Taste South Carolina’s Lowcountry at the annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival.
By Hope S. Philbrick
For the third time, I joined the judges panel at the Silver Cup competition, a restaurant competition that’s part of the annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival in Beaufort, SC. The 25th Annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival ran October 4-5, 2019.
Serving as a judge at any professional cooking competition isn’t as easy as you might guess.
Judging cook-offs and food competitions is a lot of responsibility. You have 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 always 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 addition to the judged scoring, there’s also a People’s Choice Award.
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.
2019 Silver Cup Entries…
At the judges’ table, we don’t know which restaurant has prepared a dish as it’s presented to us. But I keep notes and fill in the blanks when restaurants are revealed after the scores are tallied up and winners selected.
Here are the entries in the order presented at the judges’ table:
Lemon grilled local shrimp served on local watermelon with feta and arugula salad by Mezes. Two of the four judges ranked this as their personal favorite dish. It placed 3rd. I loved its fresh taste and was especially impressed by the ripe red watermelon, but it scored low on creativity for me because I’ve seen similar dishes across the Southeast.
Coconut shrimp by Sea Eagle Market. The plate reads, “Shrimp is the fruit of the sea,” and elements of this dish play with that idea. Each component was tasty on its own and I especially loved the combination of coconut shrimp with the spicy dipping sauce, but the shrimp was overcooked.
Shrimp Gouda mac & cheese by Plums. What’s not to love, right? Delish for sure, but the bacon flavor overpowered the shrimp flavors…and since this is a shrimp competition that hurt the score.
Pickled shrimp, smoked pimento cheese fritter, green tomato chow chow, candied jalapeño bacon, and bourbon brown sugar gastrique by Fish Camp on 11th Street. This was my personal favorite dish. Each element was cooked to perfection and I loved how the dish elevated Southern cooking traditions. It ranked 2nd place.
Shrimp BLT bite by Q on Bay. This very tasty dish lifted the usual ho-hum sandwich to new heights. A nice spin on a classic, and the shrimp were cooked to perfection.
Lowcountry shrimp & grits by Madison’s. While shrimp & grits is my personal favorite dish, this rendition didn’t wow me or my fellow judges. The grits were sticky rather than creamy though the shrimp did lead the flavor profile.
Shrimp and smoked gouda grits topped with prosciutto cream and apple cider reduction, and a bang bang bao bun with crispy fried shrimp and Asian slaw by Southern Graces catering. This sophisticated dish won 1st place. All the flavors were complimentary in this innovative combination.
2012 Silver Cup Memories…
“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, the Silver Cup went to Emily’s Restaurant & Tapas Bar.
Beaufort Shrimp Festival…
During the festival, bites similar to those presented to judges are sold to festival goers for $1, $2, or $3 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…
26th Annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival
Friday October 2 – Saturday October 3, 2020
Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park
Downtown Beaufort, South Carolina
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. A version of this article was first published in 2012.