GULF SHORES, Ala.  — Almost everyone along the Alabama Gulf Coast has a favorite shrimp dish, and the best way to prepare the tasty crustacean is always a matter of taste and often leads to a heated debate.

Last week, chef Ashley Cabana of Shaggy’s Harbor Bar & Grill put an end to the debate – at least for the next year.

Cabana took part in the Fifth Annual Zatarain’s National Shrimp Festival™ Restaurant Challenge. The Challenge is part of the 41st Annual National Shrimp Festival presented by Zatarain’s and produced by the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce. This year’s festival will take place Oct. 11-14 in Gulf Shores where Alabama 59 meets the Gulf.

Culinary artists from 13 other top area restaurants did their best to make Cabana work hard to earn the top prize. The rules for the challenge were simple. The winning dish had to feature Alabama Wild Shrimp and at least one of the more than 200 Zatarain’s New Orleans-style food products. Zatarain’s is the presenting sponsor of this year’s Festival and the Organized Seafood Association and their Alabama Wild Shrimp campaign is a major sponsor as well.

The winning dish prepared by Cabana was Zatarain’s Blackened Garlic Crusted Shrimp served with smoked Gouda grit cakes and green tomato marmalade. The recipe consisted of blackened shrimp cooked in olive oil and garlic; grits that had been cooked, then chilled, dredged in Zatarain’s Fish Fry and deep-fried; the dish was topped with a diced green tomato marmalade with citrus and ginger accents.

“His dish blew me away,” Festival Chairman Ron Kutter said. “It was fantastic. The next time I’m down at Shaggy’s, I’m going to get him to make that for me again.”

Kutter said during the past 12 years that he has been on the Festival staff – the past six as Chairman – he has logged countless hours on behalf of the Festival. “Many of those hours I’ve spent doing mundane, almost thankless tasks,” he said. “But the Restaurant Challenge is one of those instances where it makes all the other countless hours worth it. To be able to sample shrimp dishes from 14 of the top chefs in the area is a tough job, but it’s one I’m all too willing to volunteer for. This may be my last year as Chairman, but I’ll be back for the Restaurant Challenge every year.”

The dishes were rated by a panel of three judges whose identities remain a secret except to Chamber staff members. The event was Sept. 19 at the Gulf Coast Culinary Institute at Faulkner State Community College.

Along with taking home the Restaurant Challenge trophy, Cabona took home $2,000 and a set of Royal Prestige cookware.

The inspiration for the dish, according to Cabana, was simple.

“It was just my take on a traditional coastal dish – shrimp and grits,” he said. “The way I prepared it was taught to me by a guy I used to work with years ago.”

Cabana said he is no stranger to culinary competitions, having competed in several during his 22 years in restaurant kitchens, but this is the first one in which he placed first.

“I’ve always placed second or third in the competitions I’ve entered,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve come in first. I’m extremely honored. In my opinion, this is the most prestigious cooking competition in the area. To be surrounded by the quality of the chefs I was surrounded by and come out on top. I’m still in shock.”

Nolan’s Restaurant & Lounge in Gulf Shores took home $500 and the second-place trophy with their Pecan Crusted Gulf Grouper served on a bed of Zatarain’s Rice Pilaf topped with a Pineapple Beurre Blanc prepared by Chef Michael Pophin.

Flippers Restaurant in Orange Beach took home $250 and the third-place trophy with its Creole Shrimp Moutarde En Boule prepared by Chef Mike Myers.

Chamber Special Events Director Ann Motes said along with the prizes, the chefs from the three top restaurants will prepare their dishes on television.

“We have dates during the weeks leading up to the festival for our three top chefs to prepare their dishes on Fox 10 television’s Studio 10 morning show,” she said. “Flippers with Chef Mike Myers were on Sept. 26, Nolan’s will prepare their dish on Oct. 1 and Shaggy’s will be on the air Oct. 9, just before the Festival begins. It’s exciting to know that these chefs and their restaurants will gain some notoriety outside our immediate area for all their hard work.”

Motes said the winners will be recognized during the Festival on Oct. 13.

“The dishes these chefs came up with were amazing,” she said.

“It just goes to show you what great ingredients like Zatarain’s and Alabama Wild Shrimp coupled with great culinary minds can create – the best shrimp dishes anywhere.”

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