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It was approaching 2 a.m. in New Orleans, and the two Juneau chefs were still perfecting their dish.
Juneau chef crowned King of American Seafood 081617 AE 1 Alex McCarthy, Juneau Empire It was approaching 2 a.m. in New Orleans, and the two Juneau chefs were still perfecting their dish.

SALT Alaska Executive Chef Lionel Uddipa is crowned King of American Seafood after winning the Great American Seafood Cookoff on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. Uddipa cooked an Alaska King Crab Risotto. (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board)


SALT Alaska Executive Chef Lionel Uddipa's award-winning Alaska King Crab Risotto is displayed at the Great American Seafood Cookoff on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. Uddipa's win is the second in three years for a Juneau chef. (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board)

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Story last updated at 8/16/2017 - 3:08 pm

Juneau chef crowned King of American Seafood

It was approaching 2 a.m. in New Orleans, and the two Juneau chefs were still perfecting their dish.

SALT Executive Chef Lionel Uddipa and sous-chef Jacob Pickard had decided to make a last-minute change prior to participating in the Great American Seafood Cookoff. Originally planning to make a risotto with Dungeness crab, they switched to using Alaskan King Crab. They were still working out the details.

“We were practicing our speech, how we wanted to present the dish, execution and then plating it up,” Uddipa said. “We did all this in our hotel room at like 1:45 in the morning, because we wanted to make sure it was perfect and ready to rock and roll.”

Fifteen hours later, Uddipa knelt on the competition’s main stage, being literally crowned the 2017 King of American Seafood.

His dish — an Alaskan King Crab Risotto that included sea asparagus, seaweed, salmon roe and a fish sauce that had been fermenting for seven months among other ingredients — turned heads with its presentation. The risotto was in an oval-shaped granite bowl, stalks of green asparagus and bright orange salmon eggs providing splashes of color.

The crab was separate from the risotto, laying on a bed of asparagus and blueberry branches in a glass dome. Under the asparagus and blueberry branches were sea rocks, meant to give it a look of the Alaska shoreline. The reason for the dome, Uddipa said, was to capture the smoke from the alder wood over which the crab was cooked.

“Since alder wood is what we use when we have campfires in Alaska,” Uddipa said, “we thought that would be a nice addition.”

It ended up working out, as his Alaskana-style display wooed the judges. The flavor was an important part as well, and something Uddipa tinkered with up until the competition itself. He called the substitution of King Crab for Dungeness crab “very, very last minute,” but he has had plenty of experience with the dish, as King Crab Risotto is on SALT’s dinner menu.

Uddipa is the second Juneau-based chef to win the competition in three years, as The Rookery Cafe’s Beau Schooler earned the crown in 2015. Schooler prepared a head-to-tail sockeye salmon, using every bit of the fish (including the bones, which he ground into salt.)

Jeremy Woodrow, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said it’s good exposure for Juneau’s culinary scene, but also speaks volumes about the quality of food and wildlife in Alaska in general.

“When you have ingredients like we have across the state,” Woodrow said, “you already have a leg up on the competition.”

New Mexico chef Marc Quinones finished third, preparing spiced duck fat fried oysters. Massachusetts chef Kyle McClelland finished second thanks to a modern New England clambake. Woodrow said he spoke with judges who said the top three scores were extremely close.

Uddipa and Pickard were still in New Orleans two days later, hosting a Taste of Alaska event at Pigeon & Prince, a John Besh-owned restaurant. Speaking over the phone just before Monday’s event began, Uddipa was still buzzing as he reflected on what it was like to be crowned.

“It was a pretty emotional time for Jacob and I because we worked so hard to get here and hearing our name get announced was just awesome,” Uddipa said. “We were very humbled, very excited. There was a lot going on. Right now, it’s a couple days afterwards and we’re still pretty excited and stoked.”