A Taste of South Carolina
By Hope S. Philbrick
Serve as a judge at any professional cooking competition and you’ll feel more pity for Padma Lakshmi than you ever thought possible. The host and co-judge of Bravo TV’s Top Chef doesn’t have it as easy as you might guess.
Judging cook-offs and food competitions is a challenge. It’s a lot of responsibility to choose a winner, knowing that all participants hope to be awarded the top prize (whatever it is) and put much thought and effort into creating and preparing their dishes. Several folks may compete, but only one can win…the remainder will be disappointed. That doesn’t mean it’s not some fun—for starters, it’s a great excuse to indulge in decadent bites. So when invited to join the panel of judges for the Silver Cup Competition at the annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival, I’ve twice jumped at the chance. Shrimp! An opportunity to visit the coast!
“Beautiful Beaufort by the Sea” is how locals subtly inform visitors the correct way to pronounce the name of their quaint town—the first two words of that phrase sound alike, and thus distinctly different from the pronunciation of the North Carolina town of the same spelling. It’s no mere empty boast. Beaufort is beautiful, with a photogenic waterfront and historic downtown dotted with many fine examples of Antebellum architecture and live oaks draping with Spanish moss. It’s one of only a few American towns where the entire downtown has been designated as an historic district by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Main Street is filled with art galleries, antique shops, boutique stores and restaurants. Best of all, Beaufort is populated with the sorts of people so open and welcoming you might instantly consider them friends. During the annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival, locals and visitors feast together on scrumptious bites prepared by local restaurateurs.
“Please come hungry because there are typically 15 restaurants that participate in the competition,” suggests Peach Morrison, assistant director of the South Carolina Lowcountry Tourism Commission. Great advice. Many of the restaurants prepare more than one dish, pushing the total number of bites to be evaluated to over 20. There’s no excuse to leave hungry.
The Silver Cup Competition is open to all restaurants who participate in the Beaufort Shrimp Festival. While some restaurants may participate in the festival and sell bites to attendees without entering the judged competition, most vie for the prize. The winner is awarded the coveted Silver Cup trophy, an exclusive honor to hold for one year. (The trophy must be surrendered the following year to the next winner.) The winning restaurant accumulates the highest total number of points in three categories: Booth Decoration, Shrimp Recipe Cook-Off, and the People’s Choice Award.
To score points in the Booth Decoration category, restaurateurs are encouraged to be original and expressive. Tents may be adorned with any number of banners, shrimping gear like nets, buoys and floats, balloons, flags and more. To expand potential capacity and comfortably accommodate festival attendees, chairs or hay bales and tasting tables are sometimes hauled in as well. Judges award points based on overall appeal.
Since the participating chefs are professional restaurateurs, each bite presented during the Shrimp Recipe Cook-Off is typically delicious. Scoring margins can be narrow. Professional chefs don’t often screw up when preparing a dish; they’ve got training and experience to draw upon. But any competition presents obstacles, especially when the event is held outdoors—there may be time constraints, equipment failures, table collapses, power surges, weather delays or other unforeseen snags. But judges are seated beyond the line of sight of the event and thus don’t know what specific challenges any of the chefs may have faced. The judges can only evaluate the bites of food they are served.
Any Southerner worth his salt can spot a bad shrimp. It smells funky. And most eaters can tell when a shrimp is over- or under-cooked, yielding an uncharacteristically rubbery or strangely flaky bite. The Shrimp Cook-Off judges are asked to dig deeper than “it’s yummy” and “it’s not,” weighing creativity (25%), presentation (25%) and taste (50%). Tastings are blind, so judges do not know which restaurants have prepared which dishes until after the scoring is complete. Judges take notes and mark scorecards while tasting, sharing opinions between bites though ultimately trusting their own opinions.
What makes a good shrimp dish? Shrimp should be properly cooked, whether steamed, fried, broiled, baked or however it’s prepared and whether it’s served whole or pureed beyond recognition. Additional elements used in any dish (such as grits) should be an asset to the shrimp and also prepared correctly (not lumpy or runny). The dish should be served at the proper temperature, whether it’s intended to be hot or cold. Spice levels shouldn’t overwhelm or mask the shrimp flavor. The overall taste of the dish should be pleasant and balanced, complex and layered not bland. “As a judge I was mainly looking for great taste,” says Jill Jauch, marketing manager New River Auto Mall (an event sponsor in 2011 and 2012). “How it was presented also impacted my decision. The restaurants definitely got extra points from me for using real china. That showed they put extra effort into it.”
Once the scores from all judges are tallied, a winner is proclaimed. “I was surprised at the variety of dishes and all the unique ways to prepare shrimp,” said Jauch. “It was harder than I thought to determine the standout.”
In 2012, top prize went to Emily’s Restaurant & Tapas Bar. On October 4, 2013, top honors are once again up for grabs.
During the festival, bites similar to those presented to judges are sold to festival goers for a dollar, two or three each. (Alternate foods are available for the shellfish intolerant or anyone who grows weary of eating only shrimp.) Attendees are invited to vote for their favorite restaurant and the winner is recognized with the People’s Choice Award.
While Beaufort’s Shrimp Festival celebrates Lowcountry cuisine and features an abundance of South Carolina Wild Caught Shrimp, the weekend serves up an array of activities for all ages. Among the options is an outdoor concert, an evening lighted shrimp boat parade, a 5k Run over Woods Memorial Bridge, a 5k “Walk through History” in the historic Old Point neighborhood, a “Popcorn Shrimp Race” for youngsters, a shrimp peeling contest, shrimp boat tours and more. Like shrimp, it’s worth savoring from head to tail.
Mark Your Calendar…
19th Annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival
October 4-5, 2013
Friday, 6-10 p.m. and Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park
Downtown Beaufort, South Carolina
The roster changes slightly each year, but the following restaurants routinely participate in the Beaufort Shrimp Festival:
47 Ferry Rd.
Berry Island Café
1 Merchant Lane on Lady’s Island
Emily’s Restaurant & Tapas Bar
906 Port Republic St.
Gilligan’s Seafood Restaurant
2601 Boundary St.
926 Bay St.
904 Bay St.
Sea Eagle Market
2242 Boundary St.
Southern Graces at the Beaufort Inn
809 Port Republic St.
Where To Stay…
The Beaufort Inn
809 Port Republic St.
843-379-4667 or 888-522-0250
Welcoming guests for more than 100 years, The Beaufort Inn consists of a main house and surrounding cottages. Built in 1897, the renovated property seamlessly blends historic architecture with modern amenities. Conveniently located in the heart of Beaufort’s National Landmark Historic District, The Beaufort Inn is walking distance from Waterfront Park, the Intracoastal Waterway, as well as many shops, restaurants, galleries and other attractions.
Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce Visitors & Convention Bureau
843-986-5400 or 800-638-3525
-Photo Credits: raw shrimp and waterfront, SC Lowcountry Tourism; Inn Courtesy The Beaufort Inn; booths, food and T-shirts, © HSP Media LLC.
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.