PORTLAND — Four chefs from Maine, one crustacean, 200 guests, three judges. The Maine lobster chef of the year competition, held Thursday at Harvest on the Harbor, was a claw to the finish.
After a two-hour cook-off, Chris Long of Natalie’s at The Camden Harbour Inn was crowned Maine’s lobster king. His dish, butter-poached lobster with grilled local mushrooms, corn and parsnips ragout and thyme butter was the creation that won judges and hungry foodies over.
In an unusual twist, Long bested his boss, Natalie’s executive chef Jon Gaboric. Also competing for Maine’s lobster chef of the year was Shanna O’Hea of Academe at The Kennebunk Inn and Chef Brandon Blethen of Robert’s Maine Grill in Kittery.
“It was horrible,” said judge Abby Freethy of Northwoods Gourmet Girl in Greenville. “It was a difficult decision.”
But in the end, the audience, some coming from as far as Glasgow to dine on Maine’s signature dish, chose Long’s balanced and flavorful entree. The title, which comes with a $1,000 check, a chef coat and a new pair of shoes, is considered an honor in the state’s burgeoning food world.
Long, a Georgia native, did not grow up around lobster, but has fond memories of lobster bakes on Cape Cod. His cousin was a lobsterman.
“My cooking style is let the natural ingredients shine. I’m getting beautiful mushrooms and parsnips, and corn is really juicy and sweet right now. If you use good ingredients you don’t have to do much,” he said.
The loss was hard for Gaboric, who glumly said “I am disappointed,” moments after Long was crowned. “Obviously I’m very happy for Chris.”
The Inn’s owner Raymond Brunyanszki said both lobster dishes debuted at the contest will be on Natalie’s menu by Monday. No word on whether Long will get a promotion. “He did a sensational dish and was able to capture lobster and Maine,” said Brunyanszki. “I’m proud of him.”
Long has been in Maine for a year and a half. He started in Portland, helping to open Spread restaurant on Commercial Street. Before that, he cooked in kitchens in Colorado and San Francisco. He lives in Lincolnville.
On a busy night at Natalie’s he’ll shuck 50 lobsters in a day and offered these tips to find the best meat: “You want to blanch it first so the meat doesn’t stick to the shell.” For the tail, “put a towel in your hand, crack the back and pop it out. With the claw, use the back of a knife, where the muscle is, stick it in a quarter inch and give it a counter clockwise twist to crack the tendon. Pop the knuckle, crack the shell and the meat comes out.”
When he isn’t cracking open claws, he’s eating Twix Ice Cream Bars, his guilty pleasure.
Looking surprised by the win, Long, 34, said “It feels good. I like a competition. I’m grateful to be here.”
For the next year Long will represent the lobster industry as an ambassador. All chefs competing in the event said the publicity over the last few weeks have boosted sales.
Said Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau president Barbara Whitten: “These chefs raised the bar. There wasn’t a weak link.”