What’s the recipe for a long career as a chef, author of award-winning cookbooks and public TV host?
Just ask Baltimore-based John Shields for the secret ingredients, and here’s what he’ll say: toss in a pinch of your grandmother’s love for cooking, drop in a dash of sweet childhood memories at the local church kitchen and pour in a hearty cup of reverence for the treasures of the Chesapeake.
Shields' passion for seafood began at a young age, when growing up at the local church kitchen with his grandmother, Gertie. Together, they prepared business luncheons and church fundraiser dinners with the ingredients of nature’s bounty, ranging from sweet melons to the all-too-famous Maryland blue crabs.
During the preparation of meals, he noted his grandmother’s love for food and cooking, which eventually inspired his current career.
The menu at Shields’ restaurant, Gertrude’s, reflects a creative, playful nature and includes dishes like the Asian jumbo shrimp, paired with chile-garlic sauce and sesame slaw, and the Catfish Ooh-La-La, which is a plate of seasoned catfish fillets served with a spicy creole sauce and sautéed vegetables.
As a chef, Shields points out that even though average consumers are familiar with eating seafood, they aren’t always comfortable with buying and cooking ingredients like shrimp, fish and scallops. Why then the avoidance to purchasing fish, for example?
“Many people are very shy and almost frightened of cooking fish. They have a thing where they’re afraid to cook fish, they’re not sure if they’re doing it correctly or they’re not sure if they know if it’s done,” he stated. For this reason, consumers often overlook seafood as a healthy alternative (fish are loaded with healthy nutrients like omega 3s) to meat while shopping in the supermarket.
Shields also notes that people, in general, eat less seafood when sitting down to a meal, be it at the family dinner table or at the table in a restaurant. Why the discrepancy? He explains that it’s because diners typically gravitate toward devouring that 12-ounce steak for supper but often think twice before ordering a 12-ounce piece of fish.
“Six ounces of fish is more than enough for a substantial meal, so you’re taking in less calories and less fat than you would be if you had a big piece of meat,” he said.
In terms of seafood selection, Shields has some tips for people strolling down the aisles of the grocery store: he recommends the wild West Coast salmon, because it’s a tasty fish that’s moderately priced. In other words, it’s a bargain buy as one of the healthiest fish, as is the local rockfish.
Interestingly enough, consumers can save money when purchasing healthy types of seafood, too -- a trend not normally encountered when buying leaner and higher-quality cuts of meat.
“The USA-farmed catfish is the healthiest fish you can eat in the country,” stated Shields, “you can’t get anything healthier than the catfish, and it’s even less expensive than the other fish.”
Despite any reservations about buying seafood, cooking it is a relatively simple, healthy method that includes baking, broiling and steaming. Shields suggests basting a fillet of fish with a thin coating of olive oil and grilling it or throwing it in the oven for a no-fuss method to an easy dinner.
So what sorts of foods does a chef personally like to eat? Shields answers that he’s a big fan of seafood stews, packed with shrimp, muscles, clams and crabs. And if you ask him if he has any other favorites, he’ll add (and energetically at that), “Crabcakes!”
Now, go figure.