Chefs serve up New Orleans fare with flair

Gumbo competition draws 600, a record

March 06, 2006|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

The chefs stood with ladle in hand before steaming pots of gumbo, ready to greet the impending onslaught of hungry visitors.

Many had prepared for this event for days, chopping ingredients, shelling shrimp and designing decorations that would give their booths a festive Mardi Gras look. At 1 p.m., the crowds streamed into a hotel banquet hall in Annapolis, marking the beginning of the seventh annual Chefs Signature gumbo competition.

"They're all good for different reasons, but what is the truest gumbo?" mused Tim Parker of Annapolis.

The competition drew chefs and cooks from more than 15 restaurants, hotels and other aspects of the hospitality industry, including a country club and a college program.

This year, the event's organizers planned to donate a portion of the proceeds to victims of Hurricane Katrina who are connected to the hospitality industry in the Gulf Coast states, according to Paul Wernsdorfer, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Chefs Association, an event sponsor.

The event offered a rare opportunity for fans of the classic Louisiana dish. Wernsdorfer and others said many restaurants at the event don't regularly offer gumbo on their menus because it's not in high demand.

But you couldn't tell that from yesterday's crowd. About 600 people - an event record - packed into two large rooms at the Loews Annapolis Hotel. Many of them said they had come in previous years, and it's no wonder why: At $10 a ticket, it was essentially all-you-can-eat gumbo, with big chunks of shrimp, crab, scallops, sausage and okra filling bowl after bowl.

"You probably got the best gumbo around in Maryland right here," said Wernsdorfer, who is executive chef of Fisherman's Inn on Kent Narrows, which participated in the event. "There's not that many New Orleans-style restaurants that serve it."

Hundreds of gallons of gumbo were dished out in small Styrofoam bowls. The recipes varied by chef. Some versions were thick and dark brown; others were light and tan. Some kicked between the eyes with spice, others settled into the palate with a smooth, nutty richness.

Many of the chefs agreed that with gumbo, the key is the roux - that concoction of flour and oil or butter that's browned, but not burned, and adds degrees of thickness and flavors to the stew, depending on how it's prepared.

By 3 p.m., several booths had closed after running out of gumbo. Bill Fairbanks, executive chef at the Sheraton Annapolis Hotel, said he dished out 11 gallons of gumbo, 20 pounds of collard greens, and two large sheet trays of corn bread.

In another corner of the hall, Bill Kitts, a 19-year-old line cook, was warming another pot of gumbo as people continued to line up. Between his regular job at Sherwood's Landing, a restaurant at the Inn at Perry Cabin at St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore, and preparing for yesterday's event, Kitts said he'd slept about five hours in the past four days.

"I'm heating it, and in five minutes you'll be eating it," Kitts told one woman with a big smile.

For Fred Stielow and Sue Rosenfeld, an Annapolis couple who returned from visiting family in New Orleans last week, the event was another taste of the Big Easy here in Maryland. The couple said they helped house Katrina evacuees for a while and have relatives in Louisiana who had damaged property.

"But they all lived," he said.

As for yesterday's gumbo offerings, Stielow said many were good but that none compared to his mother's version. "She can take the time to make the roux right," he said.

Eventgoers voted for the cooking team from the Radisson Hotel Annapolis as having the best gumbo and the best table design. The judges' pick for best gumbo went to the Loews Annapolis Hotel, while the judges said Pusser's Landing restaurant in Annapolis had the best table design.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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