PORTLAND, Maine — Five chefs, five judges and 225 people from 18 states gathered on Portland Harbor Friday afternoon in the name of one thing: Maine lobster.
The state’s top export was smoked, poached, pureed and tucked into raviolo at the sold-out Lobster Chef of the Year competition held at Ocean Gateway, part of the annual Harvest on the Harbor food and wine celebration.
After two and a half hours of live cooking demonstrations where clever creations paired with New Zealand wine were served to scores, Matt Ginn, executive chef at months-old Evo in the Old Port, took the crown.
“You are only as good as the chefs in your kitchen,” said a grinning Ginn, who previously worked at Five-Fifty-Five in Portland and famed Boston restaurant L’Espalier.
His former boss at Five-Fifty-Five, chef Steve Corry, was one of several judges who decided Ginn’s poached lobster served Turkish style with hand-made pasta and roasted summer squash with yogurt and Roman beans exemplified the mission.
“It was remarkable,” said chef Harding Lee Smith, of The Rooms and Boone’s Fish House in Portland. “It was nice to see lobster used properly.”
At his side, fellow judge Linda Greenlaw, the author and captain who catches lobster out of Surry, agreed. “It was perfectly cooked lobster, which is a little undercooked.”
Returning champion Stephen Richards of The World is Mine Oyster in Boothbay Harbor was named runner-up for an expertly executed dish he prepared with a hand smoker. His lobster glazed foie gras was loaded and layered in autumnal glory. Local goat cheese mousse with cranberry maple jam, brown butter creme fleurette and sweet and salty pine nut brittle packed a seasonal punch.
“This really changed my life,” said a thankful Richards of his yearlong reign.
Chef Nicholas Krunkkala of The Thistle Inn in Boothbay chopped local apples on stage for his creation served on a sumac-dusted potato chip. Krunkkala won The Claw Down in Boothbay last month, which qualified him for the competition.
Josh Berry of Union at the Press Hotel in Portland told the crowd to use all of the lobster: “Knuckles have more flavor, tails are a showoff piece,” he said while whipping up a buttery lobster-and-corn-stuffed raviolo.
Isaac Aldrich of Pilot House at Sebasco Harbor Resort represented with poached lobster served with curry cashews and tempura on forbidden rice.
In the crowd of visitors and locals, all seemed impressed with the modern twist on the Maine mainstay. “We know lobster meat very well,” said Steve Kingston, owner of The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, who came to unwind after a busy summer season of selling lobster rolls. “It’s really neat to see these guys use so many different techniques.”
Ginn won a check for $1,000 “and bragging rights,” said Lynn Tillotson, president of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau, who runs the tourism event.
The winning dish is on the menu at Evo, though when Ginn cooks lobster at home, he prefers it old school, “sitting outside on a summer night, boiled with corn.”