PORTLAND — Chef Chris Long of Natalie’s, the restaurant at the Camden Harbour Inn, took home the coveted title of Maine Lobster Chef of the Year Thursday after preparing a rich dish of lobster poached in butter, served with grilled maitake and oyster mushrooms and a corn-and-parsnip ragout.
“I was super shocked,” Long said after the competition at Portland’s Ocean Gateway. “I’m definitely grateful, definitely blessed.”
Long created the dish especially for the sold-out event, which is a highlight of the Harvest on the Harbor food and wine festival.
His sparring partners in the kitchen were Shanna O’Hea, chef/owner of Academe, the restaurant at the Kennebunk Inn; Brandon Blethen, executive chef at Robert’s Maine Grill in Kittery; and Long’s colleague Jon Gaboric, executive chef at Natalie’s.
The competition was hosted by celebrity chef Michele Ragussis, who cooks seasonally at the Pearl Restaurant in Rockland.
The chefs made four very different lobster preparations, which “shows people all the different ways you can cook Maine lobster and enjoy Maine lobster,” noted Marianne La-Croix, acting executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
“A lot of people, especially in New England, think that lobster is the traditional boiled lobster dinner.”
O’Hea gave her dish an Asian twist, preparing a “Lobster Lo’Maine” served in small Chinese take-out cartons.
Gaboric made a refined dish that tasted of the sea and is part of his restaurant’s five-course lobster tasting menu. He served butter-poached lobster dish with a corn and miso puree, shaved radish salad, geoduck dressing, crispy quinoa and yuzu foam. Geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”) is a large saltwater clam found on the west coast. Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit.
Blethen’s dish had a homier appeal.
He fried his lobster tails in an Allagash beer batter and served it with a homemade smoked heirloom tomato sauce, Maine potatoes and local Swiss chard.
The winner was chosen by three judges and an audience of 200, who were served smaller portions of each dish.
Long won $1,000, and the three runners-up took home $500 each.
The judges said when they huddled together to anoint a winner, they found they were deadlocked.
So they let the audience break the tie, and the result came out in Long’s favor.
Kathleen Fleury, editor of Down East Magazine, said she has been judging the contest for several years, “and this is definitely the best one.”
“It gets better every year,” she said. “The dishes were stand-out.”
The other judges were Emily Lane of Calendar Islands Maine Lobster and chef Abby Freethy of Northwoods Gourmet Girl.
Freethy said it was Long’s technique that made him one of the judges’ favorites.
“I think in our conversation it was very clear the lobster was cooked the best in that dish,” Freethy said.
“I think that’s such an important part of this competition, is making the lobster shine on the plate, and his was pretty incredible. But it was very close.”
Long said his cooking philosophy is simply to use good ingredients, “and if they’re at the prime of their taste, you don’t really mess with them.”
“Mushrooms are awesome right now,” he said. “We have foragers that basically stop at our back door daily and drop off these gorgeous mushrooms.”
During the cook-off, emcee Michele Ragussis kept the audience entertained with lively banter as she joked around with the chefs.
She seemed particularly impressed with Gaboric’s dish, and when he plated it she grabbed his arm and said to the audience: “This is a good one, guys. I’m totally stealing it.”
As Blethen fried his lobster tails, Ragussis gleefully announced she’d heard a recent news story that said fried food isn’t as bad for you as scientists previously thought.
“Dr. Gupta said it was OK,” Ragussis joked. “That’s what I heard.”
In the audience were Carole Swift and Tom O’Connell of St. Petersburg, Fla., who were attending Harvest on the Harbor for the first time.
“We’re thoroughly impressed with it,” O’Connell said.
“It’s exceeded our expectations.”
The Florida couple weren’t the only ones attending from away. LaCroix publicly recognized and gave Harvest on the Harbor aprons to Lori Osborn of Peoria, Ill., who was the first person to buy a ticket for the lobster competition, and Robert Shaw, the ticket holder who traveled the farthest – all the way from Glasgow.
O’Connell said he voted for Blethen’s fried lobster dish, and Swift voted for O’Hea’s Lobster Lo’Mein because she liked its simplicity.
“I could get it on the table,” she said.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:[email protected]