Today, I had the incredible pleasure of visiting the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland and watching the recipe contest — sponsored by the BDN and Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegar — from start to finish. Well, almost. When Ian and I arrived, the gates were barely open, but the contestants were already well into their prep work, and the tent was already awash with aromas. The small, milling crowd of curious onlookers was no indication of the crushing throng of people we would have to fight our way through as the day progressed, just to snap photos and snag samples of the contestant’s amazing recipes. I was live-tweeting the event (you can find me on Twitter @fiafortune) and was given full access to the contestants as they worked, though I did my best to stay out of their way and let them do their thing.
The contest ran fairly smoothly, with only a few bumps in the road as the power in the tent went out — twice — and while the other contestants were held up momentarily as power was restored, John Ruppert was the only one unaffected. His lobster mac and cheese recipe was designed to be made on a single burner, and he brought his own gas, just in case. The pace was kept up well by emcee Louise McLellan-Ruf, who interviewed the judges, contestants and even myself to keep things moving while we all awaited the plating and serving portion of the event.
Contestant Gerald Huang held the distinction of being the only cook competing from away — very away, as it happens. Huang is originally from Hong Kong, and came to Maine via Canada over twenty years ago. Returning champ Tyrell Hunter, whose name I repeatedly spelled wrong on Twitter today, was the only female contestant.
Some of the recipes represented homey comfort food, like Justin “Buzzy” Libby’s casserole and Ruppert’s mac & cheese, but there were also notable international influences from Huang’s Singapore-inspired Chili Lobster to Hunter’s classic Italian canneloni. Adam Marcus, formerly of Louisiana, even brought a taste of New Orleans to the table with his Owl’s Head Lobster Etouffe.
The judges were as notable as the dishes; visiting from Yahoo!’s Blue Ribbon Hunter series with camera crew and producer in tow was Allison Fishman Task, and Melanie Beckett was there as well representing Maine Food and Lifestyle Magazine. Finally, Lynn Archer, owner of The Brass Compass and Archer’s on the Pier was there, and the crowd was eager to hear about her experiences throwing down with Bobby Flay. (Long story short, her King of Clubs sandwich — a sort of double-decker hybrid of a BLT and a lobster roll, which I am definitely going to have to try! — blew Bobby’s out of the water.)
After each dish was plated for the judges, the leftovers were divided up to be sampled out. Ian and I, like vultures, tasted each dish as soon as they were portioned out, so unlike most of the crowd, we had the experience of tasting what the judges were tasting as they were tasting it, not to mention while it was still hot and fresh! We ranked the dishes privately, from least favorite to favorite (I can’t say worst to best, because even the ‘worst’ was pretty great!) and though we disagreed with the judge’s final tallies for some of the runners up, we were in complete agreement for the first place winner: Tyrell Hunter’s Spectacular Seafood Canneloni were the best dish in a close race. Congratulations, Tyrell, now the two-year champ! I can’t wait until next year to find out if she’ll be unseated or defend her title successfully again.