Samantha's Tap Room Brings Arkansas Pride to New Orleans on the way to Second Place in National Seafood Cookoff

Just before kickoff to the 2016 Great American Seafood Cook-off the jokes and jabs were flying about Arkansas’ land locked entry into one of the largest seafood competitions in the country. Once the winners were announced and the confetti settled it was clear that the strong showing from the crew at Samantha’s Tap Room earned Arkansas some respect in the seafood cooking world.
The team of executive chef Trace Munday and Marshall Smith put together a dish featuring bronzed Louisiana black grouper, smoked pork belly, lemongrass custard, crab rice cake and a summer salsa to take second place in the annual cooking competition.
“We wanted to go with something light and reflective of summertime in Arkansas. We used a lot of fresh Arkansas products in the dish which is what made it special,” Munday tells us. “I felt good about our chances, but when they called our name out for second place I almost fell off the back of the stage.”
Along with the chefs was a very pro-Arkansas crowd that traveled well to support the restaurant in New Orleans. The large supporting contingency was something we heard a number of chefs, judges, and officials with the competition comment on as things got started.
The winning entry came from chef Alex Eaton of The Manship Wood Fired Kitchen in Jackson, Mississippi. Eaton put together a trio of gulf shrimp cooked three different ways for the winning entry. Third place was Chef Peter McCarthy of EVOO in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a smoked bluefish fillet.

First and second place were only separated by a few points. A large reason for that was that Samantha’s more than any of the other ten entries tried to highlight and promote the local grown and produced resources used in the dish. Elements of the dish included veggies from Tanner Farms, melons from Cave City Melons, cheese from Kent Walker Artisan Cheese, eggs from Jim Riley Duck Eggs, spirits from Rocktown Distillery, rice from Riceland, and bacon from Coursey’s Smoked Meats.
Every local ingredient was proudly displayed on a board next to the cooking area and was reinforced while talking to the judges about the dish. In fact, other than the seafood used, every ingredient came from Arkansas, something the team made sure to reinforce early and often.
Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor’s office is responsible for organizing the annual event. Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser was quick to point out Arkansas’ role and importance of spreading the message of domestic seafood.
“We were one state at one time, and we have trucks running from Louisiana all the time providing fresh seafood to Arkansas,”Lt. Governor Nungesser tells us. “[Arkansas] is able to brag on Louisiana seafood all the time and we are glad to share that with our neighbors to promote domestic seafood.”

The setting in New Orleans seemed especially appropriate considering the impact the city has had on the Little Rock culinary scene. Influential chefs and restaurant leaders like Lee Richardson, Brian Deloney, Ed David, Lee Ingold, and many others all have strong ties to New Orleans. Especially through the Capital Hotel, those chefs have gone on to influence much of the culinary scene across Arkansas, something Lt. Governor Nungesser was quick to respond to.
“I had the pleasure of growing up in the back of a kitchen in Louisiana, and I got to see the passion that local chefs instilled in the chefs around them,” Lt. Governor Nungesser continues. “It was a breeding ground for the talent that you see here, in Little Rock, and across the country today.”
There were many other great and deserving entries the competition. Chef Blake Phillips of Sage in Monroe, LA created easily the best looking dish with his blackened sous vide grouper, while chef Chris Sherrill of the Flora-Bama was one of the most creative (maybe too creative), making an ice cream out of local seafood.
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