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Chef Colette Nelson is the owner and executive chef of the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant Ludvig’s Bistro in Sitka. On Saturday (08-06-16), she’ll compete in a national seafood cook-off in New Orleans. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

A Sitka chef has been chosen to compete in the 2016 Great American Seafood Cook-Off. On Saturday (08-06-16), Collette Nelson will battle chefs from across the country in front of a live TV audience in New Orleans. She is the owner and executive chef of the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant Ludvig’s Bistro in Sitka.

The competition begins at 11:30 a.m on Saturday, August 6th. You can watch it live here:

Downloadable audio.

At first, Chef Colette Nelson wasn’t sure what to make for the Great American Seafood Cook-off. “I wanted to do scallops. I wanted to do prawns. Because I know the fisherman. I thought at one point I was going to do a bounty plate – Alaska’s bounty – because we have so much and it’s so good.”

Other chefs offered their advice and Nelson took it to heart. “They said, ‘Do what you feel good about. Do what you can represent,’ because a lot of this is about talking and representing the seafood. And so, for me, I can talk until the cows come home about salmon and how the king salmon run.”

An ivory king salmon from Nelson's restaurant, Ludvig's Bistro, in Sita. She'll prepare the fish differently than pictured, with a roasted red pepper sauce and marcona almonds. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

An ivory king salmon from Nelson’s restaurant, Ludvig’s Bistro, in Sita. She’ll prepare the fish differently than pictured, with a roasted red pepper sauce and marcona almonds. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

And suddenly, it clicked. The star of Nelson’s plate would be an ivory king salmon. She’ll prepare a belly meat fillet in Mediterranean-style, topped with a roasted red pepper sauce and marcona almonds. “When I lived in Spain, I used to take the almond and I would split it in half on my mouth and the oil – I’d rub it on my lips. They’re just amazing,” Nelson said.

There’s some local flair on the plate too. Smoked paprika salt made the Alaska Pure Sea Salt company in Sitka. Vegetables from Lori Adams’s Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden. And the fish – Nelson was a commercial fisherman for years – was caught by her former skipper, Lou Barr. The ivory king is 11 lbs., just the right size to fit in her unique carry-on luggage.

So I have this rectangular violin case that I had in high school and it’s not one of the angular ones. It’s not shaped like a violin, so I think I can fit it right in there. I want to make sure we have it in our hands at all times.

Nelson has been the Executive Chef and Owner of Ludvig’s Bistro for fourteen years. She was chosen to compete by Governor Bill Walker, in consultation with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

The first time the Institute called with the news, Nelson didn’t believe it was real. It was. But a new worry set in. “With the restaurant being at full speed ahead, reservations packed, a wedding to cater, I didn’t even think it was possible,” she said.

But her staff said they could make it work. “My staff is so good. I mentioned to them, ‘Yes, there’s something that has to happen here guys and you need to help me out,” and they’re like, ‘Yes!’ They’re totally excited and they want to play while the cat’s away, you know?”

Food-wise, that is. Grace Ivers will fill in as Executive Chef while Nelson competes in New Orleans this weekend. She’ll bring cook Joshua Miller with her as sous chef and they’ll have one hour to prepare seven plates, in front of a PBS audience.

This is Nelson’s first time cooking on television. She’s turned down two offers to compete on the Food Network-show Chopped. She says the calls made her faint. But with this opportunity, she’s giving herself a different message. “I just have to remember, ‘Grow! Get bigger! Be okay with this. Don’t just stay in my little comfort zone, which is so easy to do,” she said.

In it’s fourteenth year, the Great American Seafood Cook-Off celebrates America’s domestic seafood industry, inviting roughly a dozen chefs to represent their state. Every year, the competition is mixed, but as Nelson explains, one thing stays the same.

Alaska is of course always going to be there whenever they have it. We produce 60% of the domestic seafood that’s sold in the United States, so are a huge supporter of this festival.

Recent Alaska contestants include Mandy Dixon of Homer, owner of La Baleine Cafe, Kevin Lane of Seward, owner of the Cookery, and Christopher Vane of Anchorage, owner of Crush Wine Bistro and Cellar. Now, most of the winners in years past have been from the South – Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi – but last year, history was made.

Announcer: From the state of Alaska, Chef Beau Schooler. First time ever Alaska winner! Chef, how does it feel?

Chef Beau Schooler: Feels pretty good. I was surprised.

Chef Beau Schooler won. You can watch the video of his competition here. He owns The Rookery Cafe in Juneau.

Nelson too was impressed by Schooler’s dish. “He did sockeye salmon four ways. He did a very complicated dish and performed it well and they loved it.”

Nelson would love to bring the crown back to Alaska. But the more important thing for her is to demonstrate the judges, as they dine on that ivory king, the might of Alaskan fish. “That we are still catching some of the best seafood in the world in the cleanest waters and it’s sustainable and it’s still coming back. It’s still returning. And we’re strong. Alaska’s strong.”

The Great American Seafood Cook-Off will kick-off on Saturday. The contest is hosted by Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.