PORTLAND — Mackenzie Arrington, a Maine chef who now works in New York City, is the people’s choice for Maine Lobster Chef of the Year, all-star edition.
Two hundred people cast votes at the Ocean Gateway terminal Thursday in an annual competition that is a staple of Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor food and wine festival.
The sold-out event came with a couple of twists this year. First, all of the contestants had competed previously. (Arrington is the 2009 champ.)
Second, there were two winners. Kerry Altiero, chef/owner of Cafe Miranda in Rockland, was the judges’ choice for Maine Lobster Chef of the Year.
In the past, a panel of judges chose the recipes for the contest, but tasting and judging were left solely to the audience.
This year, the judges tried the food as well, scoring it on a 100-point scale for originality, creativity, flavor and use of lobster. The judges were Steve Corry, chef/owner of Five Fifty Five and Petite Jacqueline in Portland; Kathleen Fleury, managing editor of Downeast magazine; and Sharon Rose of WCSH-TV.
Arrington and Altiero both won $1,000 and bragging rights for their restaurants.
“I’d rather please 200 people than three,” Arrington quipped after he’d been handed a gigantic fake check to hold for photographers.
Arrington, who grew up in Boothbay Harbor and now works at The Dutch, a restaurant in New York City, made ricotta gnudi and Maine lobster with truffle, chanterelle mushrooms and chervil.
“Mackenzie’s dish, that’s a delicate preparation,” Corry said. “It’s not easy to make gnudi like that, especially for a crowd of 200. And I thought his dish showcased the delicate flavor of the lobster. There were very little other competing flavors.”
Altiero won the judges’ choice award with a lobster salad served on a sheet of homemade pasta, a dish that Corry said was “light and fresh.”
“After being in the business for 30-plus years — pre-food channel, when we were just kitchen slaves — it’s nice to get an award,” Altiero said. “So now I can say ‘award-winning chef.'”
Altiero said the big fake check would be installed in the “Elvis bathroom” at Cafe Miranda by Saturday. The real check will be split, he said, with a portion of it probably going to “buy some beer.”
Thirty percent of the prize money will be donated to the Area Interfaith Outreach Food Pantry in Rockland, a favorite charity of Altiero’s. The chef said he also plans to give part of the money to his assistant.
“I think in these tough economic times, when we come upon some good fortune, yeah, enjoy your good fortune, but kick some back, you know?” he said.
As for Arrington’s plans for his prize money, he said, “I live in New York City, so this is going to rent.”
Also competing Thursday was Melissa Bouchard, executive chef at DiMillo’s on the Water in Portland, whose “Harvest Lobster” dish was “a play on lobster and corn chowder.”
Mike Ringenberg, who lives in Denver, took it all in with his wife, Luann. It was their first time at the lobster competition, although they had visited Portland in the past. They have all-access passes that get them into all Harvest on the Harbor events.
Ringenberg said he voted for Arrington’s dish.
“The third one was a little too spicy for me and had a kind of common taste,” he said, referring to Altiero’s dish. “I was looking for something extraordinary, and I thought (Arrington’s) was kind of unique.”
Ringenberg said he and his wife have been eating a lot of lobster since they’ve been here, “even in omelets in the morning.”
“That’s what we came for,” he said.
The Ringenbergs have also gotten a taste of irony in Maine. The Lobster Chef of the Year competition is supposed to promote Maine lobster, and Harvest on the Harbor is designed to draw tourists during the shoulder season between fall and winter.
But Ringenberg said he is sad to have missed the changing of the leaves, and every lobster pound he and his wife have tried to visit has had the same sign posted on the door: Closed for the season.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: