Hanging Out with the South’s Princes of Cuisine
It is undeniable that the South has been experiencing a culinary renaissance over the past few years. Cities like New Orleans and Nashville have become known for their restaurant culture, and people are coming down here to eat. Even Pensacola has experienced the trend, with fantastic new restaurants opening up all over the place. Chefs are no exception to the craze, as evidenced by the all-star line up at this year’s Hangout Oyster Cook-off.
In advance of this annual November foodie event, Inweekly caught up with New Orleans chefs Ryan Prewitt and Alon Shaya to talk about the oysters, cooking tips for fall, as well as the New Orleans restaurant scene.
Shaya and Prewitt have both had an amazing couple of years, with Prewitt winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef–South as well as the James Beard Best New Restaurant- South award for his restaurant, Peche, in 2014. Shaya won this year’s James Beard Award for Best New Chef-South, and opened his latest restaurant, Shaya.
“It was amazing, there is nothing like it. For my whole team—here are over 300 people who work between all three restaurants, and it felt like we all won the award. Nothing could have energized them more.” Shaya said, when talking about winning this year’s award.
Shay partnered with John Besh at Domenica, and then Pizza Domenica, both Italian cuisine, before opening Shaya this year. His latest restaurant focuses on the Israeli food of Shaya’s upbringing and has been receiving rave reviews.
While Shaya is not a huge fan of following food trends, aptly stating that, “Everyone starts to cook the same thing,” there are a few ingredients that he is excited to cook with this fall.
“I always love the white truffles that come from Alba in November. They are amazing. Also, all the small heirloom carrots. I definitely look forward to incorporating all the amazing root vegetables that come with fall.”
When it comes to the Oyster Cook-Off, Shaya is a rookie, but he will be demoing both oysters and dumplings for the crowd. While he grew up in the North (Philly), he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to oysters.
“I like them both. I like the big Gulf oysters, but I also love the smaller saltier ones from up north. The big Gulf oysters on the half shell, though, just with a little vinegar, I could eat those all day.”
Despite the Cook-off’s stellar line-up, including Food Network stars Anne Burrell, Marc Murphy and Martie Duncan, Shaya has his eye on a demo from a little closer to home. When asked whose he was most excited to taste, he didn’t hesitate.
“Ryan Prewitt. I am a huge fan. Anytime he is cooking seafood, I want to taste it.”
And he isn’t alone. Prewitt is known as a bit of genius when it comes to seafood, and his restaurant Peche is a testament to that. Winning both James Beard awards was both exhilarating and a bit disconcerting to Prewitt.
“I don’t know if this is common or not, but I was absolutely terrified for a few months. There are so many new people coming to the restaurant and so many of them have really elevated expectations, and I had this very real fear of letting everybody down. You start to question everything you are doing. But after a couple of months, I realized I needed to stop and do what I do, do it right, and set my feet on the path that we had started out on. There was a mission statement that we opened up with: being a restaurant where our focal point is all seafood and wanting to shine a light on the quality of seafood in our region. A year out, we have found a rhythm and can maintain a trajectory.”
One fun side effect of the awards has been the breadth of visitors Prewitt receives at his restaurant.
“Especially rewarding for me is having people from my past reappear, like the principal of my high school, or my second grade teacher, friends I hadn’t talked to in years, ex-girlfriends. This whole world of people started stopping by, and that was really great and continues to this day.”
Prewitt both judged and demoed last year at the Oyster Cook-off.
“I am excited for this year. Last year was my first experience judging anything food related, and it was really fun.”
The weekend also has a craft beer element attached to it—an ode to the classic “redneck Riviera” pairing of beer and oysters, which is a pairing that Prewitt, while being more of a gin martini guy, says “just works.”
“I think there is something fantastic about getting a couple dozen oysters at a bar and eating them with whatever cheap crappy beer is on hand. Something light, clean, and very cold and carbonated.”
While he isn’t sure yet what he will be demoing, there is one demo that he is excited to try, for sure.
“I was just in St. Louis and had a chance to eat at Kevin Nashan’s seafood restaurant. I’m really interested to see what he comes up with, I think he is a super awesome guy—I like his style. And he is making great seafood in St. Louis, which is fantastic. I had the best lobster roll I have ever had. It was amazing, and it was in St. Louis. He does a Maine Style and then a Connecticut style. One of them has a light mayonnaise, and then the other is warm and buttery. I am a cold mayonnaise guy.”
Shaya can’t wait to try Prewitt’s demo, and it seems as though Prewitt is a big fan of his, as well, and the role he is playing in the New Orleans restaurant scene.
“Right now there are a lot of people opening restaurants, there are a lot of independent restaurants opening up, and there are a lot of people targeting niche cuisine; people who are really going after stuff that means a lot to them. That is really to the betterment of the restaurant scene. It’s exciting to see people like Mike Gulotta opening up Mopho and Alon, of course with Shaya. Alon searched for his food past and came up with a great restaurant. People are really digging into their past, and their hearts are in it. To me, that is the kind of restaurant to seek out—one where you know someone has their heart in it.”
So mark you calendars for Nov. 6 and 7 and catch Shaya and Prewitt, as well as a slew of other fantastic chefs, live music, and craft beer at this year’s Hangout Oyster Cook-Off & Craft Beer Weekend, and make sure to come hungry.
Hangout Oyster Cook-Off & Craft Beer Weekend
WHEN: Nov. 6-7
WHERE: The Hangout, 101 E. Beach Blvd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542