Millinocket chef takes home ‘Ultimate’ prize

Posted Sept. 23, 2008, at 8:51 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — If he could, Ryan Campbell would eat steak and mashed potatoes every day. Trouble is, that kind of meal wouldn’t exactly do wonders for one’s life expectancy.

It also wouldn’t exactly do on a menu for a gourmet cooking competition.

Campbell, the head chef at River Drivers Restaurant, worked around the more standard potato presentation to assemble a winning menu for the 2008 Ultimate Chef Competition.

The Greater Bangor Convention & Visitors Bureau notified Campbell on Tuesday morning that he had been crowned Ultimate Chef, edging 2007 winner Roger Gelis, who runs the kitchen at Opus restaurant in Bangor.

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Campbell scored 106 points out of a possible 120; Gelis scored 90 points.

Diners judged each of the four courses based on originality, taste and presentation. There were 30 points available per course. Gelis and Campbell each won a semifinal round last spring against another chef to get to this month’s final round.

The competition, a riff on the Food Network’s show “Iron Chef,” pitted the chefs against each other on consecutive weeks. The secret ingredient — potato — was revealed to diners on Sept. 15 at Opus.

Previous secret ingredients this year were orange and goat cheese.

Campbell was in the orange semifinal round, and found potatoes a much different ingredient this time around.

“I think potatoes are probably easier to deal with because it’s an ingredient that I could live on,” he said Tuesday morning. “I’ve always been a potato kid.”

Campbell might be a steak-and-potatoes guy — he played football at Winslow High School and fine-tuned his menu Sunday night while watching an NFL game — but the twists he put on several potato classics were several notches above the standard.

He started with an amuse-bouche of a small Aroostook County new potato poached in chicken broth, cooled, hollowed out and filled with chive creme fraiche and a dab of caviar.

That was followed by a potato gnocchi done two ways — both the basic parmesan and others flavored with baby portobello mushrooms — in an electric-green cream sauce flavored with tarragon (the color was helped along with a little food coloring), surrounded by wild mushrooms and topped with Maine lobster.

The gnocchi, Campbell said, was a nod to one of the chefs in his kitchen who enjoys making the potato-based pasta.

“Gnocchi is his strong suit, and I tried to incorporate [the ideas of ] other people in the kitchen, to get the team spirit up,” Campbell said.

The opening course was followed by a cup of potato leek soup with sweet-potato strings.

Campbell then served up his main course, a pork tenderloin over butternut squash accompanied by three different servings of potato — a cluster of roasted fingerling potatoes, a cake of purple California potato with onion and maple bacon coated with Japanese panko crumbs, and a helping of gorgonzola scalloped potatoes — all served with an apple cider gastrique sauce.

Dessert, naturally, was sweet-potato-themed. A sweet-potato tart, topped with whipped cream and a butter toile, arrived on a plate decorated with candied pecans, sweet-potato bits, and house-made marshmallows. The whole thing was accompanied by a shot glass filled with a vanilla-cinnamon milkshake.

Campbell wanted the dessert to be memorable.

“I like doing [desserts] but I don’t get to focus as much attention on them,” he said. “I thought it would be neat to do the [homemade] marshmallows and they turned out well. I thought the milkshake would be something different to balance it.”

Oh, and there was potato bread on the tables before dinner, and the centerpieces on the tables were flowers stuck in big potatoes.

Gelis, too, was inventive as always. He started with an amuse-bouche of a potato croquette with a lemon-garlic aioli. Gelis’ first course was a roasted corn chowder served inside a hollowed-out potato skin that had been spiced with fennel. There were also bacon bits for passing around the table.

His second course was a warm salad of shrimp and tiny purple and yellow tomatoes that came inside a tomato tortilla cup, dressed with a parsley caper vinaigrette.

The main course was braised short ribs with a port wine and mushroom sauce. The side dish was a gratin of potato and lobster.

Gelis really showed off his presentation skills in his dessert. After dinner was cleared, the lights dimmed and some staff members opened a portion of Opus that had been closed off, revealing Gelis and other staffers as they assembled a sweet-potato baked Alaska. He doused the mound of meringue-covered ice cream with Maine-made Cold River Potato Vodka and set the creation ablaze.

The whole concoction was piled on an oatmeal cookie with a little heap of caramelized pineapple on the side.

There were some similarities between the two menus, especially in both chefs’ clear interest in using Maine and local ingredients. Considering Gelis’ 2007 win and Campbell’s this year, it’s easy to imagine they’d both be back in the Ultimate Chef competition next year, too.

Campbell, for one, hopes his win will draw more attention to his restaurant, and could even encourage people to make the drive to Millinocket.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “It’s good for the area and the restaurant to get the name out there. That was the whole point of getting into it, and it was a great experience.”

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