When chef Briar Handly competes in the 2014 The Great American Seafood Cook-Off next month, he’ll be swimming upstream trying to convince judges that steelhead trout from a landlocked state like Utah is as delicious as Louisiana shrimp, Oregon crab or Alaskan salmon.
He’s not afraid of the rough waters ahead.
"It’s a misnomer that you can’t get fresh fish in Utah," said Handly, who recently left Talisker on Main to work on opening his own Park City restaurant, called Handle. "I can get just as fresh a fish as anyone."
Handly and his sous chef, Matt Nelson, proved it on Monday by winning the local qualifying event, preparing steelhead trout from sustainable farms in Koosharem (Sevier County) and Smithfield (Cache County).
Handly’s pan-seared steelhead, served with fresh Utah vegetables and a bite of trout sausage, impressed a panel of five local judges, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and KUTV news anchor Mary Nickles. Handly defeated chefs Phelix Gardner, of Salt Lake City’s Pago and Finca restaurants, and Clement Gelas, from Talisker in Park City, for the honor.
Now Handly is headed to New Orleans, where he will be one of 19 chefs to compete at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off on Aug. 2. Many of his competitors will come from states known for seafood: Texas, Oregon, Alaska and Louisiana. But a few competing states have borders far from the ocean, including New Mexico and Idaho.
As far as local officials know, no Utah chef has ever been asked to compete in the seafood cook-off, now in its 11th year.
So Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was caught off guard a few months ago when Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne asked him to send his best Utah chef to the event. Herbert agreed and asked the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts to organize Monday’s cook-off to select a winner.
"Being a landlocked state, the cards are stacked against us," department spokesman Geoffrey Fattah acknowledged. "But it’s a great opportunity to represent Utah’s talent."
And show off seafood raised in a desert.
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