Chef Al Massa from Brotula's in Destin places in Great American Seafood Cook-off in Louisiana
After winning the local Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Competition, chef Al Massa took his lionfish dish on the road and placed second in the Great American Seafood Cook-off in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Massa, chef at Destin’s Brotula’s Seafood House and Steamer and representing the state of Florida, was one of about 15 chefs from states such as Alaska, Maine and Texas that competed in the national competition that has been around almost two decades.
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The chefs cooked before a live audience on Aug. 6 and then presented their dishes to a panel of six national judges who scored them based on presentation, creativity, composition, craftsmanship, flavor and more.
Massa was picked to represent Florida at the Cook-off because the governor was looking for someone from the Panhandle. And because Massa had just won the Lionfish Competition in May, his dish was in the limelight.
"We were lucky to win,” Massa said.
For the last couple of years, Alex Fogg, marine resource coordinator for Okaloosa County, and the Tourist Development Council have put on a Lionfish Festival along the harbor in Destin, as well as a lionfish tournament. During that week, restaurants along the harbor feature lionfish on their menus.
This past year they turned it into a competition among six participating restaurants, said Tyler Jarvis, owner of Brotula’s.
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Judges came in randomly and ordered the lionfish.
“Luckily the judges enjoyed chef’s creation, so we wound up winning the competition,” Jarvis said.
So, when it was time for the Great American Seafood Cook-off, Massa was chosen to represent Florida.
“The state of Florida has never had a Panhandle representative … so it was a huge honor and very humbling. We were thankful to go down there and have a chance to bring it home,” Jarvis said.
Massa’s dish was a pan seared Florida lionfish with black forbidden rice and melting zucchini ribbons with chardonnay shellfish butter.
Cooking lionfish was a bit new to Massa before the local competition.
“I had cooked lionfish personally before, but this was the first time I brought it into the restaurant,” he said.
The reason being, lionfish are not readily available at the market like snapper, grouper or amberjack.
“You’ve got to go out and catch it. You’ve got to fire up the boat, get the scuba tanks and do down there and wrangle those rascals,” Massa said.
“Everyone does snapper, triggerfish and mahi,” Massa said at these competitions.
Massa said there was a duality to him choosing to do lionfish.
“As a chef I think you’ve got to be a steward of your environment. I don’t like to do fish that are overfished, because sustainability is important,” he said.
“And with the lionfish it’s a double-double win. It’s actually better to harvest them, because it’s better for the environment,” Massa said.
Lionfish have no predators, yet they will almost eat any marine creature they can fit into their mouth. They are invasive and multiply quickly. They are spiny and are hard to catch by hook and line, but divers can scoop them up.
So, by using the lionfish as his fish of choice, “We are taking an invasive fish out of the environment and the benefit is the deliciousness, because it is a tasty fish. And by taking them off the reef, it allows the other fish to thrive,” Massa said.
Plus it brought a spotlight to the fish and how versatile it can be, Jarvis said.
“And they’re tasty,” Massa emphasized.
Fresh for competition
Because the lionfish is not readily available at the market, Fogg and his crew went out and caught the lionfish the night before the competition.
“We were actually concerned that if they failed, we don’t have a fish,” Jarvis said.
But the diving crew didn’t let them down. They brought in big ones.
Massa said they came in about 6 p.m. with the fish and he started prep on the fish about 3 a.m.
“You can’t just reach into the ice and grab them because of the spines … it’s a very deliberate process. I wanted to make sure they were perfect, so it took a while,” Massa said.
Then they loaded up and drove to Louisiana where they cooked in front of an audience.
“When I saw all the dishes come up, I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be a tough competition," but I thought we had a chance because of the guy's flavoring,” Jarvis said. Massa was assisted by Orion Cordoves.
“When they got second, we were bummed but thrilled at the same time,” Jarvis said.
The winner of the national event was chef Erin Miller of Massachusetts who prepared a Cape Ann Tide Pool complemented by a consommé consisting of lobster tails and dune rose pits representing the incoming sea in the tide pool. The dish included scallops, corn and mussels.
The premise behind the competition was that each chef had to cook a dish that represented their state. And the recipes had to be submitted prior to the event.
“So, whatever you submitted, that’s what you had to do,” Jarvis said.
The chefs had a little snafu at the competition, when they tripped a breaker with their induction burners.
“The minute he turned them all on, the circuit breaker popped twice,” Massa said.
“I looked over thought my rice was done and it’s just staring back at me,” he said.
“We had one solution and that was figure it out. Adapt and overcome,” Massa said.
They got things back in working order and pulled it off just in time.
They had an hour to prepare and plate their dish.
“It was a cool competition. Second place is not too bad, but it definitely put the Panhandle on the map,” Jarvis said.
More about Massa
Chef Massa hails from a big Italian family in New Jersey where “cooking was always important,” he said.
He says when he was a young man, the family would get together on Sunday and all the aunts and uncles would bring a special dish.
“Once you made something … you brought that for life,” Massa said, noting he had an aunt that brought her lasagna for 15 years.
His father was in the military and his mom was always hosting parties.
“I served as the bartender … and served as the prep cook back in the kitchen. I had an appreciation for that,” he said.
He later went into the Air Force and did the same thing as his parents, hosting a lot of parties. He was stationed at Hurlburt Air Force Base.
“People would say, 'You’re never going to make general, but you’ll be a good chef someday.' Got out as a captain and here I am,” Massa said.
When he got out of the service he went to culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina. Emeril Lagasse came to an event while he was at school.
After school he came back to the Emerald Coast and then Hurricane Opal hit. At that point he did a stint with Lagasse in New Orleans for 10 years, then went down to Sarasota, before coming back to the Emerald Coast. Massa was chef at Mariana Café in Destin for five years before coming over to Brotula’s, where he has been for the last three.