November 3, 2014
The fall may be bringing cooler temperatures to Gulf Shores but Birmingham chef and restaurateur George Reis is bringing his own brand of heat to this year’s Oyster Cook-Off. “I just finished a batch of homemade, fermented cayenne hot sauce (think Tabasco) before I got your call. It has to sit undisturbed for 25 days. Now you’ve got me thinking I should use this in the contest.”
Reis made the homemade hot sauce to compliment the menu at his sister establishments, Ocean and 26. Ocean serves upscale, seafood-centric dinner fare while 26 features a more casual, eclectic menu.
“We have an oyster bar with 10-15 different varieties a night,” Reis said. “I was making the hot sauce for the bar not for competition. It’s just one more thing we do here, homemade, to give our meals something special.”
Reis and his staff pickle and jar several vegetables in season from peppers to tomatoes so he likes to consult his canning pantry as much as possible throughout the year. “I’m looking at some delicious tomatoes right now. Maybe I’ll pull those out and make a Bloody Mary mix to use in the Cook-Off.”
This causal creativity is part of what Reis loves about his work. “We’ve always tried to use restraint and yet come up with unique flavors to go with the beautiful fish we serve. I think it’s a real balance – doing great fresh flavors that don’t need a lot but doing enough to make them stand out.”
Reis also loves the role of chef to table as much as farm to table in most modern eateries. “When I started in this business there were carpet people and tile people. The carpet people took care of the front of the restaurant and the tile people stayed in the kitchen. Now that model is out and those of us in the kitchen love seeing the response from our diners in the front of the house.”
As for how to cook like a trained chef without the schooling or experience Reis gives one simple piece of advice. “Read voraciously. Cookbooks tell you not only how to cook something but they often give you the back-story on ingredients and styles of food. These books give you a much better idea of how you can do simple things to get better results.”
Plus, hiding out in bookstores can be a nice break for a well-known chef like Reis. “I’ll go into the aisles and sit on the floor with my nose in a cookbook. It’s so peaceful. No one can tell who I am, hunched over in there.”
Sample oysters prepared by some of the best chefs in the Southeast, including Reis, at the 7th Annual Oyster Cook-Off, Saturday, November 8. Admission is free.