By Julian Brunt
So, just who is the king of American seafood? It may seem like a rhetorical question, but there is in fact an answer to it, but the name changes every year.
Yep, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sponsors the Great American Cook-Off in New Orleans, a contest that is presented by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board. This year, 10 states were represented in the cookoff, including Mississippi, Alaska, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas. Chefs from each state were given just one hour to prepare a unique seafood dish. It’s a stressful, reality TV-esque competition, and if you plan on winning, you have got to be good, really good.
The Great American Seafood Cook-Off is an annual event that pits the nation's best chefs against recognized culinary greats from around the United States. Chefs are asked to create unique dishes with domestic seafood that is native to their home states. Each year, a new group of chefs, representing as many as a dozen states, gather to compete in the annual event. Hosted in New Orleans, Louisiana, one of the most renowned cities for all things gourmet. The winner not only takes the title of "King of American Seafood," but will promote the seafood industry in other culinary venues around the country.
This year’s winner is Chef Austin Sumrall, of White Pillars restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi. Sumrall has many years of experience, all over the South and Northeast and has worked with some of the best-known regional cooks. He is also a graduate of Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and a James Beard nominated chef in the Best Chef south category.
White Pillars was at one time one of the best-known restaurants in the South, but closed for 30 years and stayed vacant until Sumrall reopened it in 2017. It was a daunting task with a complete remodel and makeover. It has become famous for upscale Southern/Coastal food and a leading-edge bar and lounge. Dishes like the Gulf Seafood Tower, a sharable dish, made with Murder Point oysters, Amberjack Kokoda, smoked Gulf fish dip, peel and eat shrimp, and marinated fish and shrimp ceviche are top sellers. Don’t be surprised to see a few Cajun dishes on the menu as well, Sumrall is from Louisiana and is well regarded for his chicken and sausage gumbo and boudin and crackling.
In a recent interview with WLOX-TV, Sumrall said, “We took snapper and prepared it three different ways. We did a raw preparation. We grilled some snapper ribs. And then we did a poached snapper jowl pho. It was a lot and we were down to the absolute wire on getting it accomplished but our plan was to go big or go home.
“As a chef, there is not much more exciting than watching shrimp boats right off the front porch of my restaurant and knowing that I can drive five minutes down the road and buy those shrimps,” Chef Sumrall continues.
“Our restaurant is literally across the street from the Gulf of Mexico and every bit of seafood we serve is all gulf seafood because we feel like we would be cheating on the gulf if we didn’t,” he said.
“We have this awesome plethora of beautiful seafood that available to us and to be able to do something like this, we have a very seafood focused restaurant. We love doing it, we love competing, we love being able to showcase it, and we love being here for Mississippi for sure.”
Make sure to tune in again next year around this time to see who the next king is, and make sure to make reservations at White Pillars when you are on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. It is an under sung culinary adventure, with dozens of world class restaurants.