BRUNSWICK — It’s a little old-fashioned for a woman to ask a man to order for her, but when you’re having breakfast with a chef who has competed in the Incredible Breakfast Cook-Off five years in a row and who feeds breakfast to 350 Bowdoin college students every day, it feels like a no-brainer to ask him to bring you his best breakfast items from the food service line.

Isaac Aldrich, culinary manager at Bowdoin’s Thorne Dining Hall, sets down a tray with scrambled eggs, grapes, congee (Chinese rice porridge) with kimchi, a slice of Alfredo breakfast pizza, pork sausage made right there in the campus kitchen, and coffee.

“I love breakfast,” Aldrich said. “It’s really that meal of the day where there’s not a whole lot of rules around it, so you can get creative and play.”

Aldrich is one of 10 Maine chefs who will be competing Friday in the Incredible Breakfast Cook-Off at Sea Dog Brewing Co. in South Portland. It’s the official kickoff to Maine Restaurant Week, which runs from March 1-12. Over the past decade, the cook-off has raised more than $50,000 for Preble Street, a local social services agency that has been the beneficiary of the event for nine out of 10 competitions. Breakfast lovers pay $25 per ticket to wander from station to station, sampling chefs’ dishes and voting on their favorites.

Isaac Aldrich, culinary manager at Thorne Dining Hall at Bowdoin College, has participated in the Incredible Breakfast Cook-Off since 2015. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Chefs crack hundreds of eggs for the competition, ladle loads of pancake batter and Hollandaise, and plate ingredients into perfect small bites they hope will win them the title of best breakfast chef in Maine. Some years, they all seem to be on the same wavelength, like the time that many of the chefs made hash. In 2015, candied bacon was the hot ingredient. Eggs Benedict is always popular, although it’s usually dressed up with lobster or another other special twist.

Chefs and restaurants come and go every year, but a few enter year after year. Aldrich has attended every year since 2015, when he represented the Sebasco Harbor Resort. That first year, he made a “drunken waffle” topped with candied, chocolate-dipped bacon. He drizzled it with a Jack Daniels syrup, then finished it with whipped cream. Aldrich still remembers how disappointed he was that he didn’t even place in the competition, especially with his secret weapons of bacon and booze.

“We had a blast doing it. I remember being very mad at the end of it that I lost, because I don’t like to lose,” he said, laughing.

The next year, he said, he went back to the competition with “a better attitude.” It worked: He won, and has placed every year since. His winning dish was a Maine lobster breakfast taco. What was it about the taco that put him over the top? “No. 1, it was lobster,” Aldrich said. “No. 2, I think it was the scrambled eggs. The way I do eggs is a little different. I do it French style, so there’s constant whisking with lots of butter. And then, of course, I made my own chorizo for that one, and the chorizo came out really nice. It was just a perfect melting pot of flavors, all hitting at the same time, and people were coming back for thirds and fourths. They actually said I won by the largest margin ever.”

Chef Isaac Aldrich won the Incredible Breakfast Cook-off in 2016 with this Maine lobster breakfast taco. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Aldrich, 37, grew up in Durham but now lives in Topsham with his wife Meghan and two sons, Silas, 6, and Evan, 8. He began his career cooking at restaurants in Brunswick and Portland. After culinary school, he took a job catering for the Denver Broncos, where he stayed for eight years. Eventually, he moved back to Maine and spent five years as executive chef at Sebasco Harbor Resort.

Aldrich was working for Sebasco Harbor when he was named first runner-up in the 2017 cook-off with his “Bacon and Eggs,” a toasted croissant brushed with cultured butter and topped with scrambled eggs, bacon, Bucksport Farms pork sausage, Hollandaise, queso, micro chives and smoked paprika oil. Next, he became executive catering chef at Colby College, and represented the school when he was first runner-up at the 2019 cook-off. That year, he made biscuits with scrambled eggs, lobster, bacon, crème fraîche and caviar.

The chef’s own favorite breakfast is steak and eggs, which he makes at home. “To be honest with you, I don’t really go out for breakfast,” he said. “It’s more of a chill out and cook at home kind of thing.”

Aldrich says he begins thinking about possibilities for a cook-off dish in January, and it takes about two months of experimentation to nail down his entry. First, he picks one ingredient to build the dish around. His first year in the cook-off, that ingredient was Jack Daniels. Another year, it was lobster. This year, he started out with four or five dishes in his head – one featuring yogurt and blueberries, another lobster – and crossed them off, one by one. In the end, he chose Maine crab because “crab is my favorite thing on this planet to eat.”

The result is his Maine Crab Breakfast Flatbread, made with a cream cheese egg sauce, applewood-smoked bacon, sweet red peppers and candied jalapenos, and served on naan baked by a company owned by a Bowdoin alumnus. “I’ll figure out what I want to do, and then I run tests,” Aldrich said, explaining his process. “Then I make my adjustments.” Since the cook-off is judged by the public, Aldrich likes to ask for opinions from the people around him: How does this sound? What do you think of this? How would this taste?

To make the cream cheese sauce for this year’s entry, he whisks egg yolks into melted cream cheese. “It really makes a nice, creamy base that has some body to it,” Aldrich said. “Then I put in a little lemon juice, a little acid in there, and then it gets topped with the crab, it gets topped with the peppers, it gets topped with the candied jalapenos. I really think those are going to be the star of the show, to be honest with you. They’re soaking right now. They’re in a brine for 30 days, and they get better each day.”

He brings out a sample. A bite brings sweetness first, followed by a blast of spiciness and finally lingering heat. With two more weeks in the brine, the jalapenos will “become a little more balanced,” Aldrich predicted. “It will set off all the flavors in the dish because it’s such a contrast.”

The cook-off chefs have to think about logistics almost as much as the food itself. How much do they need of all their ingredients, and what can be prepped ahead of time? Aldrich arrives at Sea Dog Brewing at 5:30 a.m. to make sure he’ll have plenty of time to cook and set up. This year, he expects his dish to be less labor-intensive than in the past.

“In years past, you’re trying to scramble four gallons of eggs in a 45-minute window, and it’s stressful,” he said. “‘Scramble, scramble, come on!’ And you can’t go high heat on that because you will burn it real fast.”

He plans on making enough breakfast flatbreads to feed 300 people. He doesn’t want to disappoint anybody who comes back for seconds.

Aldrich said the chefs would like to sample each others’ work at the event, but it’s “extremely hard” to pull that off while plating your own dishes. “No. 1, your adrenaline is up so much that your appetite is nonexistent,” he said. “But some dishes people are, like, ‘You’ve got to try this’ and they’ll bring me a sample and I’ll eat it. I always try to eat Sea Dog’s dish because they do a good job.”

Thanks to that lobster breakfast taco, the chef knows how much fun it is to win – the rush of hearing his name called, followed by his phone burning up with texts and calls offering congratulations. He’s hoping for a repeat of that experience this year. Aldrich also knows how much the people who attend the event appreciate it. Breakfast has become, he says, “a big deal” in Maine and other places where breakfast and brunch options are exploding.

“People want to have breakfast for dinner,” he said. “People love breakfast food. It’s just that they don’t like to cook it every day.”

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