published Thursday, September 19th, 2013

Crawfish, shrimp going head-to-head in cookoff

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For more information on the events of Serve & Protect, go to tnaqua.org/SustainableSeafood/2013SpecialEvent.aspx.

Serve & Protect Culinary Partners

These restaurants have created special menu items on Friday and Saturday in honor of Serve & Protect:

• 212 Market

• Back Inn Cafe

• Bluewater Grille

• Broad Street Grille

• Easy Bistro & Bar

• Events with Taste Catering

• Lee Towery Catering

• Porter’s Steakhouse

• Public House

• Rembrandt’s

• St. John’s Restaurant

• Sticky Fingers

• Swiss Am Fine Catering

• Whole Foods

First it was blackened red snapper. Then it was grouper.

In both cases, says chef Susan Spicer, the food crazes surrounding those fish led to restaurants and consumers hopping on the bandwagon which, in turn led to overharvesting and a depletion of the fishes’ numbers.

That, in turn, led to new education efforts that — see a pattern emerging here? — led to the management of harvests, giving the fish a chance to reproduce in large-enough numbers for them to come back as a viable options for consumers.

“We had to back off and give them a chance to repopulate,” Spicer says. “I feel as a consumer and a chef we need to take advantage of all of the sources of information. We don’t have to jump on every bandwagon.”

Spicer and fellow celebrity chef Virginia Willis are in town today, sharing the stage as they extol the virtues of shrimp and crawfish as sustainable foods as part of the Tennessee Aquarium’s Third Annual Serve & Protect events.

The program is designed to educate consumers about seafood harvesting practices, both good and bad, and to introduce alternative options when it comes to choosing which species you order at restaurants or buy at the grocery store. Shrimp and crawfish, for example, are both readily available and fairly easy to manage and replenish.

During today’s main event, Willis will prepare a shrimp dish while Spicer will use crawfish in her creation during the 5:30 p.m. presentation in the Imax Theater’s Great Hall. After the demonstration, guests will walk over to the Tennessee Aquarium, where they will be served a seafood dinner prepared by area chefs. A dessert reception will follow. Tickets are $200.

Willis says education is the key when it comes to convincing people to eat sustainable seafoods.

“Sometimes I think we hear it’s all doom and gloom and bad news,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be hard.”

Earlier in the day at 11 a.m., chefs from Whole Foods will put on a cooking demonstration and tasting in the Imax Great Room. Willis and Spicer will be on stage demonstrating various cooking ideas as well. A dessert reception will follow the one-hour show. Admission is $75.

Also as part of Serve & Protect, the Chattanooga Market on Sunday will play host to the annual Cast Iron Cookoff. In it, five chefs will compete using a mystery sustainable seafood product, as well as fresh produce purchased at the market.

Both Willis and Spicer are veterans chefs who have been involved in the sustainable seafood idea for years.

Willis is classically trained with strong Southern influences. She has appeared on TV cooking shows, written for Southern Living and authored the cookbooks “Bon Appetit, Y’all” and “Basic to Brilliant.”

Willis also is on the board of the Monterey Bay in California and notes that, when it comes to consumers, the aquarium’s Seafood Watch app makes it easy to check recommendations on which seafoods to get at groceries or restaurants.

“You can just type in the name of the fish and it is all color coded,” she says.

Spicer was named one of Food and Wine’s 10 Best New Chefs and received the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast Region in 1993. Her Bayona restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter has earned critical acclaim, and she appeared on in the 2009 finale of “Top Chef.”

Spicer says consumers can dictate with their wallets when it comes to what’s being offered at local eateries and stores.

“Consumers are more powerful now and they can be heard; you make demands with your dollars,” she says.

And doing so shouldn’t limit the types of dishes we prepare, either. It just takes a little more effort and asking questions.

“You can get creative and find all sorts of wonderful seafood,” she says.

“It can get overwhelming,” Spicer admits. “Who has time to look up everything, and I’m an impulse shopper also, but there are certain grocery stores that are providing that kind of information for you, so it’s not like you have to go online and do it yourself all the time.”

Willis notes that people are more conscious of what they eat and buy and where it’s produced; restaurants and stores have adapted to that.

“People like knowing where their food comes from,” she says.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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