Photos | Courtesy of Hangout
An indispensable guide to the best seafood tastings and celebrity chef demos in Gulf Shores on Nov. 1 and 2
The Hangout Oyster Cook-Off, Craft Spirits & Beer Weekend returns to Gulf Shores on Nov. 1 and 2, and with it comes its most impressive lineup to date. Like those who attend Hangout Music Fest know, if you’re looking to have the best time at this huge event on the beach, you need to show up with a strategy.
Now in its 12th year, the Oyster Cook-Off has nailed down a reliable schedule: on Friday night, there’s a kick-off party and booze tasting, plus an exclusive dinner (new for 2019); on Saturday, an oyster cook-off competition highlights some of the best chefs in the South, and cooking demos and book signings throughout the day feature notable local and celebrity talent. There’s also plenty of Bloody Marys and live music to accompany the whole weekend.
Alabama chef Jim Smith, who will open a refined oyster bar in the former Kitchen on George space in Mobile this fall, has been coming to the Cook-Off for years.
“This festival is a good chance for attendees to talk to a wide variety of chefs and to celebrate oysters in a place that’s right next to where they come from,” he said. “It’s such a cool venue. Everyone is approachable and a lot of fun. All the ingredients come together to make an amazing festival.”
Whether you’re a new visitor to the fest or an old, oyster-slurping pro, read our tips on what to expect and how to make the most of your choose-your-own-adventure weekend.
- Friday Kick-Off Party (6 p.m. to 11 p.m.): Sample rare spirits such as Pappy Van Winkle bourbon paired with barbecue, rum like Matusalem paired with Caribbean cuisine and Mexican food paired with boutique tequila like Avion 44. Tour the festival’s craft beer village, snack on hot dogs and burgers and listen to live music from Crawford & Power and Boy Named Banjo.
- The Pitmaster & Pappy Dinner (Friday, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.): For the first year, the festival will feature an exclusive, separately ticketed dinner, taking place at Picnic Beach. The dinner pairs world-champ pitmaster Chris Lilly with his friend, Food Network star and New Orleans-based chef Aarón Sánchez, for barbecue and rare bourbons and wine tastings.
- Saturday Cook-Off (11 a.m. to 8 p.m.): Spend the day in seminar and book-signing tents meeting big name chefs, partaking in educational classes and live cooking demos or just roaming the Hangout’s grounds and grazing on food and drinks. There will be Champagne and Bloody Marys, an oyster-shucking competition, oysters from all over the continent at the North American Raw Oyster Showcase and live music from Jimmy Hall & The Muscle Shoals All-Stars and Caroline Jones.
- Restaurant tastings: On Saturday attendees can sample dishes from dozens of restaurants that will be competing in the cook-off. Teams prepare oysters in three menu categories: raw, Rockefeller and Cajun. Awards are given for each category, plus People’s Choice, The Critic Award and the Overall Oyster Cook-Off Champion. Each dish requires one ticket from the separately sold tasting booklet.
- Cooking demos: Also on Saturday, celebrity chefs will take the Publix Hands-on Demo Stage at staggered times, offering cooking seminars and answering questions. It is free with admission.
The two-day fest requires you to purchase a general admission ticket to get in the gate (Friday tickets are $20, Saturday tickets are $10), plus a tasting-ticket booklet (advanced booklets are $30 for 15 tickets), which are redeemable for food and drink on Friday or Saturday. Weekend VIP tickets, which include the Friday kick-off, Saturday cook-off and entrance to a “chef’s only” private after party, are $150. Super VIP tickets, which include those perks, plus free swag and meet-and-greet opportunities with celebrity chefs including Michael Symon, are $250. The Friday night Pitmaster & Pappy dinner, which has limited seating, requires its own $200 ticket.
The Hangout is expecting 10,000 people at the event and spokesperson Josh Rhinehart recommends saving time and skipping the ticket lines by getting your passes and tasting booklets before the weekend.
“The Hangout Oyster Cook-Off has lots of new and exciting additions for 2019,” he said. This includes the addition of spirits to the Friday night beer event and the exclusive chef dinner, Pitmaster & Pappy. “Come with an empty stomach and be ready for a good time.”
Celebrity chefs Michael Symon (“Iron Chef America,” “The Chew”), world-champion barbecue pitmaster Chris Lilly and Food Network star and New Orleans-based chef Aarón Sánchez headline this year’s cook-off. Symon will give demonstrations on the main stage. Lilly and Sánchez will host the exclusive Friday night dinner, and then Sánchez will do the first demo and sign his new cookbook Saturday morning.
Martie Duncan, Birmingham-based author of the book “Alabama Cravings,” has been hosting the event for the past eight years.
“We’ve never had the caliber of chef that we have this year, with Michael Symon,” she said of her friend. “[Having him come has been] something we’ve been working towards for quite a few years, so it finally just came to fruition. We’ve got some of the best chefs in the region here. It’s not hard to get people to come hang out in a beautiful condo and cook on the beach for a couple of days. We show them a great time.”
CELEBRITY CHEFS IN ATTENDANCE INCLUDE:
Michael Symon (“Iron Chef America,” “The Chew”)
Aarón Sánchez (“MasterChef,” “Chopped”)
Chris Lilly (5x Memphis in May winner)
Aarti Sequeira (“Guy’s Grocery Games,” “Food Network Star”)
Panini Pete Blohme (“Guy’s Grocery Games”)
Jim Smith (“Top Chef”)
Martie Duncan (Food Network)
The Hangout predicts they will serve 100,000 oysters on Saturday — that includes 70,000 wild and farmed Alabama oysters, which is a boon to the local economy.
“We’ve been known for our oysters for a long time, but with the evolution of our oyster farms and the dedication to the industry by Dr. Bill Walton [of Auburn University’s Shellfish Lab in Dauphin Island] and others like him, our oysters are really having a moment nationwide,” Duncan said.
Chef Smith agrees: “Oysters really reflect the environment from where they come. Alabama oysters are as beautiful as the coast. There are so many amazing things happening with the local aquaculture, and if people aren’t familiar with it, they should be because the quality of the oysters that are coming out of Alabama right now on par with really any around the world.”
Duncan usually organizes field trips for the chefs visiting the Cook-Off, taking them fishing and to visit oyster beds to show off the local product.
“These growers can create an oyster essentially to order: a deeper cup, a shallower cup … exactly how a chef would like to have it and I think that has a lot of them really excited,” she said. “I like to think that the Oyster Cook-Off has had something to do with that.”
THINGS TO REMEMBER:
- The event is rain or shine. Pack sunblock and sunglasses, an umbrella, wet wipes and comfy walking shoes.
- Prohibited items include weapons, large backpacks, outside food and drinks and coolers.
- Autographs and photos: Your favorite food TV personalities will be roaming the grounds, so keep your eyes open for photo opps or attend one of their book signings or cooking demos.
- Download a ride-sharing app like Lyft so you can fully partake in the Champagne and Bloody Mary bars.
- Pace yourself. “There’s a lot to eat and a lot to drink,” Duncan said. “You’ll have three different kinds of oysters and a lot of the teams are doing a signature dish, which may not be an oyster dish. It is a dish of their choosing something that they feature at the restaurant that they’re known for. You’ll want to try everything.”
For more information and to buy tickets, visit hangoutcookoff.com. For up-to-the-minute announcements and schedule changes, follow the festival’s social media channels.
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