chefs Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt; was wine director for the "Best of Birmingham" James Beard Dinner; and, most recently, worked as a chef at Dyron's Lowcountry in Birmingham.
Now, his mission is to lead Gov. Robert Bentley's efforts to support Alabama food and workers, but he balances his ambassador's duties with preparing food for the first family and inventing and carrying out elaborate menus for state-sponsored events.
Going it alone
It's easy to imagine Smith overseeing a large staff, but most of the time, he goes it alone in the kitchen.
"There are times when it's just me preparing for 20 to 30 people," he said. "It's very different than a big staff of 10 people in a kitchen making one plate. In some ways, there is more stress, but in some ways there is less stress. It's a very interesting job. It presents itself with a very different set of expectations and results than working in a restaurant."
But on this day, his student chefs, all of whom plan to follow him into careers in the culinary arts, helped him serve up a fall menu.On the coasts of Southern states and their outlying regions, seafood is king. If you're ever in search of "The King of Seafood," you don't need to look far.The first course was Alabama Grand Bay Oysters 3 Ways: raw with lemon zest, baked with garlic butter and herbed bread crumbs and Thai marinated with sesame crisp. The second course featured Bayou La Batre Shrimp and Fall Quinoa Salad with Mississippi Sweet Potato, Kale and Lemon Herb Mayonnaise. The third course -- Gulf Flounder en Papillote with Garden Herbs, Blood Orange and Lemon Chilton County Arugula and Marinated Red Potato Salad.
The first lady said the meal, sponsored by The Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation Inc.'s Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition, represents the kind of food regularly served at the mansion whenever she and the governor host dinners.
"When Jim came, I asked him to feature Alabama foods and food from the local farmer's market," Bentley said.
Boosting the state's fish, shrimp, crab and other seafood was another primary goal, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, which resulted in a dearth of Gulf Coast seafood.
"Last year, I think everybody realized how important the seafood industry is to Alabama," she said. "This year, it's come back bigger than ever."
The meal that earned Smith the "seafood king" title couldn't be served on this October day because its ingredients included summer staples such as Chilton County peaches and lady peas.
"The only guidelines were that your seafood had to be fresh and raw and you had to bring your own produce," Smith said of the 2011 Great American Seafood Cook-Off. And every bit of it, Smith noted, "was from the state of Alabama except the olive oil and the butter that we used to cook it."
Just two days before the contest, he traveled around the state gathering fresh ingredients, including a stop to the docks in Mobile to pick up live blue crabs and "the biggest, most beautiful Alabama shrimp I'd ever seen."
Turned out all that road-running was worth the effort. The prize-winning menu also included squash puree and lady peas -- "I cooked them just like I would cook them for Mrs. Bentley," he said of the first lady's favorite dish.
The goal was "to take all those great Alabama ingredients and put an international twist on them."
Fresh and local
Smith said what is most important is taking pride in your chosen ingredients, understanding where they came from and how they are connected to you, and treating the ingredient with respect, in a way that best shows it off.
Why are these priorities?
"One thing is that you support your neighbors, the people who live next door to you. Why wouldn't you spend your money with them first? Secondly, you can always guarantee that if food is local, it's fresh, and you can see how they're treating it. You know that they're more likely to treat it a way which would make you proud of it," he said.
Those factors are something he takes into account when designing a menu for an event at the mansion.
"The first lady and I will sit down and talk about a menu, about what's in season, figure out what's available at the farmer's market, and then we'll just go from there," Smith said. "If there's something that she has a craving for or something that I've been wanting to test out, we start from there. We do a lot of traditional Southern foods, and we try to keep it healthy and local."
The highly touted fresh-and-local mindset may seem like a trend right now, he said, but it's a way of approaching food that is here to stay. And with Smith in the kitchen, Alabama appears to be at the forefront.