PORTLAND, Maine — Boothbay is back.
Stephen Richards of Mine Oyster in Boothbay Harbor took top honors at Harvest on the Harbor’s lobster chef competition Friday.
“This is the biggest day of my life,” said the 38-year-old executive chef moments after besting nine Maine cooks in the race for lobster supremacy.
The self-taught Wiscasset chef won judges and guests over with his smoky, autumnal dish with a long name: Pumpkin powdered, mascarpone and chestnut crispy polenta bar with roasted fig gastrique, brown butter, froth, peppered pancetta chip and 24-hour cold smoked lobster claw was the marvelous mouthful that rocketed him to the top.
“I didn’t go to culinary school,” said the New Jersey native. “I’ve dedicated my life to this. I don’t go on picnics on the weekend, I don’t go to fairs or festivals. I cook.”
Richards, who has overseen the kitchen at Mine Oyster for two years, beat last year’s winner, Chris Long of Natalie’s at the Camden Harbour Inn, as well as tough competitors such as Brandon Blethen of Roberts Maine Grill in Kittery, whose Johnny cakes with Allagash and butter-poached lobster received raves from the hungry masses that crowded into Ocean Gateway for three hours of lobster and wine.
“This is like the hall of fame, the lobster pot ’o fame,” said Jim Britt, who represents the Camden Harbour Inn.
People came from across the state and the country to gorge on Maine lobster prepared by the best of the best. They dug into succulent lobster meat tucked into popovers with organic blueberries, lobster crepes and lobster carbonara. The wine flowed freely.
“I didn’t know there were so many uses for lobster,” said Andy McGlinn of Presque Isle. “We just dip it in butter.”
Chef judges Shannon Bard and Harding Lee Smith, former Maine Restaurant Association head Dick Grotton and Ginny Wright, senior editor at Downeast Magazine, hunkered in a nondisclosed location before crowds arrived to suss out a winner. It was a blind tasting to keep it neutral.
“We focused on the best use of the lobster,” said Smith, who owns Boone’s Fish House and three other restaurants in Portland. “If you are going to be the lobster chef of the year, lobster has to shine.”
They judged on taste, creativity and presentation.
“It was fascinating,” said Grotton. “The chefs that are great on presentation may not be great on taste.”
The judges’ vote counted for 75 percent and the people’s choice made up the other 25 percent.
Richards’ smoky, lobster-forward dish hit all the right notes. Mine Oyster, which is closed for the season but will reopen the second week in April, was a surprise winner because Boothbay Harbor, once a vital restaurant town, has become a sea of fried seafood shacks. Richards’ win could stem the tide.
“Boothbay is back on the culinary map in Maine,” said a beaming Cherie Scott, Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce event manager.
Scott, who managed a similar event called Claw Down in September, which Richards aced with a fried lobster mac and cheese, was emotional about the win.
“We bought the best of the Boothbay Region here. We staked it.”
Richards was presented a check for $1,000 and will represent the lobster industry for the next year. In lieu of Disney World, he was driving home to get some sleep.