By Donna Cornelius
Chef Jeremy Downey wanted to impress the judges when he competed in the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off June 13. But there was one person he wanted to please even more: his grandmother, 93-year-old Tensie Johnson.
“She was sitting front and center while I was cooking,” said Downey, whose Bistro V restaurant in Vestavia Hills draws rave reviews from diners. “She’d say, ‘Keep going, baby. You’re going to be all right.’”
As Downey beat out three other Alabama chefs to win the competition, his grandmother wasn’t the only person cheering him to victory. For its fourth year, the cook-off moved from Orange Beach to Bayou La Batre – which just happens to be Downey’s hometown.
“My mom, dad, brothers, about 10 aunts and uncles, and people I grew up with and worked for in the shrimping industry were there,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose in front of them.”
His son, 10-year-old Thomas, was on hand to watch his dad win. Downey’s wife, Mary, and their 9-year-old daughter, Amelia, stayed home to tend the family’s dogs but got updates throughout the contest.
“My daughter sent me a dance video after I won,” Downey said.
More than 450 people attended the cook-off. It was the largest crowd ever for the event, which was held in conjunction with Bayou La Batre’s annual Taste of the Bayou.
This was Downey’s first year to vie for the title. Other chefs in contention were Scott Simpson of The Depot in Auburn, Jason Ramirez of Villaggio Grille in Orange Beach, and Jeremiah Matthews of Southwood Kitchen in Daphne.
Downey said about 50 Alabama chefs submitted recipes in hopes of being chosen to compete. His dish was cast-iron grouper with Royal Red shrimp mezcal ceviche, Tennessee-made Benton’s Bacon, sweet onions, chayote squash, and squash blossoms stuffed with lump crabmeat, fried tempura style, and served with salsa verde. Of course, all the seafood came from the Gulf of Mexico.
“Everybody loves grouper, and we used yellow grouper – my favorite,” Downey said. “Jumbo lump crab is the best. Royal Red shrimp are popular, too.”
He said his secret weapon was chayote, a Latin American squash.
“It looks like a green tomato inside but has a citrus taste,” the chef said. “It’s in the cucumber family. It was like the cherry on the sundae. I felt like if I could pull it off, it would put us over the top.”
Each chef had an hour to cook during the competition.
“Nothing could be pre-made except stock,” Downey said. “We each had to make seven plates for the judges.”
Emcee Martie Duncan, a Birmingham native who was a “Food Network Star” finalist, kept up a running commentary, much like ESPN play-by-play announcer Chris Fowler during college football broadcasts. That meant Downey had to chat as well as cook.
“Martie was commenting the whole time we were cooking,” he said. “She’d say, ‘What’s next, Jeremy? What have you got going?’ But I’m used to talking while I cook since I work in an open kitchen at Bistro V.”
Out of the Fryer and Into the Frying Pan
Downey said each chef was allowed to have one helper. His was his sous chef, Matt Foust. As the duo’s hour ticked down, Foust had to be the bearer of bad news.
“He said the fryer was broken, and we needed it to fry the squash blossoms at the last minute,” Downey said. “I could hear people in the crowd muttering, ‘He’s in trouble.’”
Keeping their cool, the chefs ended up frying the squash blossoms in a cast-iron pan.
This year’s judges included Jim Smith, chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission and winner of the 2011 Great American Seafood Cook-Off; chef Brody Olive, winner of the 2017 Alabama Seafood Cook-Off; Jason Burnett, founding editor of MyRecipes.com and Oyster-Obsession.com; David Holloway, food writer and food enthusiast; and Ernie Anderson, owner of Graham Shrimp Co.
Downey said his winning dish wasn’t a departure from the food he serves at Bistro V, which he and co-owner Emily Tuttle Shell opened eight years ago.
“I tried to be true to what we do here at Bistro V,” he said. “This would be a common dish here.”
Winning the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off earned Downey an honest-to-goodness golden ticket to compete in two additional events. He’ll represent his state at this year’s Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans in August. He’s also an automatic qualifier for the 2018 World Food Championships at The Wharf in Orange Beach in November. Downey said about 400 chefs will compete in the world championships.
Judge Smith had high praise for Downey.
“We expected all of the chefs to bring their A game, and we weren’t disappointed,” Smith said in a press release. “Jeremy will be a great representative for our state and our seafood at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, and he’ll be a great addition to the team at the World Food Championships.”
Downey said he likes cooking competitions, and he’s obviously good at them. Last November at The Hangout Oyster Cook-Off in Gulf Shores, the judges gave him the Chef’s Choice award.
“I’m very competitive – that’s why I played football,” said Downey, who was a safety on the University of Alabama’s 1992 national championship team. “It’s exciting to be pressed up against the clock.”
He said he was relieved when the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off’s first runner-up was announced – at least at first.
“I thought, ‘Great – I still can win,’” he said. “And then I thought, ‘Or I might not.’”
As it turned out, he need not have worried.
“I wanted to win this for our restaurant and for Birmingham,” Downey said.
And of course, for his grandmother.