I love fishing, I love food, and I so love cheese. So when I found out professional fisherman Jimmy Kennedy is also a top professional chef and is sponsored by Cabot Creamery, I instantly had questions jumping through my head. I am so appreciative that Jimmy was willing to answer these questions and share about his cooking, his fishing and his career journey.
I know that you started your love of fishing and cooking through southern fish fry’s. What are the keys to making a greater southern fish fry?
Growing up in Northeastern Mississippi, especially with my family, fishing and cooking were one and the same. Along with our extended family: uncle’s and aunts, cousins and friends, we stocked several ponds with channel catfish. We managed the ponds and fed the fish daily so we could enjoy catching and eating catfish, sometimes several times a week. Hard to believe, but it’s still my favorite to cook as well as to eat. Back then it was always deep-fried, but since I’ve learned a few other ways to prepare this noble and tasty fish; however, deep-fried with a couple slices of fresh lemon and homemade tartar sauce will always be my favorite.
When I was 12 or 13, a few friends and I started trying to emulate the grown-ups in our community and started holding our own fish fry’s. We had a couple of deep fryers and grills and cooked just about every kind of fish and game imaginable on a very regular basis. From those early years to now, I’ve learned that there are a few simple elements that make for a great fish fry.
First of all, start with fresh fish, preferably catfish, and soak it for a few minutes in buttermilk that has been mixed with several drops of Tabasco or other hot sauce. The hot sauce will not make the fish spicy, it just adds a little extra flavor. Next, it’s important to use an oil that has a high flash point like peanut or canola. Be sure to use a candy or deep-fry thermometer to maintain a temperature between 350 and 375 degrees. Just as important as the main dish, create and serve impressive side dishes, such as hushpuppies, home-made coleslaw, hand cut French-fries, smoked mac and cheese, fresh, grilled vegetables, etc. All of these will go a long way to helping make for the perfect fish fry.
You sold a successful business and decided to jump into professional fishing. That takes some courage. What went into that decision for you?
It’s true, I sold my restaurant of almost 20 years to fish more, but I had already made the foray into tournament fishing and had some sponsor backing already. So the decision wasn’t as courageous as it seems, and I was pitching the one-two punch of cooking along with the fishing. Although I felt it was time for a change, I actually didn’t really have the business or the property up for sale. A guy from Madrid, Spain came in and said, in a heavy Spanish accent, “I must have this place.” After only a few days of negotiating, and with some not-so-gentle prodding from my wife, I sold the restaurant and the building. In looking back, I made other life decisions, such as moving to New York City from Washington, DC or from New York to Vermont without having a real plan in place in either. These decisions were probably based more on naivety than courage but I wouldn’t change a thing.
You are associated with Cabot Creamery as your title sponsor. How did that partnership come about for you?
As the sale of the restaurant was taking shape, I decided to make a sponsorship pitch to several of the larger Vermont businesses. Cabot was a brand that I was very familiar with, and I used their products every day in the restaurant. They were first on the list and it took a little doing, but they agreed to a sponsorship deal that included cooking demos, events, etc.
Their support, along with early and continued support from Skeeter Boats, has been invaluable. Some years it’s been more cooking than fishing and I’m now a full-time Cabot employee, but the fishing support is still there and growing. The sponsorship with Cabot may be a little different than some in that it’s market-based and is directly job-related. I guess the fishing and cooking is still as related as it was during my childhood.
What was one of your first tournament as a “pro” that has strong memories for you?
One of the first tournaments I started fishing as a pro was on Champlain. It was a BASS Open and I was 5th after Day One and had Lunker. Most everyone was fishing for smallies and they were on fire, but I had a largemouth pattern up North that was pretty solid and I committed to it. I felt like I had a good shot at winning but the big smallies were loaded on City Reef and biting. I ended up in 6th.
Do you get nervous for tournaments?
I’m very competitive but also a little more laid back about tournaments than I should be at times. I think I get more excited than nervous.
You have fished a lot of FLW tournaments. What is your favorite tournament memory from your time fishing FLW tournaments?
I have a lot of favorite memories and have made some great friends fishing tournaments over the years. One of my favorite memories would have to be on Champlain during an FLW Open. I had just, reluctantly bought a side-imaging unit and on the first trip out with it, my daughter, Josie, and I found what turned out to be a tree in 27’ that was loaded with big smallies. I won 10k off that spot in that tournament and cashed several other times off that spot. It’s not as good as it used to be but finding it with my daughter made it even more special!
Another great memory would have to be on the Potomac. I had found an area where I was pretty confident I could catch a small limit to get the day started. I never really saw anyone else in practice but on tournament day there were at least 20 other boats in the bay! I managed to get that limit and a kicker and I was getting ready to make a long run to try to upgrade, when for some reason, instincts, the number of boats, or something made me turn the boat around. I camped on that spot for three days and ended up in 4th.
On the BASS tour, you have had success fishing your home lake of Lake Champlain. Is there extra pressure when fishing your home water?
I think there’s definitely extra pressure for any angler fishing their home water. As much as you may think you have it dialed in, with hundreds and hundreds of waypoints and past tournament experience and knowledge…it’s still fishing. The mere fact that you’re expected to do well is enough to get you out of what could be a more relaxed feeling anywhere else.
Obviously, having a lot of hours on a particular body of water helps more than anything. I also think the diversity of Champlain helps many of us there. With quality smallies and largies, and being able to fish for them in so many different depths and environments, you can fish to your strengths. I like to fish fairly deep for both species and that’s something you can do for most of the year on Champlain.
You got off to a solid start in the Opens in 2018 with a very respectable 53rd place on Kissimmee. You were sitting in 23rd after day 1 but day 2 dropped off a bit. What do you learn from a tournament like this where you have a really good finish but one that you may have hoped would be better after Day 1?
Yeah, I was feeling good on Day One after catching almost thirty fish, and I was pretty confident about at least catching a limit as a result. However, I had a late draw on Day Two and when I got to the area I had a little more company than I did on Day One. I was eventually able to fish much the same, but they were just not biting as well.
On Day One I was catching them by fishing slow but just couldn’t get that to work on Day Two. I eventually smartened up and realized I needed to back off the pads and fish with a moving bait. I got the bites I needed to maybe even make the cut, but dropped three fish at the boat, one of which was a good one. There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by since that tournament that I haven’t wished I could have that day over.
It’s all about those decisions made on the water. I was stubborn and maybe too cautious on Day Two. I wish now that I had just swung for the fences rather than focusing on a limit. I will remember this and will hopefully use it to make better decisions in future tournaments.
I had a long drive home and although I was still beating myself up over the tournament, I was also thinking about how I would approach Norman – everything from baits and seasonal patterns to where we’d stay.
Out of all of the tournament bodies of water, which is your favorite other than Champlain?
I would have to say the Potomac River. I had that 4th place there and a few of those “coulda, shoulda, woulda” moments also. It has a little bit of everything – grass, wood, man-made structure, tide, etc., and it’s a place where you can camp on a spot or run around and do well either way. I also really like Lewis Smith Lake in Alabama. It’s a tough lake but, for some reason, I enjoy fishing there.
Out of all of the tournament bodies of water, which do you consider your biggest nemesis?
I would have to say Lake Erie is one of those places where even when I have a decent practice, I have a hard time putting a good tournament together. Hard to put a finger on why that is but I hope to change that soon.
Who are your other sponsors and how do their products help you be a better angler?
I have been extremely fortunate with support, both from endemic and non-endemic sponsors.
Like I said, I’ve been with Skeeter Boats now for a long time. They are like family at this point and I approach their support as I would a year round, full-time job. Shimano is another company that I’m extremely proud to represent, and one that I’ve been with for a while now. They’re also like family and with their top brands of G.Loomis, Power Pro and Jackall, this all helps with different aspects of tournament fishing.
A new sponsor that I’m excited about working with is Steel Shad Lures. They’re making the foray into other lures in addition to the original Steel Shad, and they’re smart, motivated and focused on being successful in this industry.
Other endemic sponsors whose support has gone above and beyond is Rapala, Mister Twister, Power Pole and XZone Lures. Non-endemic sponsors such as Lodge Cast Iron helps to keep me cooking on the road, at Cabot, and at home.
Finally, what is a Cabot Cheddar S’More? And is it any good?
Ha! Good question. A Cabot S’more is just like regular S’more but with cheese instead of a marshmallow. I was doing some recipe testing and developing one day and trying to come up with a winter soup garnish that used toasted marshmallows. I wasn’t really coming up with much but then I thought about S’mores and the cheddar light bulb went off. I made them right away and as soon as I put them in the oven I just knew that these were going to be a hit.
I wanted to use them at an upcoming event for Cabot but they didn’t seem to think that was a good idea. I had just started working for them but sampled them anyway and they were the hit of the event. Since then we’ve served over 200,000 of them, but it’s still takes some convincing to get people to try them. Trust me on this one, they are amazing…..almost like a little mini cheesecake. They also make a great boat snack!