Stefani Marnon, the executive residence chef for Governor Murkowski, will be making her second trip to the Great American Seafood Cook-off in New Orleans to showcase her talents and the bounty of Alaskan waters. "The main focus of the show is to promote domestic seafood," said the chef, who has been working at the governor's mansion for more than six years. "It's a great place to show off-people think that they've had salmon before, and then they try ours. And they are just blown away."
During the event, which will be held at the Ernest T. Morial Convention Center, chefs are asked to create a simple seafood dish that the average cook could make at home. "The competition started last year when the governor of Louisiana challenged all of the other governors in the U.S. to send a chef to compete in a seafood cook-off," said Marnon. "I was thrilled to be chosen, and so freaked out by it. For awhile I didn't even believe it was real, so I didn't even tell anyone!"
Despite being incredibly nervous, Marnon impressed the judges at the event with her pan-seared salmon with a white bean, fennel and onion salad, and orange tomato sauce. This year, she plans to make pan-seared black cod, with king crab and shrimp risotto and a pineapple orange soy glaze. "It's a little classier than what I made last year, though it's still home-use friendly," she said. "I like it because it showcases one of the other little jewels of Alaskan seafood."
It is Marnon's hope that her "15 minutes of fame," which included being featured last year on the Food Network, will encourage other chefs and food lovers to enjoy fish and shellfish caught in Alaskan waters. "If I can turn someone on to black cod, that's huge," she said. "It's such a wonderful fish, and it's not marketed much in other states."
In addition to her expertise as a chef, Marnon also knows a little bit about marketing, having worked as an art director for New York advertising agencies in the 1980s. "It was a bad time to be in that business because there weren't a lot of jobs," she explained. "When I became unemployed, I decided to explore my interest in baking and cooking, so I took a job at TGI Friday's. And I never looked back."
Marnon went on to attend the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, though she says her real schooling came from working in restaurants with great chefs. "Getting a degree is kind of like getting a driver's license," she laughed. "You may be able to drive, but that doesn't mean that you're good at it. And sometimes nobody wants to drive with you. But the more you practice, the better you get."
Marnon moved to Seattle in 1994, and stayed there until 1997, when she decided to come to Alaska for the summer to help her friends open Silverbow Bagels. The day before she left to return south, she landed a job at the Summit, where she worked until hearing of a job opening at the Governor's Mansion.
"I dropped my resumé off, and three weeks later, I had a job," she said. "And I got engaged the next week! Alaska has been very good to me." Now married to husband Scott, the couple have two sons, Jake, 4-1/2 and Sam, 2.
Though Marnon is sure to earn more fans at the Seafood cook-off, she has already impressed Alaska's top leaders, including former Governor Tony Knowles and Governor Frank Murkowski. "Governor Murkowski loves all Alaskan seafood, but particularly black cod," she said. "Governor Knowles especially liked salmon and black beans."
No matter how she does in the competition, Marnon hopes that her presence there will help win converts for Alaska's most delicious natural resource. "I want to encourage everyone to try our seafood," she said. "I hope to do Alaska proud."