A tired and cherubic 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 jumping on his boss’s back, baseball style.
The self-taught Wiscasset cook 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.
Richards was one of 10 chefs from across the state who competed in the taste-off to be the culinary king for one year. “This is like the hall of fame, the lobster pot’o fame,” said Jim Britt, who represents Camden Harbour Inn chef Chris Long, last year’s winner who relinquished the throne.
People came from across the state and the country to try Maine lobster prepared by the best of the best. Ocean Gateway was packed with crowds digging into succulent lobster meat tucked into popovers with organic blueberries, lobster crepes and Johnny cakes with poached lobster.
“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 non-disclosed location before crowds arrived to try the dishes. 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.”
Richard’s smoky, lobster-forward dish hit all the notes.
“Boothbay is back on the culinary map in Maine,” said Cherie Scott of Boothbay Harbor’s Chamber of Commerce.
Scott, who managed a similar event in Boothbay called Clawdown in September, which Richards aced with a fried lobster mac and cheese, was emotional by 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.
“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.”