SOUTH PORTLAND – The morning sun was just winking over Peaks Island on Thursday when chef Michael Ruoss and five culinary arts students got to work making more than 6 gallons of seafood gumbo for the first day of the Harvest on the Harbor Food and Wine Festival.

Waiting for them at sunrise in the kitchen at Southern Maine Community College were big bins filled with chopped green peppers, onions, okra and kielbasa that had been prepped by students on Wednesday. Next to the bins were containers of thyme, bay leaves and cayenne, and bottles of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce.

There were also plastic bags bulging with raw, peeled shrimp and containers of plump oysters, with both ingredients added in the final minutes of cooking.

“So basically we’re making a seafood stew,” Ruoss told the students, explaining that they would start by crisping bacon, then add sausage, onions and “a killer crab stock” made for the occasion by chef Wilfred Beriau, one of Ruoss’ former instructors.

Ruoss is a chef in New Orleans who grew up in Old Orchard Beach and graduated from the culinary program at SMCC. He worked for celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse for 11 years, and now works for a corporation that develops new restaurants.

Ruoss and his helpers had less than three hours to make enough gumbo for the 200 people at the Ultimate Seafood Splash, Harvest on the Harbor’s kickoff event Thursday morning at Ocean Gateway in Portland. The festival continues today and will conclude on Saturday.

Students Mike Lemieux, Shirley Tracy and Taon Nguin set about their first chore: re-chopping the bell pepper, which wasn’t small enough for Ruoss’ taste. They also got a lesson in making roux, a mixture of flour and fat that thickens the gumbo.

“I was thinking about the roux on the way up here,” Ruoss said with a slight smile. “I’ll bet the roux’s not going to be dark enough.”

Well, no, it wasn’t. The students’ roux was a deep caramel color when it should have been the color of Hershey’s chocolate. The blonder the roux, the thicker it is, Ruoss explained to them. As it darkens, it gains flavor.

Ruoss stirred the gumbo as it cooked, occasionally taking a swig from a liter bottle of Moxie, his favorite drink. Once, after closing the lid on the gumbo, he wiggled his fingers at the stew, adding a little New Orleans mojo to the mix.

About a dozen more students arrived, and Beriau encouraged them to ask Ruoss questions. Ruoss talked to them about gumbo filet, the culture of gumbo, and how its basic flavors serve as the basis for etouffe and other New Orleans classics. Add rice before the roux has been added to the gumbo, and it becomes jambalaya, Ruoss said.

“If we add tomatoes, we have shrimp creole,” he said. “It could be anything.”

At 9:55 a.m., he added the shrimp, then the oysters, and shook the Tabasco liberally into the gumbo. Finally, he stirred in the roux, which got darker but never reached Hershey chocolate nirvana. Students grabbed plastic spoons to have a taste.

“It’s got a little bit of a kick,” Ruoss said. “It’s not ‘oh my god’ spicy.”

It was, however, spicy enough to cause lots of trips to the coat room at the Ultimate Seafood Splash, where people suddenly started shedding their outerwear. The heat in the gumbo was enough to keep them warm.

The Ocean View Room at Ocean Gateway had abundant seafood of all kinds, and ticket holders who sipped organic wines strolled from one vendor to another to sample as many foods as they could in two hours.

Julie Adams opened juicy oysters from Muscongus Bay Aquaculture and served them with Guinness cocktail sauce. Muscongus Bay was one of five oyster farms that contributed more than 1,000 oysters to the event.

Rhonda Cook of the Maine Aquaculture Association plated mussels cooked with chardonnay, garlic, lemon, shallots and parsley. “These are from Jonesport,” she said. “They were harvested just yesterday.”

Joel Frantzman of Sullivan Harbor Farm Smokehouse offered his newest product, a salmon bacon, and his Omega Burst Maple and Pepper Salmon, chock-full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

“It’s made from the belly flap of the salmon,” he said. “We trim that and double-smoke it.”

Jim and Michelle Cunningham, visiting from Philadelphia, raved about their lobster sauce from Cook’s Lobster House. Michelle Cunningham discovered Harvest on the Harbor online two years ago, and the couple came to Portland for the first festival. “We loved it so much we wanted to come back this year,” Jim Cunningham said.


Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]