SOUTH PORTLAND — Tim Labonte’s pork belly waffles smoked the competition Friday morning at the fifth annual Incredible Breakfast Cook-Off, accomplishing what no other dish had done in four years: knock Lisa Kostopoulos off her French toast throne.
“I certainly didn’t expect it, to be completely honest,” said Labonte, a first-time competitor who is executive chef at Eve’s at the Garden, the restaurant in the Portland Harbor Hotel.
Labonte’s Bacon, Egg & Cheese Waffles, a fixture on the hotel’s breakfast menu, are topped with Maine cheddar and a sunny-side-up egg. For the contest, he added some fresh thyme to the batter and maple bacon crunch on top, “which is not on our menu, but starting tomorrow obviously it’s going to be on there.”
Kostopoulos, chef/owner of The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth, was back to defend her long-running title at the cook-off, which is always held at the Sea Dog Brewing Co. in South Portland.
Kostopoulos was declared first runner-up for her “bring-you-to-your-knees delicious” Creme Brulee French Toast, a three-time first-prize winner that tied for first place last year.
Kostopoulos said she was “happy to share it” when Labonte was announced as the winner. “The crown was getting a little heavy,” she said.
The Fried Chicken & Waffles, a Sunday brunch favorite from the East Ender in Portland, was second runner-up.
The sold-out cook-off marked the launch of Maine Restaurant Week, which begins officially Saturday and runs through March 10. For $22.50 a ticket, guests wandered the restaurant and grazed from table to table, sampling all of the participating chefs’ dishes. Then they voted on their favorites – each guest got two votes – and the winner was crowned.
The event is a benefit for Preble Street’s anti-hunger and homelessness programs, and this year raised just over $4,000.
As the chefs from 10 restaurants prepared to face off Friday morning, one big question hovered over the event like a pancake in mid-flip: Would the reigning queen of the contest finally be toast?
Kostopoulos said she had gotten up at 3:30 a.m. to make the French toast, and it had not been a good day to that point, perhaps a sign of things to come. In her scramble to make it to the cook-off, she got two burns, started a fire in her oven and set off a smoke detector (twice), tripped on some stairs, and broke a bottle of good wine on her floor.
As she scooped up a serving of French toast for Steve Burr of Cape Elizabeth, Kostopoulos said she always considers making something different – this year she “had visions of Nutella French toast with strawberries” – but always comes back to the wildly popular recipe.
“I thought we’d start with the best first, you movie star, ” Burr said to Kostopoulos as he took his plate of French toast topped with fruit.
Kostopoulos said her bet was on the churros from El Rayo. “It’s sugar and chocolate,” she said. “It’s a winning combination.”
Kevin Cunningham, chef at the Tavern at the Inn at Brunswick Station, was first runner-up last year with his Pastrami Eggs Benedict – he was just eight votes behind the tied first-place winners. He believes he lost because of production problems. He brought only two burners and two servers, and so out of 300 eggs, he managed to serve just 150.
This year, he brought an extra burner and server, hoping to slip into first.
The most complicated dish came from Ri Ra Irish Pub, which served an Irish Breakfast Frittata.
“I put all the elements of an Irish breakfast in the frittata,” said executive chef Kevin Soucy. “It has black and white pudding, Irish bangers, Irish rashers, vintage Irish cheddar, grilled tomato and mushroom. I even have a little bread crumb on top to replicate the toast.”
The black and white puddings were made of pork-and-oatmeal sausages. The black one is made black by blood and contains aromatic spices such as clove and allspice.
“The Irish cheddar is a Tipperary, so it’s kind of like the Parmigiano Reggiano of Ireland,” Soucy said.
Other competitors were Bintliff’s of Ogunquit, which served Gingerbread Pancakes with a tart lemon sauce; Congdon’s Doughnuts in Wells, which always brings a giant “cheeseburger doughnut”; Little Bigs in South Portland, which served a Chorizo Empanada with tomatillo salsa and stewed Basque fruit compote; and host Sea Dog Brewing Co., which served Warm Chocolate Hazelnut Porter Bread Pudding with bourbon vanilla bean creme anglais.
The place was humming with hungry breakfast lovers who, after trying Labonte’s dish, smelled blood along with the sweet scent of maple syrup. Guests raved about his pork belly waffles, and the line at his station was the longest.
Linda Foster of Portland, sitting at a table with a half-dozen friends, said she liked “the Good Table, of course, and the Inn at Brunswick Station. And Eve’s.”
“And Eve’s,” the other women joined in.
Peter and Stephanie James drove 5½ hours from Charlotte, Vt., just to attend the cook-off with their friends, Hal and Sue DeBona of Woodstock, Vt. The DeBonas attended a couple of years ago after seeing the event advertised online, so this was their second cook-off.
The couples tried every dish in the contest.
“Everything’s been good,” Peter James said. “I heard about the Creme Brulee (French Toast). It’s everything anybody says it is. It’s the best. I would have to say, of all the breakfast items or dessert items I’ve ever had, it has to be in the top three. It’s spectacular.”
James said he gave one vote to Kostopoulos, and one to Cunningham for his Pastrami Eggs Benedict. And he vowed that he would “absolutely” return to the event next year.
Labonte, the new king of breakfast, shared that sentiment.
“I would love to do it again, absolutely,” Labonte said. “I don’t know that I would do the same dish, to be completely honest. I like to mix things up a little bit.”