PORTLAND – The four culinary students who won the college competition Friday at Harvest on the Harbor couldn’t hide their surprise when their team was announced as the winner.
With all four going to class and working every day, their schedules made it tough to find time to rehearse together in the kitchen at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. They didn’t even have their first complete “dry run” making their salmon dish until Wednesday night.
“It was overwhelming, and then once I kind of got on stage I was still pretty nervous,” said Adam Robichaud of Hollis. “And then, once everything was done, it was like, all right, that was such a great learning experience.”
Robichaud’s teammates in the competition at Ocean Gateway were Toan Nguyen of Portland, Megan Manseau of Scarborough and Nate Davies of Orrington. They won a $4,000 scholarship collectively, and each one got an engraved chef’s knife.
The judges raved about students’ dish, a salmon roulade with cream cheese dill sauce served with an arugula-beet salad, calling it “perfect.”
“We all kind of felt the same way, that the balance on the plate was perfect between the accompaniments, the garnish, the stuffing,” said Wilfred Beriau, the retired chairman of the culinary arts department at SMCC. “And without even talking to each other, there was a communication there. They knew what each of them had to do. They just had it.”
The other judges were Johnny DiMillo of DiMillo’s on the Water in Portland and Richard Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association.
“As much as I enjoyed team two — they had the banter, they had the teamwork, they had the personalities — team three was just much better foodwise,” DiMillo said, referring to the winning team.
Three teams competed. Second place, and a collective check for $2,000 in scholarship money, went to Amanda Rack of Alfred, Joe Lambert of Biddeford, Ensign Gerry of Auburn and Audrey Carlson of Sanford.
Their dish was poached salmon with a duo of raspberry and lime butter sauce.
Third place went to a team that made sesame gingered salmon with mitarashi dango and an Asian slaw. The audience and the judges appeared to enjoy the team’s salmon but were not as fond of the mitarashi dango — glazed rice flour dumplings.
The contest was sponsored by True North Salmon Co., which provided the salmon and the winners’ scholarship money.
Win or lose, all of the students who participated walked away with scholarships. Each SMCC student received $500 from the school, and students from Washington County Community College, who prepared a smoked salmon bisque appetizer, were awarded $125 each.
The contest was hosted by Michele Ragussis, a Brooklyn chef who worked in Rockland this summer and was a finalist on the reality TV show “Food Network Star.”
Ragussis began by praising Portland’s food scene. “I’m walking down the street and I’m gaining weight,” she joked with the audience.
Ragussis kept up an easy banter with the contestants, easing their nerves by asking them questions about themselves. What do they want to do with their careers? What’s their favorite Portland restaurant? (Most of the contestants dodged that last question, perhaps thinking it impolitic to show favoritism among their pool of potential future employers.)
When it was the winning team’s time to prepare its dish on stage, Robichaud expertly butterflied the salmon, then put on a bit of a culinary comedy show with Ragussis.
When Ragussis asked him what goes into the stuffing, he mentioned Ritz crackers first, followed by the less-processed ingredients in the dish — Swiss chard, shallots, leeks, butter, salt and pepper.
“I’m like most Mainers who love Ritz crackers,” Robichaud deadpanned, and the audience laughed appreciatively as they tried samples of the dish.
If you were to make a stuffing, Ragussis asked, what would be the first step?
“I’d probably go shopping,” Robichaud replied, sending the audience into fits of laughter.
Asked what the past few weeks have been like for the students, chef Geoffrey Boardman, chairman of the culinary department at SMMC, lifted his fingertips to his mouth and pretended to chew his nails.
“I think I was more nervous than they were,” he said.
Robichaud’s teammate Manseau said they all created the dish together as they sat around a small table in the SMCC cafeteria.
“We were just throwing concepts out there and going, ‘OK, I really like this idea, what do you think of that?’ ” she said. “And then, ‘OK, how can we incorporate a quality ingredient into that?’ “
They divided up their dish and tried to perfect it at home. Robichaud and Manseau worked on the filling and sauce, Nguyen developed the dressing, and Davies helped with the salad and provided all the labor required behind the curtain to plate small portions.
“You’ve got 200 small portions to do, so it’s got to be practical,” Boardman said. “It was a great experience for them. They learned a lot.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: