CHEF SPOTLIGHT: Celebrity chef Erik Niel to be at Food Film Festival

PAM GRIFFIN 315-4491 | @DestinLogPam pgriffin@thedestinlog.com
The Log’s chef spotlight is on Erik Niel from Chattanooga, Tenn.

When the best food and films arrive in South Walton for the Food Film Festival April 8-10, Chef Erik Niel, executive chef at the Easy Bistro & Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn., will be one of the celebrity chefs.

Growing up in Mandeville, Louisiana, a commu-nity on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain and an hour away from the Gulf, Niel spent afternoons fishing and duck hunting with his dad and brother and learned to cook his catch and prepare food from beginning to end.

“I cooked at home with my mother, who is a fantastic cook,” Niel said. “She taught me her tricks about quick and dirty good Cre-ole food early on.”

It was his grandmother who “set the bar for classics” in his life, such as spa-ghetti and meatballs, Etouffe and chicken and dumplings.

“My grandmother was iconic to me with food,” Niel said. “My grandfather really taught me how to clean and cook what we either caught or shot. Pot roasting wild pintail ducks was one of his favorite things, along with making jars of his olive salad.”

It was a summer job in college that convinced Niel he wanted to be a chef. While the sous chef was off the line for a moment, Niel, the garde manger who prepared cold dishes, decided to help.

“I just jumped over and made the ticket with pan-roasted salmon,” Niel said. “The guest sent their compliments back on the presentation, and I was high on that for days … it was a done deal.”

Niel then attended Johnson & Wales Cu-linary School in Vail, Colorado, in 1999, and had the privilege to work under a talented chef named Bruce Yim at Sweet Basil in Vail Village.

“He was a great steady hand in my training. My ‘train-ing’ was hard, but there is nothing easy about working in great kitchens that perform at a high level every day. Passion carries us through the hours and the work for sure. I would say, though, that I still train every day. That’s the beauty of cooking, you’re never through learn-ing.”

Niel describes his style of cooking as Modern Southern French.

“Modern for the seasonality, product sourcing and presentation,” he said. “Southern because it is heavily influenced by Southern American cuisine. French because I tend to use traditional southern French techniques.”

While at the festival this weekend, Niel will prepare a special dish for the guests – a spring staple from his Easy Bistro in Chattanooga.

“Spring pea tartine with pickled gulf shrimp on a benne seed cracker. We’ve (changed) this idea for the past several years on the menu and especially at parties and fes-tivals. An evolving staple … so to speak.”

Q: What is your favorite cuisine to cook?

A: I love taking Southern comfort food and elevating it to ridiculous levels of flavor. New versions of buttermilk pie or braised collard greens show up all the time.

Q: What is your favorite food to eat?

A: I love to eat raw oysters. I’ve studied, collected and enjoyed wine for the majority of my adult life, and I love the parallels between the influence of terroir of oysters and the influence of terroir on wine.

Q: Favorite meal to prepare?

A: I absolutely love slow roasting a whole chicken at home for my family. Smashed potatoes and a quick tomato salad from the garden with lots of herbs, and I’m pretty much go-ing to be in my happy place.

Q: Best piece of advice you would give a home cook?

A: Be forgiving of yourself in your own kitchen. Trying and failing is better than never having tried at all.

                          Oil Poached Catfish with Indian Spices,

                           Heirloom Tomatoes and Yogurt Sauce

For the spice mix:

1 Tbsp. each cumin seed, coriander seed and fennel seed

6 cloves

Toast all in a dry pan till fragrant. Grind in mortar and pestle, then combine with 1.5 Tbsp. turmeric and 1 tsp. cayenne.

For the catfish:

3 lbs. fresh southern catfish

1 qt. canola oil

Preheat oven to 275.

Season catfish fillets with salt and black pepper, then season with the spice mixture and drizzle with canola. Rub the mixture into the fish and let stand, covered and refrigerated for 1-2 hours

Pour a layer of canola oil in a baking dish, add the catfish in a single layer and cover completely with the remaining oil.

Poach in the oven till the fish is completely cooked through, about 20-25 minutes.

For the Yogurt Sauce:

1 qt. whole milk yogurt

1/4 cup EVOO

2 Tbsp. each mustard seeds and cumin seeds

8 garlic cloves, minced

2 Tbsp. grated ginger

2 Jalapeno-Brunoise

Salt and black pepper

Put the yogurt in a bowl.

In a small sauté pan, heat the EVOO over medium heat. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and toast briefly; then add the garlic and lightly brown for 10-20 seconds.

Immediately scrape into the yogurt and mix with the ginger and jalapeno. Season with salt and pep-per.

To assemble:

5 large Heirloom tomatoes

1/2 cup fresh mint

Salt and pepper

Slice Heirloom tomatoes into whatever size and style of slices you would like.

Place the sliced tomatoes on a plate or platter and sea-son well with salt and black pepper.

With a slotted spatula, remove the catfish from the oil and place on the tomatoes. Drizzle the yogurt over the fish and tomatoes. Garnish with fresh torn mint.