Students scurried about mixing, measuring and making sure dishes were perfect before presenting them to judges during the Catfish Culinary Challenge March 5 in Montgomery, held at Carver High School.
The Alabama Catfish Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, partnered with the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) to sponsor the statewide competition. The contest attracted 17 three-member teams from Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) culinary programs across the state, including many catfish converts.
Albertville High School (AHS) hooked top prize in the contest with Blackened Catfish and Crema Sauce.
“I had never really been a big fan of catfish,” said Julian Cruz, a 17-year-old senior and member of the winning team. “But after working with catfish and preparing it different ways, I like it.”
Fellow team member Tanner Henry, 17 and a rising senior at AHS, shared similar sentiments. He said before the contest, he didn’t like catfish.
“I was reluctant to try it at first,” Henry said. “But I love it now. Catfish is amazing, easy to cook and really versatile.”
Katherine Schwall rounds out the trio of top chefs taught by AHS culinary instructor Brittanee Johnson. Schwall said because catfish fillets cook in just 6-8 minutes, the team was able to concentrate on the entrée’s appearance and prepare the required second dish, which had to be a dessert or appetizer.
“As winners were being named at the state awards program and I didn’t hear our team called out as third or second place, I was getting worried,” Schwall said. “But when I heard our name as the winner, I looked down the row at our adviser with the biggest smile ever. I was literally shaking. I am so proud of our team.”
As the state contest winner, AHS received $250 for Johnson’s classroom and a plaque. All state contest competitors received aprons with the Catfish Culinary Challenge logo, courtesy of the Alabama Catfish Producers.
The Russell County High School Culinary Arts Department team, coached by Chef Mark Thorne, won second place and $150 for his classroom in Seale. Team members Olivia Wilson, Jhordyn Askew and Courtney Mahar prepared Blackened Catfish with Brown Rice, topped with a Berry Citrus Chutney.
W.P. Davidson High School of Mobile won third place and $100 for instructor Rachel Baxter’s classroom. The team of Andre Pongpit, Raelon O’Roark and Marquis Mingo prepared Okonomiyaki with Fried Catfish and Stir-Fried Vegetables.
Earlier this year, the Alabama Catfish Producers delivered 600 pounds of frozen U.S. Farm-Raised catfish fillets in 40-pound boxes to competing schools. That provided fish for recipe development and trial runs leading up to the state contest. The farmers also sponsored professional development for teachers through a catfish farm tour last fall.
Judges were Sumter County catfish farmer Sid Nelson, Federation Catfish Division Director Mitt Walker and Diane Best, an assistant professor from Jacksonville State University who has a doctorate in family and consumer sciences. Nelson chairs the Federation’s State Catfish Committee.
Students were evaluated on their knowledge of food safety measures, proper use of utensils, workspace cleanliness, as well as presentation and taste of the dishes.
Catfish checkoff dollars funded the program, which Nelson called a huge success.
“Everything about the project exceeded my expectations,” Nelson said. “The interest and enthusiasm of the students, in addition to the recipes they developed, was outstanding. The food the students prepared was delicious, and many of the dishes, especially the top three, were restaurant quality.”
ALSDE Education Specialist April Shrader said partnering with the Alabama Catfish Producers allowed more students to participate in the state culinary contest.
“This was a win for everyone involved,” Shrader said. “Students were able to showcase their talents, and catfish farmers were able to showcase their product. When schools didn’t have to spend money to buy catfish for students to practice with, that freed up funds for students to attend the state contest. Students created dishes that were innovative, tasty and elegant. Many of them had never cooked catfish. I think a lot of them will be catfish lovers for life.”