BANGOR, Maine — Michele Ragussis of Food Network TV fame was only supposed to judge at the first annual Top Chef Tailgate Cook-Off at Husson University’s homecoming Saturday, but when given the chance, she wasted no time getting to cooking.
“Well, definitely. I’m a chef first,” said Ragussis, the chef at The Pearl seafood restaurant and raw bar in Rockland. “When they asked me to jump in there, I didn’t have to be asked twice.”
Ragussis jumped in with seven of the contestants’ allotted 15 minutes already elapsed, but still came up with a tasty, open-faced breakfast egg sandwich and all five of the required ingredients — Winterport Winery blueberry soda, lobster meat, Maine mushrooms, potatoes and maple syrup.
While it was a tailgate atmosphere, this wasn’t your typical burgers, dogs and beer setup. Think of it as “Chopped” meets Maine tailgating.
Former “Chopped” and “Food Network Star” contestant Ragussis — a Connecticut native who had never been to Bangor before — and the other judges concurred that the clear winner was Kim Smith, the chef and owner of the Street Bistro gourmet food truck.
“I made a warm potato salad with the Winterport Winery’s blueberry soda along with mushroom, red cabbage, goat cheese and some lemon aioli to accompany it,” said Smith. “Then I basically did a lobster club sandwich. My secret ingredient was bacon jam.”
Smith has been cooking for 30 years, but this was her first time in any competition like this.
“I actually watched ‘Chopped’ last night just to make sure I was ready,” said Smith, who had just a week’s notice before the cook-off. “The toughest part was the not knowing. Once I knew what the ingredients were and they said ‘Go,’ I was ready.
“I was freaking out. Now I can go eat something!” Smith said.
Smith wasn’t the only one with butterflies making it too difficult to eat.
“I love ‘Chopped.’ It’s insane. I can’t imagine actually being on that show with the pressure they’re under, but it was kind of the same situation here,” said Melissa Kim, a reporter for Bangor TV station WLBZ (channel 2) and an amateur cook. “I was freaking out. I might have looked calm on the outside, but on the inside I was like ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’”
What she was doing was creating a spicy, sweet lobster sandwich with avocado, tomato and goat cheese and blueberry sauce on the side.
Much to her surprise, Kim’s sandwich was chosen as runner-up.
“I was shocked. I was like ‘This is not a pity vote, right?’” said Kim, who credited her sriracha and agave marinade as the ingredient that made the difference.
Judging contests and the TV celebrity experience are still new for Ragussis, 42, who debuted on “Chopped” in 2010.
“I’m just now starting to do a lot of these. I’m doing a dairy cook-off in Rhode Island next week. Last week I did some cooking demos and Tuesday I’m going to Smithfield, Va., to do some ham judging,” said the 17-year chef. “I’m either judging or cooking. Either one, I love it.”
The chef at one time didn’t consider herself extrovertive, but now can’t wait to meet and talk to new people.
“First time I did this I was petrified. I didn’t know what to talk about with people,” she said. “Now I love it. I learn so much from people everywhere I go. I put my twist on things, but I think it’s important to go out and eat and learn as much as we can.”
Ragussis was making her Bangor debut thanks to an idea hatched one night as Husson Athletic Director Bob Reasso was watching Food Network with wife Michelle.
“They were watching the show together and talking about how it would be great if we could get her here for our competition,” said Buffy McCue, Husson’s director of alumni relations.
Emcee Chris Rudolph and McCue both said the event would not only become an annual one, but likely an expanded one.
“Ten would be good number to have for participants next year, and it all came together very well in a short period of time,” said Rudolph. “Plus all the stuff we used were Maine products. Even the bread came from local farmers.”
McCue said the event replaced an annual chili cook-off.
“We’ve done the chili cook-off for homecoming in past years, but the alumni board wanted to change things up,” McCue said. “This was just terrific.
“I think we’d like to expand it and have more amateurs, maybe having two sides compete with local restaurants and businesses on one side and amateurs on the other.”
Saturday’s cook-off also included chefs from Geaghan’s restaurant, Giacomo’s, 11 Central Street Bistro and This Tart Life.