Lionel Uddipa is trying to keep the crabs alive.
Uddipa, the Executive Chef of SALT in Juneau, has a dish in mind to represent Alaska on a national stage at the Great American Seafood Competition on Saturday, and he needs Dungeness crab to do it. The issue is, the season for Dungeness crab ended on July 25, and with the competition taking place 4,000 miles away, the crabs have to make quite a trip.
For the past two weeks, Uddipa has been working with Alaska Glacier Seafoods and a company in New Orleans to work out a plan to get 10 Dungeness crabs from Juneau to New Orleans and keep them alive until the day before the competition.
If the crabs make it, Uddipa plans on incorporating the crab meat into a dish that he feels represents Alaska well: a Dungeness crab risotto. SALT currently has a king crab risotto on the menu, but Uddipa wants to add a little extra flair to that dish.
For the one he’ll cook for five judges at Saturday’s competition, Uddipa is combining various aspects of Alaska sea life. The rice for the risotto is cooked in halibut stock (basically a broth), with a dash of black cod fish sauce that’s been fermenting for seven months. He’s also ground up Alaskan kelp into a powder that’s included, and he adds dried seaweed and sea asparagus for a little extra crunch on top. Salmon eggs and a little vanilla oil for sweetness.
Before SALT opened this past Saturday, Uddipa invited the Empire to the kitchen for an opportunity to try the dish.
“It sounds almost a little overwhelming with how I explained it,” Uddipa said, “but when we taste it here in a bit, you’ll understand why.”
It only takes a few minutes to make, with Uddipa going back and forth between stirring the risotto and checking on the crab meat that’s cooking over coals and burning alder wood. More of the time is spent displaying the finished product, as he places the crab meat carefully atop the risotto and surrounding it with protruding stalks of asparagus and meticulously laying out the salmon roe, or eggs.
The different elements balance each other out, with the salmon eggs supplying a satisfying and sweet pop alongside the crunch of the crispy seaweed. The smokiness in the crab, courtesy of the alder wood and charcoal, mixes well with the creamy risotto. Uddipa was still experimenting with just how much vanilla oil to use, but was convinced that dash of sweetness would help tie the dish together.
That kind of attention to detail has always attracted Uddipa, who was born and raised in Juneau, to seafood.
“It requires a lot more finesse to work with,” Uddipa said. “With a piece of meat, you can kind of just throw it around. It’s just so versatile, you know? Everybody knows what red meat’s gonna taste like, or what pork is gonna taste like. With seafood, there’s like 2,000 kinds of flavor profiles, depending on what you’re cooking.”
Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) Communications Director Jeremy Woodrow, who helped in selecting Uddipa for the competition, has long been a fan of Uddipa’s. As Uddipa prepares the dish, which packs a different flavor and texture seemingly with every bite, Woodrow constantly asks questions. When Woodrow tastes the finished product, Uddipa watches Woodrow’s facial reaction carefully.
“It’s so close,” Woodrow says.
Uddipa’s experimented with all kinds of seafood, and with a good deal of success. He’s been the Executive Chef at SALT since it opened in 2013, constantly experimenting. In 2014, he finished second in a statewide seafood competition where he prepared a complex halibut dish.
Now, he’s headed to the national level.
The Great American Seafood Cookoff (GASCO) is in its 10th year, looking to accentuate the importance of seafood across America. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said this week that there’s usually a passionate crowd present at the event, where 12 chefs will participate this year.
“Hopefully we can use this to promote domestic seafood all over the country,” Nungesser said, “and of course Alaska is so important.”
Nungesser reached out to every state’s governor’s office asking for suggestions, and picked the chefs from there. Uddipa won’t be the first Juneau chef in the competition, and hopes that he finds similar success to the most recent Juneau representatives there.
Beau Schooler, the chef at the Rookery, won the competition in 2015 alongside fellow Juneau chef Travis Hotch. For that competition, Hotch and Schooler prepared a nose-to-tail salmon dish in which he used the whole fish, right down to the bones.
Having that kind of creativity – and making it taste good – is the key to having success in this competition, Woodrow said.
“How can we make the judges think about seafood differently and think about Alaska seafood differently? I’m excited to see what he does,” Woodrow said, “and taste it as well.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.