Earlier this year, chef Michael Brewer of The Sammich in uptown New Orleans beat out nine other Louisiana chefs to become the 2015 King of Louisiana Seafood. The dish that earned him the crown, Sheepshead Nachos, showcases his love of taking fine dining concepts and infusing them with a fun, exciting vibe. This weekend, Michael will be competing against 11 chefs from throughout the country in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off. We caught up with him to talk about his passion for local Louisiana Seafood and his strategy for winning the title of America’s Best Seafood Chef and being crowned as the King of American Seafood.
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Where did you get started?
I’ve been in and out of the restaurant business my whole life. When I moved to New Orleans in 1999, I was the vice president of an engineering firm; I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t know what to do, so at night I waited tables at Brennan’s. Eventually when Enron went under, my engineering firm went with them. Enron was our biggest customer. So in 2002, I went full-time at Brennan’s as a waiter and became one of the captains there. I studied the wine list and was known as the wine captain, so if you had a question about Brennan’s big bible of wines, I was the guy who talked with you about it.
Before Katrina, I moved to Hawaii and was a maître d’ on a cruise ship for four months, and the diverse group of chefs there brought me under their wing. I met chefs who specialized in Japanese cuisine, some in French, some in Italian, California American, some South American stuff. That’s how I put it all together. I came back after Katrina and opened a restaurant called Jackson down on Magazine Street. We were named the best new restaurant in the city by Gambit readers, in 2006. My business partner and I had a bit of a falling out, so I went to Commander’s Palace and was the Wine And Liquor Manager there. I hung out with Chef Tory McPhail and all those guys in the kitchen. Then I helped reopen Charlie’s Steak House.
Then I took a few years off and got back into engineering but realized that wasn’t my deal anymore. I started working on this concept at the first Oak Street Po-Boy Festival. I was walking around and saw all of these amazing sandwiches and thought that someone could do really well if they were serving this all the time. Once we got started in Chickie Wah Wah, we knew the concept worked. Then I started looking for a new spot, and that’s how The Sammich ended up here. That was a year-and-a-half ago.
Tell us a little bit about your Sheepshead Nachos.
We sautéed sheepshead with charred corn and mango salsa, heirloom tomatoes, orange, lemon, lime, red onion, and habanero peppers. To go along with it, we made a bacon-fat tartar sauce to replace the cream that usually goes with nachos. Then we fried the fish skins and made chips out of them.
The idea came from Tory McPhail, actually. He had his wedding engagement party here, and his now-wife said, “Tory loves fried chicken skins. Can you do something with that?” So I made chicken skin nachos with watermelon, habanero, and jumbo lump crab. We still make chicken skins at the restaurant as General Tso’s Chicken Skins. I tried redfish, black drum, sheepshead, and the sheepshead turned out to be the best. The others were a little too fishy, and a little too tough for the nachos.
How does frying fish skin compare to frying chicken skin?
It’s very similar, actually. With the chicken skins, we marinate them in Crystal hot sauce for three days, then scrap the fat off, flour it, and we cook them in a special container so they come out perfectly flat. The fish skin is very similar: we take the skin off, remove the fat, salt it, then fry it in the same contraption. It’s like a perfect little pork rind, except fish.
What’s your strategy for the Great American Seafood Cook-Off?
I’m going to do the exact same thing I did going into the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off: We’re going to have a lot of fun. This time I have an assistant, Chef Chris Montero [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group]. It’ll be great having someone I can trust with the whole thing.
We’re doing things a little differently with the dish, but it’ll be the same concept. This time, I’ll be serving seafood nachos, not just sheepshead. There will be head-on, tail-on shrimp, an escabeche with the salsa, some jumbo lump crab. And the presentation will be different, hopefully prettier than last time. Tory and Chris gave me some great feedback, and [Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off judge] David Crews said that I needed to make it look more ‘fine dining.’
How did you bring your fine dining background into what you do at The Sammich?
The whole concept behind The Sammich was trying to take dishes you get in fine dining restaurants and putting it on bread. As I said at the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, I love to touch the food. My wife gets mad at me all the time because I love eating with my hands. I enjoy the texture, I like getting my hands in there and eating crawfish and crabs and shrimp. So I wanted to take that and, also, I never eat without bread to soak up sauce, so I thought ‘why don’t we just put it all on bread.’ And we run some specials that are more ‘fine dining.’
The Great American Seafood Cook-Off kicks off at 11:45 a.m. Saturday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. Purchase your tickets today for $5 at Whole Foods or at GreatAmericanSeafoodCookOff.com, and come root for Michael.