PORTLAND – This October, Melissa Bouchard will have one word on her mind: redemption.

Bouchard, the executive chef at DiMillo’s on the Water, is coming back for seconds in the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year competition, after her maple butter-poached lobster tail failed to claw its way to the top in the 2009 contest.

“This is our year,” said a determined Bouchard, who will join forces with another DiMillo’s chef, Cliff Pickett. Pickett competed for the title in 2010 with a steamed Maine lobster and sweet corn tamale.

The Maine Lobster Chef of the Year contest is celebrating its 10th year by taking a page from reality TV and hosting an all-star edition. The 2012 finalists, chosen from the highest scorers in a decade of competitions, were announced Thursday during a press preview of the Harvest on the Harbor food and wine festival, scheduled for Oct. 24-27 in Portland.

On Oct. 25, Bouchard and Pickett, who will work as a team, will face off against Kerry Altiero, chef/owner of Cafe Miranda in Rockland, and Mackenzie Arrington, who won the competition in 2009 and now works at The Dutch, a restaurant in New York City.

“There are no losers in this competition because everybody shines,” said Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. “But we always feel a little guilty about there’s two people who give their heart and soul (and don’t win). So … we went back to previous folks who participated, who submitted recipes for judging, and thought, ‘Let’s bring some of these folks back and give them another run.’“

Altiero has never been a finalist, but he submitted a recipe last year and “scored very, very high among the technical judges,” Somers said.

Last year’s submission, Altiero said, was an “architectural creation.” This year, “I’m going to try to do something that’s really from my heart, rather than trying to stylize what I do.”

His dish, which he calls Harvest, will feature fresh pasta, tomatoes, corn that’s “a little toasty,” fresh-picked lobster meat, olive oil, garlic and parsley “that gets your attention.”

“It’s not like green dirt on the plate,” Altiero joked, noting that his restaurant gets all of its produce from local farms.

“It’s something that we put on the menu for this past summer, typically as a special using lobster or crab, and it’s really a big hit and it’s really simple,” he said. “You can do this at home in minutes.”

Bouchard said she and Pickett will make a crispy-fried lobster tail with corn puree, bacon lardons and a bourbon butter sauce.

Arrington plans to make ricotta gnudi (a dumpling similar to gnocchi) with Maine lobster with truffle, chanterelle and chervil.

The Maine Lobster Chef of the Year contest, one of the most popular events at Harvest on the Harbor, is always one of the first to sell out. Last year “we had one woman practically crying on the phone” because she couldn’t get in for the second year in a row, Somers said. (Someone canceled, and the woman, who was from the Midwest, eventually got a ticket.)

“People are passionate about it,” Somers said. “We have a lot of repeat people coming back.”

The $65 seated event is so popular that the Maine Lobster Promotion Council has considered holding more competitions during other seasons, even in other states.

Somers has been urged to move the Portland competition, which is held at Ocean Gateway, to a larger venue so more people can attend, but he said he feels guilty enough telling the chefs they have to make plates for 200 people in the audience.

“That’s about the logistical limit, I think, of what they can do, and it’s such a beautiful venue,” he said.

Usually the audience chooses the winner, but this year, for the first time, a panel of judges will score the food and crown a Judge’s Choice winner in addition to the People’s Choice.

The judges will be Steve Corry, chef/owner of Five-Fifty Five and Petite Jacqueline in Portland; Kathleen Fleury, managing editor for Down East magazine; and Sharon Rose of WCSH-TV.

The winner or winners will receive $1,000, publicity for their restaurant and a spot on the lobster council’s website.

Altiero said he’s in it for more than the prize check.

“The lobstermen are our middle class in the midcoast, and it’s so important to these guys and gals to keep selling their product,” he said. “A lobsterman’s making 30 percent less than they were five years ago. That takes out your casual dining dollar. That’s hurting me. That’s hurting my staff who come in to wait tables, or my cooks.

“I can see it from the difference from 2007 to today. There’s just not that extra cash running around. People are holding their money a little closer to their vests.” 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

 


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