Local Seafood on Display in Competition

By Cheryl Costello

Restaurant chefs from all over the state are putting their best plate forward in hopes of being chosen as Maryland’s Best Chef. The Maryland Department of Agriculture and Maryland Restaurant Association are calling for original recipes using locally produced foods from Maryland watermen and farmers.

The best recipes will be prepared for Governor Larry Hogan’s Buy Local Cookout in mid-July. And the best of the best will win a “Golden Ticket” to the World Food Championships in Dallas, Texas.

Bay Bulletin joined chef Zack Trabbold of The Local in Fallston, Harford County, to cook one of last year’s winning dishes. Trabbold, The Local’s owner and executive chef, cooked up some award-winning blue catfish (an invasive species that’s a growing fishery on the Bay). He’s not giving away all his secrets, but he showed us a recipe similar to the one he’ll be using in this year’s competition.

“We have our local blue catfish, which we just breaded a little bit. We soaked in buttermilk, some seasoned buttermilk, and then just seasoned flour and then a little bit of panko with some other herbs and seasonings in it … We got our pan hot, smoking a little bit. We don’t want it to get too hot. And then we’ll go ahead and shake off that excess and just lay the fish down into the pan.”

Then he sautés some local vegetables and adds in white wine. “This is our rosemary, sweet onion, Old Bay hot sauce,” he says.

And presentation is everything. Trabbold splatters the sauce on the plate, putting vegetables on next and topping it with the catfish. “You eat with your eyes first,” he says.

Blue catfish is a must if you enter the state’s seafood category this year. 

“It actually helps the waters,” Trabbold says. “Everybody loves crabs. If we don’t start eating this catfish, we’re not going to have crabs to eat.”

And it’s tasty, too. “In my opinion, the catfish is very mild in flavor,” he says. “It’s flaky. It reminds me a lot of the texture of rockfish, which everyone loves in Maryland. Maybe we can get them on the boat of the local blue catfish instead.”

Trabbold is the reigning champion of the state’s Best Chef competition. His team from The Local went on to compete in Dallas at the World Food Championships last year and placed in the top 10.

This year’s competition will be held July 21. Recipes should be submitted by July 6 and they must include products from a Maryland farmer, waterman or other producer. The Local team says by doing that, they’re able to tell diners where their food is coming from, that it was raised properly and isn’t harming the environment. Plus, it supports producers in the community.

The Local takes pride in buying from local watermen. 

“You can get catfish at a sustainable price and if you prepare it right, it’s going to give you some of the same textures as other fish with the mild taste and flakiness,” says Chef Chris Yates.

That’s the goal of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. 

“We’re just trying to increase public knowledge of the taste and quality you can find in blue catfish,” says agriculture department spokesperson Audrey Broomfield. “And the only way to curb the population of that invasive species is through the public consuming it,” 

A team representing chefs, farmers, watermen and consumers will choose the winning recipes. Chefs selected to attend the governor’s cookout will be given a $200 stipend to help with the cost of participating.

“I always tell a lot of my chefs who are new in the kitchen, ‘You’ve got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and try new things. You’ve got to taste everything in the kitchen.’ So, I think it’s the same feel for people as well,” says Trabbold.

Blue catfish may help us all get out of our comfort zone.