Chefs Demetrios Haronis and Albert Hughes make a winning team.

After 10 years of working together in Tropicana Casino and Resort’s kitchens, the two South Jerseyans know each other’s strengths and philosophies pretty well. As Tropicana’s director of culinary operations, Haronis knew he could leave his “baby,” Fin — A Seafood Experience, in Hughes’ trusty hands as restaurant chef while he handled other dining establishments in the casino.

“He’s somebody I can trust. He has the same high-quality standards I have and he takes care of everything when I’m not there,” Haronis, 42, of Cape May, said of Hughes, 35, of Egg Harbor Township. “He understands what the restaurant is about and what we’re trying to do there, with using super fresh, local ingredients, and let the product speak for itself.”

So it makes sense Haronis brought Hughes with him to compete in the Jersey Seafood Challenge in June at the Governor’s Mansion in Princeton. The Fin duo beat eight other teams vying to represent New Jersey in the Great American Seafood Cookoff that took place Saturday in New Orleans. Although they didn't bring home the crown, both chefs said they were just happy for the chance to showcase New Jersey food products on a national stage, while gaining wider publicity for Fin.

When Fin opened about two years ago, Haronis knew he wanted to feature locally-caught seafood there. But as the concept became a reality, it expanded to include South Jersey produce, wines, beers, meats and cheeses.

“We have some of the best products in the world, so we don’t have to travel (to find ingredients),” he said. “Why buy something that’s shipped from 26 to 48 hours away when we have even better products 20 to 40 minutes away that are fresher, maybe from that day?”

The duo’s beer-battered soft-shell crab from Absecon Bay with a corn and blue crab fritter and Jersey succotash, heirloom tomatoes and fava beans seemed a perfect match for the competition, which emphasizes sustainable, local ingredients, Haronis said. The judges agreed.

“Demetrios does a lot of the research for Jersey pride,” Hughes said of his teammate. “We take great pride in the amazing ingredients we have locally. Everything on the dish was touched by someone in New Jersey. So, that says something in itself.”

After winning the state competition, the two chefs began practicing as often as six days per week, using two small tables the sizes they knew they’d have in New Orleans — 4 feet and 8 feet long. They sought advice from former state champions, who told them to memorize all the ingredients and cooking supplies they’d need to bring with them. Too many pots only clutter up the work space, but too few could cause them to lose time.

They figured out how to transport the fresh products so they “hold,” deciding to stop by Liepes Farm in Mays Landing on their way to the airport to pick up fresh produce. The crabs themselves, from Casino Lobster in Pleasantville, they shipped overnight using dry ice.

They held tastings throughout the area, including at Haronis' alma mater, Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, drawing feedback from foodies and other chefs. They tweaked the presentation, deciding to cut the crab in half and stand up the pieces rather than serve it flat over the fritter, as they did in Princeton.

“A lot of people around here grew up with crabbing and fishing, but as we did the tastings, there were three or four people who had never had soft-shell crab before,” Haronis said. “Some didn’t want to try it at first. But they loved it, they were cleaning their plates.”

They prepped the dish over and over again to get the timing just right.

“Timing is a big part of the contest,” Haronis said. “You only have one hour (to prepare) and a 10-minute window to present the dish. So you don’t want to be done early, but you don’t want to take too long, because even if the dish is still being eaten, they’ll walk up and pull it away from the judges.

“If you don’t present in the 10-minute window, you lose your turn and the judges won’t get to taste it. If you take too long to plate it, the judges only have a few minutes to look at the dish and they won’t get the full effect.”

But in the end, representing New Jersey in competition was what really counted.

“It’s great to be able to showcase on a national level what we do here (at Fin),” said Hughes, who admits he was “suckered into” his culinary career by his big sister, Angela Irwin, who also works at Tropicana as a banquet chef. “I feel really humble about it. I’m blessed to be able to work in a restaurant that’s doing so well.

“I’m just excited to get down there and show everybody what we’ve got.”

Contact Felicia Compian:

609-272-7209