Tough Competition in the Big Easy: An Oregon Chef Is Crowned King of American Seafood

 

Armed with whisks, knives, and seafood native to their home states, chefs from around the country descended on New Orleans in August to battle for the title of King of American Seafood at the 2012 Great American Seafood Cook-off disclaimer. NOAA Fisheries helps sponsor this event to highlight for seafood consumers our commitment to a healthy marine environment and a safe and sustainable domestic seafood supply.

For the first time since the inaugural Cook-off in 2004, a chef from outside the South has won. Keeping his cool in the heat of the kitchen, and of New Orleans in August, Chef Gregory Gourdet of Departure Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, took first prize with his slow-cooked Oregon Chinook salmon featuring butter clams, bacon dashi, porcini, roasted heirloom tomato, and crispy sea greens.

We recently sat down with Chef Gourdet to talk about his passions and philosophies as a chef, the 2012 Cook-off, and why he counts U.S. seafood, specifically from Oregon, as the key to his success.

How did you become a chef?
I was in college in Montana, living and cooking on my own for the first time. My roommate was an inspired home cook and we started cooking together. That's when I fell in love with it. It came naturally to me. I took two restaurant jobs, as a dishwasher and at a vegetarian-focused deli. And that was it—I switched majors and ended up going to culinary school.

Your restaurant Departure features traditional Asian dishes updated with modern cooking techniques and local ingredients. How long have you cooked with local sustainable ingredients, especially seafood, and why is this important to you?
This came about having spent the past four years in Oregon. While going local and sustainable is a continuing trend nationally, it is truly a focus and a lifestyle here in Oregon. It's just what you do—you work with farmers, ranchers, and fishermen and you support local providers. You know what you're buying and you know what you're consuming. It's embedded in the fabric of Oregon.

Everyone has to do their part for the environment. It's important to protect our natural resources. If that means paying a little bit more for beets or procuring a certain type of fish, you do so. In my heart, I feel a sense of responsibility for my footprint on the Earth, and I feel a sense of guilt if I know I'm doing the wrong thing, so I try to be as careful as possible.

How do you source your seafood? Have you faced any challenges in getting the best product available, both in quality and sustainability?
We have a handful of fish purveyors and I try to pick out the best of what they're offering and what's available in the market. I have a really good relationship with Seafood OREGON disclaimer—they're an excellent resource for me with all of their sustainable practices and the fish they work with.

Because we have a global view on cuisine at our restaurant and are inspired by certain ingredients, we try new fish all the time. But I research it and check the sustainability factor of it first. Talking to other people helps, and resources like FishWatch are excellent, too.

I haven't had too many challenges—my awareness has increased as time progresses and I have the resources to get the information I need, for example, what type of fish is available during which season. If a certain fish is available for a couple weeks, we can use that fish, and if it's not, we're flexible and will work with something else.

What is the role of chefs in seafood sustainability?
There's a global interest in what chefs are doing today, and as a chef, I definitely have a voice. My role begins with my diners at the restaurant. People want to know what they're eating these days. They're more aware—they have more knowledge and want to make the right decisions with their footprint and what they're consuming. Our servers talk about our products and how we ensure they're from secure, sustainable sources. And at the end of the day, if our diners feel they're having a delicious meal, they'll probably try to seek out the better product next time they're cooking at home or the next time they're at a restaurant. They'll ask the right questions to ensure that they're eating the right type of fish.

How did you decide what to prepare for the 2012 Great American Seafood Cook-off?
I worked with my sushi chef, who has really good fish knowledge. We wanted to do things that were unique to Oregon—the best part of that competition is that it promotes sustainable U.S. seafood. Chinook salmon is the Oregon state fish and we were sure we could represent it well. Also, Seafood OREGON had some Martha Washington butter clams, a product we had never worked with before. We were really excited to try something different so the dish came out of these two major seafood components.

What do you think gave your dish an edge over the competition?
I tried to be hyper-Oregon, down to the mushrooms, salmon, and butter clams. Because we are a modern Asian restaurant, we had a Japanese slant on our dish. We applied modern cooking techniques for interesting textures and different dynamics on the dish. We had a combination of different flavor profiles that a lot of the other chefs weren't doing that day.

What did it mean to you to compete, and take top prize, in the 2012 Great American Seafood Cook-off?
It really opens the door for Oregon seafood. We're doing the right thing in Oregon and have some really amazing products that maybe the rest of America hasn't heard about or isn't too familiar with. It's worth investigating and taking a trip out to Oregon to see our salmon and Dungeness crab and all the things that are important to us. It's great for Seafood OREGON, and it helps us make a bit of a mark at the national level.

What's your favorite kind of seafood?
I really enjoy all seafood and it's hard for me to pick one thing. I've always loved crab but salmon has been the most interesting thing for me. I'm from the East Coast and, for me, salmon was something that was very seasonal and very expensive, and I disliked it. But here, there are so many different types of salmon, from different waters, nearby in Oregon or from Washington. It's been really interesting to try them throughout the whole salmon season with a variety of cooking preparations. It's really changed my vision.

How will the King of American Seafood be celebrating National Seafood Month?
We're working with Seafood OREGON and featuring a few creative seafood specials throughout the month.

*Oregon's entry to the 2012 Cook-off was sponsored by Seafood OREGON, the marketing arm of the state's four industry-funded seafood commissions—the Oregon Albacore, Dungeness Crab, Salmon, and Trawl Commissions—that operate under the umbrella of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.