Chef Dean Max Wins Great American Seafood Cook-off


Chef Dean Max of Fort Lauderdale captured top honors at the Great American Seafood Cook-off on August 7 in New Orleans.  He was crowned "King of American Seafood" after besting 13 other teams from across the country.  Each team prepared a domestic seafood dish that reflected the cuisine of their home state.  Chef Dean's winning entry was "Sebastian Inlet Clams BBLT (Bacon, Basil, Lettuce, and Tomato)."

With the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, interest in the New Orleans-based cook-off was especially intense this year.  Chef Dean said he was pleased to have the chance to celebrate Florida seafood at such a high-profile event and expressed confidence in the safety of Gulf seafood, pointing out that the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies are constantly monitoring seafood quality.

"The majority of the Gulf is considered pristine, hosting many varieties of seafood that remain a healthy delicacy," he said.  "With the focus of so many organizations testing the waters, I feel that eating Gulf seafood has never been safer."

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said the cook-off was a great opportunity to showcase Florida seafood on the national stage.

"This event helped get out the message that Florida seafood is safe, plentiful and available," Bronson said.  "Our state's commercial fishermen are bringing in their quality catch daily.  Add to that the creativity of Chef Dean Max, and you've got a winning combination."

In addition to Florida, competing chefs represented Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, and West Virginia. The chefs were given two hours to prepare their dishes and present them to the judges.

The panel of judges included Chef Rick Tramonto of Chicago restaurants Tru, Tramonto Steak and Seafood, and Osteria di Tramonto; Chef Jeff Tunks of Ceiba in Washington, D.C.; Chandra Ram, executive editor of Plate magazine; Beverly Stephen, executive editor of Food Arts magazine; and Chef Justin Timineri, winner of the 2006 Great American Seafood Cook-off and executive chef for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.  This year's cook-off was hosted by Jeff Corwin of Animal Planet and the Food Network's Extreme Cuisine.  Co-host was Chef John Folse, Louisiana's Culinary Ambassador.

Presented annually by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, the Great American Seafood Cook-off, which encourages the use of products from sustainable fisheries, is now in its seventh year.  Sponsors included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, FishWatch, Michelob Brewing Company, Whole Foods Market, Tabasco, Loubat Food Service Equipment, Louisiana Restaurant Association, and the Royal Sonesta New Orleans Hotel.

Dean James Max is the executive chef at 3030 Ocean.  The restaurant opened in 2000 and is located at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa on Fort Lauderdale Beach.  Earlier in his career, Chef Dean was an executive chef and part owner of Atlanta's popular Mumbo Jumbo restaurant and executive chef at Woodside in Brentwood, California.  He is classically trained in French cooking.  His cookbook, "A Life by the Sea," was published in 2006.

Sebastian Inlet Clams BBLT (Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, and Basil)

Yield: Serves 6

Fish Stock (you can substitute canned clam broth for this if necessary):
1 pound halibut fish bones
1 rib celery
1 onion
pinch of salt
1 quart water

Rinse the fish bones clean and place them in a pot with the chopped celery and onion. Cover the bones with the water and salt. Bring the stock to a boil and turn it down to simmer for 40 minutes. Let it rest for 20 minutes before straining. Cool and refrigerate.

Tomato Sauce:
6 large red tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon minced Calabrese peppers
2 minced shallots
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons reserved bacon fat

Halve, seed, and grate the flesh of the tomatoes and discard the skin. Sauté the garlic, peppers, and shallots with the olive oil and bacon fat, and add in the tomato. Cook the mixture until it becomes thick. Refrigerate until needed.

1/4 pound double-smoked bacon (Chef Max uses Benton's Family Farm)

Over a medium heat, render off the bacon 75 percent of the way (meaning don't cook it until all the fat is released) then reserve the bacon pieces separate from the fat.

Basil Bubbles:
2 cups basil leaves (stems removed)
1/4 cup reserved hot fish stock

Plunge the basil leaves in a small pot of boiling water to shock them for 20 seconds, and then transfer them to a bowl of ice water to cool them down. In a blender, combine the hot fish stock and the blanched basil and blend until smooth. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, and scoop the bubbles from the top and serve on the clams.

Steaming the Clams:
6 dozen littleneck clams
2 tablespoons garlic
1/2 bottle white wine
1 quart fish stock
1/2 pound butter
1 pint cherry tomatoes (peeled of their skin)
4 tablespoons basil chiffanade
2 lemons

Clean the clams and discard any open dead ones. In a large pot, sauté the garlic with four tablespoons of the butter, and add the clams and tomato sauce and cook for 2 minutes. Deglaze with the white wine and add in the fish stock as well. Cover the clams until they open, and scoop equal portions of them into 6 bowls. Reduce the sauce by half and add the rest of the butter, cherry tomatoes, and basil. Lightly season with salt and add the lemon juice.

Ready to Serve:
1 ciabatta bread loaf (cut in 6 equal lengthwise portions)
6 each baby romaine lettuce heads
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
24 micro red romaine leaves (optional) tossed in a bit of olive oil and lemon juice
salt and pepper

Trim the ciabatta bread to match the shape of the serving vessel. Brush the ciabatta bread with two tablespoons of the olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. In a mixing bowl, toss the romaine with the remaining olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and fresh ground pepper. On a hot grill, mark the bread and romaine for 45 seconds on each side, then reserve.

In a large bowl-style plate, place the grilled bread down first and top with the wilted romaine. Scatter the clams on and around the bread. Spoon the tomato broth from the clams all over the dish like a shallow soup. Scatter some of the crispy bacon around and some of the micro romaine as a garnish. Ladle a large spoon of the basil bubbles over the clams right before serving.
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