When it comes to bringing home the bacon — even if it is on top of some fantastic grits — nothing stops Executive Chef Liz Morris and Eagle Creek Brewing Company. Not even a hurricane.
Morris competed in the Georgia’s Best Shrimp & Grits competition during the Jekyll Island Shrimp & Grits Festival on Sept. 15, and won first prize, which consisted of an official award to hang in the restaurant, $2,000 and a feature on SouthernLiving.com. She also will be able to return to the competition in 2019 to defend her title.
And oh yeah…there’s also bragging rights that she killed it during the competition.
Eagle Creek was invited to compete last year, but the competition was canceled due to Hurricane Irma. All of the participants who were scheduled in 2017 were invited to compete this year. This included all seven regions in the state. Restaurants competing with Eagle Creek included Honey Café (Classic South), Southern Soul Barbecue (The Coast), Aubri Lane’s (Historic Heartland), The LOCAL Kitchen and Bar (Plantation Trace), and defending champion, West Egg Café (Atlanta).
Chef Andrew Smith of West End Café placed second, while Chef John Helfich of Southern Soul Barbecue took third.
Morris has been with Eagle Creek since March, but is no stranger to the kitchen. She attended Ogeechee Technical College, where she earned her associate’s degree in Applied Science in Culinary in May 2014. She’s been cooking in restaurants for 10 years.
“I’ve just always been in the kitchen. I like baking and cooking and my parents and my grandmother used to cook all the time with me and for me, so it’s just something I’ve always enjoyed,” she said.
Cooking is something that makes her happy, and Morris says she loves that it makes other people happy as well.
“I really just like making things taste good, making things look good. I like making people happy. I like seeing the ‘hangry’ go away. If I can do that, I’ve done something. I like making people smile,” she said.
A Statesboro native, Morris worked for a couple of years at Georgia Southern University as a baker at Landrum, and her dad recommended she check into a job opportunity at Eagle Creek. She is also employed at Longhorn’s, and has been cooking there for two years. She says she enjoys both kitchens for different reasons.
The recipe that Morris used in the competition was originated at Eagle Creek by its former chef, Kyle Fusco. The dish has become a local favorite, served each Friday at the restaurant for lunch and dinner.
Morris felt it was important to use the recipe because it didn’t get a chance to be in the competition last year. And, she said, it’s a great recipe. But she did tweak it a bit.
“I feel like all the flavors balance really well. But I did tweak a few things. I added different things to the grits and made it my own taste. You can’t make grits the same way twice. I also added more seasoning to the shrimp. I marinated them in blackened seasoning, and I added roasted corn,” she said.
Morris says she competed in several sports as an athlete when she was growing up, and won many times. But this was the first time she’d competed as a chef, with everything riding on her shoulders.
“It was great to win. It was awesome,” she said, smiling.
The competition required that each chef bring with them five ingredients that were Georgia Grown-certified. Morris brought andouille sausage and backstrap bacon from Hunter’s Cattle, herbs from The Herb Lady, and heavy cream and butter from Swiss Dairy.
Nothing could be prepped ahead of time, and the grits and shrimp, already peeled and deveined, were provided. Morris had two hours to prepare her dish, and she says pacing herself was her biggest challenge, not her nerves.
“It was very comfortable. I didn’t get too nervous. It was a fun competition,” she said, adding that she paid close attention to her grits.
“The toughest thing about cooking grits is that they are a good consistency and they can stay a good consistency. You just can’t leave that pot. You have to keep stirring even if your arm is about to fall off, you’ve got to keep doing it,” she said.
Morris said it doesn’t take long to make grits, and she wanted to be sure she used up the full two hours.
“If you finished early, the plates will just sit there until the two hours are up. So it was a challenge to pace myself and take my time. I couldn’t do every little thing at once. It was nice not to feel rushed. But that was part of the challenge. I was even speaking slow,” she said, laughing.
Morris thanked Eagle Creek owner Franklin Dismuke and Kimby Brown, taproom and event manager, and “Miss Gail” for “giving me this opportunity. I wouldn’t have been able to do this if it wasn’t for Eagle Creek Brewery.”
She also thanked her parents, Bunyan Morris and Perri Ann Dean.
Morris is looking forward to defending her title next year, and says she hopes to do something different.
“I don’t want to bring the same plate twice. I would like to do something different, I just need to do more research. I have a few ideas floating around, but nothing set in stone yet,” she said.
As for her own culinary aspirations, Morris says she wants to travel and do “bigger and different things.”
“I enjoy Statesboro. It’s my home. I’m really proud that I could bring first place in Georgia’s Best Shrimp & Grits to Statesboro. But I would like to see myself in a different part of the culinary world, learning new things, trying different people’s things, and bringing some of the South somewhere else,” she said.