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Top Chef contestant headlines Rotary meeting

Alabama executive chef and former Top Chef contestant Jim Smith spoke to an audience of Rotary members Thursday about the value of buying supporting local farmers and fishers.

Alabama executive chef and former Top Chef contestant Jim Smith spoke to an audience of Rotary members Thursday about the value of buying supporting local farmers and fishers.

One of America’s Top Chefs found himself in a rather different kitchen as Alabama Executive Chef Jim Smith spoke to a crowd of Rotarians Thursday.

Smith was not only a top 10 finalist during Top Chef’s 14th season, but he’s also responsible for preparing two meals for the First Family of Alabama five days a week, as well as planning and preparing menus for events sponsored by the state.

Smith spoke to the congregation at Thursday’s weekly Rotary meeting about the values of supporting local farmers and Alabama fishers, as well as using the best local ingredients possible.

Smith said that his stint as chef for Gov. Bentley and his family has been an “amazing job” for the past six years not only for the culinary role he has played in their physical well being, but also by virtue of being able to save the state of Alabama some money in the process.

“I was hired because the previous administration catered and charged the state for it,” Smith said.

“Gov. Bentley asked me how could we cut the mansion budget.  We’ve saved $100,000 in food expenses alone in the first year.”

Smith also remarked on his ability to utilize several acres of farmable land near the Blount House to prepare state meals, which is yet another example of using local resources and Alabama’s rich food heritage and tradition.

Smith added that this philosophy extends to the grocery store, as well, stating that buying local whenever possible pays dividends.

“Whenever you’re at the grocery store, look for products made in Alabama,” Smith said.

“Nine times out of 10, it’s a better product.  And sometimes it’s more expensive, but it’s worth it.

“We should always strive to support our neighbors, whether its local farms or businesses around our state.  It may not always be easier, but it’s more fruitful for you and your neighbor.”

Smith is also chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, an organization that was formed in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The incident caused quite a scare within the state’s seafood industry as production and purchasing slowed to a halt, but Smith said the commission has helped the state to not only recover but also thrive in the wake of misfortune.

According to Smith, the economic impact of the seafood industry accounted for $300 million in 2010 before the oil spill, but increased to $660 million after the spill.

The industry that provided 6,200 jobs in 2010 now provides more than double that figure with 15,000 jobs.

Similarly, the industry that once produced 14 million pounds of seafood before the spill now provides 32 million pounds.

In 2011, Smith was also crowned the King of American Seafood by winning the Great American Seafood Cookoff and became the national spokesperson for Alabama seafood, American sustainable seafood, gulf seafood and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In addition to his experiences with that competition, Smith also outlined what it was like to be chosen from more than 30,000 applicants to participate in Top Chef.

“Making it to the final 16 involved secret flights to LA where we were sequestered for a weekend,” Smith said.  “We sent hundreds of recipes for a culinary team to pick over everything you made.

“It took four months to get there, and being on that show was so hard.  The rigors of competition are intense, and they take away everything you’re used to in an effort to ramp up the stress.

“But it was one of the most fun things I’ve done in my whole life.  Competing on those levels and being able to represent the South—and finishing in 10th place—isn’t bad, out of 30,000 applicants.”

Bravo is holding a fan-favorite vote over at bravotv.com/fan-favorite, in which Smith is one of four competitors.

The winner receives a $10,000 prize and the title of Top Chef Fan Favorite.