Vidalia chef takes home second place at Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off

Published 1:59 pm Saturday, July 1, 2023

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VIDALIA, La. — Vidalia chef Ashley Allen of Coconuts Bar & Grill may not have won the title of King of Louisiana Seafood during the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off this week, but second place isn’t bad for his first culinary competition on the mainland in 16 years, he said.

The Virgin Islands native faced off with a total of 12 chefs from all over the state in the fast-paced culinary competition Tuesday at the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles.

This was Allen’s first-ever visit to Lake Charles, he said.

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“Lake Charles is a beautiful city,” he said. “The experience was amazing for my first competition on the mainland. … We had 12 amazing chefs and it was a little nerve-racking in the beginning.”

Each chef had one hour to complete their dish, start to finish, and plate five of them, four for the judges and one for presentation.

Using a leafy green plant popular in the Caribbean, Allen’s dish was a Callaloo risotto, similar to a gumbo, topped with blackened snapper and coconut shrimp with a curry ginger carrot sauce.

He was assisted by chef Luis Bruno from the Bronx, originally from Puerto Ricco, whom Allen has known as a long-time friend and mentor for 35 years, he said.

“I worked with him in Jackson in the ’90s,” Allen said.

In the end, the crown for King of Louisiana Seafood went to Owen Hohl of Hot Tails restaurant in Prairieville.

“I was ecstatic,” Allen said. “I would’ve liked first place, but second place isn’t bad either. I haven’t competed for a while. It was good to have the camaraderie and build connections with other great chefs. Now we have connections all the way to Lake Charles. They’re so close that they could actually come to dinner, so we invited a bunch of the chefs to come around.”

To qualify for the competition, a chef must be the executive chef of a free-standing Louisiana restaurant belonging to the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Allen’s wife, Sarah Sookraj, said Coconuts has that designation, so she submitted the entry application for Allen without telling him, just in case he didn’t make the cut.

“I was right at the front where they shot everything,” Sookraj said. “It felt good to be able to support him and cheer him on. I already knew he’d come back home with something. … A lot of people are hoping he will come back to compete next year.”

After their return to Vidalia Wednesday night, Allen, Sookraj and Bruno are hard at work preparing to launch a new three-in-one concept beginning next week on July 5 at Coconuts Bar & Grill.

Many come to Coconuts thinking it is the former Sandbar restaurant that once occupied the same building at 106 Carter St., Allen said.

The new concept pays homage to the Sandbar restaurant, taking the top 10 favorite menu items and offering them to their customers at the Sandbar 2.0.

For those who just want something quick and classic, Coconuts will also have a Burger Bar with hamburgers, fries and milkshakes.

“Now that we’ve reached that time of year, it’s hot and everyone is looking for something lite and refreshing,” Allen said.

Whether it’s the person looking for a familiar taste of home, the working parent who wants to grab a quick dinner for their children, or those who want to explore something new and try out the healthy Caribbean twist on southern cuisine traditionally offered at Coconuts, everyone leaves happy, Sookraj said.

The restaurant itself will be transformed with artwork representing the Burger Bar, Sandbar 2.0 and Coconut’s themes, Allen said.

“You can come into any room and order from any part of the restaurant from any options on the menu,” he said.