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Networking: Jim Smith
Executive Chef, Alabama Governor’s Mansion, Montgomery, Ala.
By James Wright
October 01, 2011
Southern boys simply own the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, held in New Orleans each August. In the contest’s eight years, all of the winners have represented states south of the Mason-Dixon Line: two from Louisiana, two from Florida, and one each from Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and now Alabama. Chef Jim Smith is the latest Southerner to take the crown, edging out 13 competitors. He did so on the strength of his winning dish, Late Summer Alabama Bounty, which featured sous vide shrimp and marinated crab with garam masala, scented yellow squash purée, farmer’s market lady peas, bacon-peach relish and Spanish basil oil.
Smith, 33, hails from Troy, Ala., not far from Montgomery, and is the executive chef of the Alabama governor’s mansion, serving lunch and dinner to Gov. Robert Bentley and his family. But his job is to be more than a personal chef. As the official ambassador for Alabama food, Smith takes any opportunity to promote local producers and he is always ready for events the governor needs food for, whether it’s cupcakes for a birthday, hors d’oeuvres for 200 people or dinner for visiting dignitaries.
Do you live in the governor’s mansion?
I don’t, but it’s my base of operations. The kitchen is downstairs, and the first family lives upstairs. It’s a beautiful complex. The governor has a big vegetable garden in the backyard. We had a good summer crop, with tomatoes, peppers, squash, okra. He likes to pick the vegetables himself. He will come home, eat dinner and later he and Mrs. Bentley will pick produce and leave a basket for me for the next day.
Do you plan all the meals, or does the family make requests?
They’re really flexible. I have meetings with Mrs. Bentley, who’s a great cook herself. We’ll bounce ideas off each other and come up with a weekly menu. A lot of what we make is what is available; what seafood is in season.
What’s the governor’s favorite seafood? What’s yours?
He is a huge fan of Gulf shrimp. Picking a favorite is really hard for me. I ate so much seafood growing up. I love it all, as long as it’s fresh and well taken care of, cooked properly and with respect for the ingredients.
What was the inspiration for your winning dish?
A lot of the dish was dictated by seasonality for the produce available. I really like garam masala together with sweet and savory flavors; the combination with seafood is a great pairing. Produce is really right at the end of the season. The Chilton County peaches were great, with a nice earthy flavor. The biggest inspiration is the seasonality of the dish, really.
How important was it to you to feature Gulf shrimp in your dish?
It was a necessity. When people think of seafood from Alabama, they think of shrimp, crab and oysters and I wanted to feature two of those on the plate. It’s important to know that Gulf seafood is back and it’s trustworthy. It’s a shame that we are in the position of rebuilding the trust in Gulf seafood. It’s as good as it’s ever been. It’s back and it’s ready to be eaten.
Do you get to keep the crown?
I think so. Not positive, but I believe so. I’ll be there to crown next year’s winner. I’m excited to work with the Gulf Seafood Commission and be a spokesperson for them. Gulf seafood is great and America is where the best seafood can be found; I’m proud to represent both.