Chef Chris Hastings spearheads campaign for Alabama seafood industry
Published: Friday, June 01, 2012, 8:00 AM
By Martin Swant --- The Birmingham News
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- A video camera hovered behind chef Chris Hastings on Thursday morning as he picked apart pieces of Gulf Coast shrimp, arranging them onto a plate.
Hastings, owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club on Birmingham's Southside, was the only chef in the kitchen. No patrons were in the restaurant that early in the day. For that morning, the fish, oysters, and crabs being prepared by the award-winning chef were not for tables, but for television.
Birmingham chefs and homegrown shrimp (and oysters, fish and crabs) are the centerpieces of a new statewide marketing campaign to promote Alabama's seafood industry.
The commercial shot Thursday is part of that campaign by the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission. The commission, created by Gov. Robert Bentley in March 2011, aims to increase demand for Alabama Gulf seafood among consumers and restaurants in the region. Annual sales by the state's seafood industry are around $390 million, Bentley said when the campaign was launched last month.
At Hot and Hot Fish Club on Thursday morning, Hastings was busy preparing five dishes for commercials shot by Six Foot Five Productions. Each dish featured a different type of Alabama seafood. There was a plate of shrimp, lamb and fennel. Another had crab, kohlrabi, arugula and celery root. Yet another had oysters baked in lime.
"It's a unique moment in the Gulf's history and Alabama's seafood history for us to be part of a conversation," Hastings, who in May won the James Beard Foundation's title of best chef in the South, said in an interview after the commercial shoot.
He said the commission is fulfilling an important mission.
"For me, it gave me access to a lot of science that would have been otherwise a little harder to find. So I then could better educate myself about all of what's going on in the Gulf as it relates to the oil spill, so then I could be sure for myself -- both for my business and for my advocacy of the Gulf."
Hastings has served on the commission since he was invited last year.
"It'd be a real tragedy if the fishing industry in Alabama had collapsed due to that, and what would have collapsed it in hindsight would not have been the spill itself but the entire gulf being completely destroyed," he said. "People quit buying seafood and businesses around the Gulf were very close to having to shut down because nobody was buying fish, but I knew it was out there. I was buying it. I thought, we need to do something. And I said, 'What can I do to help?'"
Ford Wiles, chief creative officer at Big Communications, which is handling the advertising and public relations for the seafood commission, said the style of the television spots is a hand-held feel, almost like the show "Deadliest Catch" on Discovery.
In the series of five spots, the first captured the essence of Alabama seafood. The second -- part of which was filmed Thursday -- highlights talented Alabama chefs like Hastings, Highland Bar and Grill's Frank Stitt and Wesley True, owner/chef at True Restaurant in Mobile. All three chefs were nominated for James Beard awards this year. The other commercials will highlight a different type of seafood.
One hope of the campaign is to rally the base and create Alabamians into ambassadors for the state's seafood and other fish products, Wiles said.
"I was thinking about when we shot these spots, and how it was an eye opening experience for everyone involved. It was truly amazing to see the journey of how seafood gets to our plate," he said. "The hard work, passion and pride that goes on everyday is extraordinary. I mean, when you see two guys in a boat with 20-foot tongs that are pulling oysters up a handful at a time -- you definitely have a new appreciation for every oyster you eat for the rest of your life."
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