The chefs battling for the title of Maine Lobster Chef of the Year came to the Ocean Gateway terminal in Portland on Friday armed with a wide array of delicious ingredients: butter-poached lobster, bacon, sweet corn and cognac.

In the end, it was Stephen Richards, chef at The World is Mine Oyster in Boothbay Harbor, who took home the honor and a $1,000 check presented by emcee Kerry Altiero, owner of Cafe Miranda in Rockland and a past winner of the contest.

“Man, what a day!” a breathless Richards told the sold-out audience of 200 who voted on the outcome along with four professional judges. “One of the biggest days of my life. Awesome.”

The dish that brought home the prize was lobster in a polenta bar sprinkled with pumpkin powder and served with roasted fig gastrique, brown butter froth, crisp pancetta and a cold-smoked lobster claw.

Richards said he wanted to create something that was “fall-inspired.”

“Over the years, I’ve been trying to work with pumpkin, smoked lobsters and chestnuts,” he said, “and it all came together today.”

The contest was part of the seventh annual Harvest on the Harbor Food and Wine Festival, which expanded the lobster competition from four chefs to 10 this year. Two of the chefs, including Richards, qualified for the event as winners of the “Claw Down” competition held in Boothbay Harbor last month. The rest were nominated by their peers, then selected by an expert panel based on their recipes.

Guests voted for their favorite dish, and their votes were combined with those from a panel of expert judges: Shannon Bard, owner of Zapoteca restaurant in Portland; Dick Grotton, former president of the Maine Restaurant Association; Harding Lee Smith, owner of the “Room” restaurants in Portland; and Ginny Wright, senior editor at Down East magazine.

Smith said he gave the winner high marks because it was the best use of lobster.

“It wasn’t necessarily the best dish, it was the best lobster dish,” he said, “the best use of lobster. Some of them could have been really great with venison or cod as opposed to lobster. This one, lobster was incorporated into the whole thing.”

In previous years, ticket holders sat at long tables and watched the chefs cook their lobster dishes live before voting on their favorites. This year, organizers switched things up, adding chefs and creating a tasting format where guests wander from table to table, tasting “lobster bites” and chatting with the chefs. Small round tables were scattered around the room, some for sitting, some for standing.

The new format offered more food to sample and a chance to chat with the chefs at their stations. But there was an undercurrent of grumbling from some attendees, who found the layout confusing and more boisterous than the previous years’ more subdued events.

Rena Pellenz of Portland, who has come to the contest for five years, said she found it “a little disappointing.”

“I like to watch them cook,” she said. “I find it relaxing. Here, they’re all over the place.”

Cheryl Wilkinson and James Rossides, both Portland-area residents, sat a table with several lobster dishes in front of them, downing them one by one and sharing critiques as they ate. They hadn’t yet decided how to vote, but they liked the lobster BLT from chef Margaret McLellan of the Sheepscot Harbour Village Resort in Wiscasset, who won in 2008, and the lobster carbonara from chef Isaac Aldrich of the Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg. They thought the grilled lobster sandwich from chef Abby Freethy of Northwoods Gourmet Girl was good, too.

“I have to try them all so I can make an informed decision,” Wilkinson said.

THE RECIPE

Pumpkin powdered lobster, mascarpone and chestnut crispy polenta bar with roasted fig gastrique, brown butter froth, peppered pancetta chip and 24-hour cold smoked lobster claw

INGREDIENTS

½ ounce pumpkin powdered lobster
½ cup cornmeal
2 cups lobster stock
2 teaspoons cracked black pepper corns
¼ pound + 2 tablespoons salted butter
¼ cup mascarpone
¼ cup + 2 tablespoons cream
¼ cup chopped roasted chestnuts
4 ounces cooked lobster meat
4 roasted figs, small diced
Fry oil
⅓ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup port
1 shallot, finely sliced
Sprig rosemary
1 ounce pancetta
1 pinch gelatin
1 1-pound soft-shelled lobster (if possible)
Pumpkin seed oil for garnish
Lava salt for garnish
Petite pumpkin greens for garnish

POLENTA BAR

In a heavy bottom pot, bring lobster stock to a rapid boil. Turn heat to low and slowly whisk in cornmeal; continue whisking for 10 minutes, or until polenta pulls away from sides. Stir in ¼ cup cream, 2 tablespoons butter, mascarpone, and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Whisk and cook for another 10 minutes. Fold in lobster meat and chestnuts. Pour polenta onto non-stick 9-by-9-inch cake pan. Allow to cool and set.

FIG GASTRIQUE

Heat sugar in heavy bottom sauce pan until golden brown; pour in port and vinegar and bring to a boil. Add finely diced shallot, rosemary, figs and salt and cracked pepper to taste. Reduce until syrupy and break up figs with a spoon to help create jam-like substance.

PEPPERED PANCETTA CHIP

Slice pancetta thin on a slicer; place on parchment paper-lined sheet tray. Drizzle with pumpkin seed oil and cracked black pepper. Cook at 300 degrees Fahrenheit until crisp; transfer to paper towel to drain fat.

BROWN BUTTER FROTH

Heat ¼ pound salted butter in heavy bottom pan at medium heat until butter turns brown and is nutty in flavor. Let cool. In an isi foamer, add room temperature brown butter, one pinch of gelatin and two tablespoons warm cream. Shake well. Charge once and froth is ready for use.

SMOKED LOBSTER CLAWS

Poach lobster for three minutes in boiling water just until red. Detach claws and smoke in shell for 24 hours at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Let cool. Gingerly break shell and removed smoked claws.

ASSEMBLY

Cut 3- by 1-inch rectangle out of polenta; deep-fry polenta bar at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until crispy. Drain grease off onto paper towel. Season with lava salt and dust with pumpkin powder. Place polenta bar on plate top with fig gastrique (room temp), pancetta chip, smoked lobster claw and brown butter froth. Garnish with pumpkin seed oil, lava salt sprinkle and petite pumpkin greens.


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