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One on One: Tim Thomas

By James Wright
October 01, 2007

For Tim Thomas, practice makes perfect. When he was crowned the King of American Seafood in early August after winning the fourth annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans, it followed his respectable third-place finish the year before. This year, he was in it to win.

The executive chef at the luxurious and private Ocean Forest Golf Club in Sea Island, Ga., for the past nine years, Thomas says the 2006 cook-off was "a little surreal," as New Orleans bore many fresh scars from Hurricane Katrina the year before. Emerging victorious in his second attempt held special meaning for Thomas, 42, who marvels at New Orleans' eclectic culinary contributions.

He has more in common with the Crescent City than first impressions might reveal. With a musical background - he says he was a "band geek" in high school - Thomas draws many useful parallels between cooking and music. To him, each ingredient in a dish is like a note within the same key.

"In jazz, there are lots of different scales and when you improvise, you stay in a certain key," Thomas says. "You can do the same with food, with herbs and spices. But add too many components, it's confusing. I like to keep it simple."

His methods may be simple, but his two dishes were bold enough to earn him what is fast becoming a prestigious gastronomical triumph. For the finals of the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, Thomas' Wild Georgia Shrimp Ratatouille with Boursin Cheese Grits (pictured at right) was deemed the best family-style dish in the competition. Since dinner was always a special time for the North Carolina native and his family, comfort food inspires many of the meals he serves at Ocean Forest.

I caught up with Thomas about two weeks after the contest to find him still basking in the afterglow of victory.

WRIGHT: How does it feel to be king?

THOMAS: It's pretty cool. I was very fortunate to go back again. I wanted to do better this time, obviously. My goal was to get to the finals. If so, I knew I would have a good chance [to win] because the dish I had planned was real home-style. I took that [directive] to heart.


How competitive is the event?

We all want to win, or we wouldn't do it. But I'm in it to learn as well. This was very different from any competition I 
do for the [American Culinary Federation in St. Augustine, Fla.], which are very structured. But I finally started listening to the judges and I started doing better!

[New Orleans is] a different environment, it's a bit more relaxed, but very celebratory. American seafood was the focus, to get the masses to cook it at home. You want to create dishes [consumers] could replicate.

Last year [the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board] took us on a tour of the devastation [from Hurricane Katrina]. The Lower 9th Ward was totally decimated. It was a hard pill to swallow. Makes you grateful for everything you've got.


Why did you include Georgia shrimp in both of your dishes?

Two years ago, at an ACF conference in Savannah, I won a cook-off for the Wild Georgia Shrimp Association. So I wanted to do good by them, and I wanted to support our local economy. I use [wild shrimp] here. It's great and the members love it.


When did you 
develop your affinity for fish?

Really, since I've been here, because we're right on the coast.


What other seafood species 
do you enjoy working with?

The members love grouper, flounder and snapper, too. We do quite a bit of seafood here. At dinner, there are six or seven entrées; three are seafood, and there will be a special, too. Always fried oysters and fried shrimp, as an appetizer or entrée. We change the dinner menu monthly. We live here at the coast, and it'd be foolish to not serve what's here.


What are some of your 
seafood-purchasing philosophies?

I'm at a unique place - it's all part of Sea Island Co. We have a butcher shop where they can break down fish, but we do a lot of that here. We stick with only fresh fish, but maybe some frozen catfish. That's my goal. Fresh Georgia shrimp isn't available fresh all year long.


How does cooking for a 
private club differ from a more traditional restaurant?

You know the customers because they come every day. You get to build real relationships. I find out what they don't want. They'll tell me, and my job is to listen to them. It's a different world than at regular restaurants, which get a lot of transients. Here it's the members and their guests only. Ocean Forest is a very private club. It's only open for dinner on weekends. There are 50 seats at 12 tables; we do more lunch than anything, because of the golf club.

[A former boss] told me, "Everyone you come into contact with is a chef." So I take bits and pieces from [guests] and build a menu. There's always something for the majority. I try to live by that. I listen to those who I'm feeding.


How many vendors 
do you work with?

The Sea Island Co.'s central food purchasing, and a local vendor I use for fish.


What would you be doing 
if you weren't a chef?

I would like to teach full time. That's a good legacy to leave. Somebody took the time to teach me. That's why I do stuff with the Boy Scouts and my three boys [ages 9, 13 and 16]. I'm an Eagle Scout.


Do you plan to judge 
at next year's Cook-Off?

[I'll do] whatever they want me to do!


Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com


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