MC Michele Ragussis with Judges' Choice winner Mike Ham of the Tugboat Inn and Restaurant, Boothbay Harbor. All photos: Ted Axelrod/Axelrod Photography
The Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce did an outstanding job putting on the second-annual Claw Down — a lobster "bites" competition, on Thursday evening. The numbers were impressive, especially for a small community in the off-season: 18 participating chefs and a sold-out crowd of 400 guests. The Ocean Point Marina in East Boothbay was an inspired setting, helped by the gorgeous weather. Celebrity chef Michele Ragussis (just finishing up her second season atThe Pearl in Rockland) was the ebullient MC.
Having served as a judge at a number of cooking contests — for both professional chefs and home cooks — I was also impressed by the well-thought-out way in which the judging was handled. I was a last minute-substitute judge (Lynn Archer from Rockland's The Brass Compass and Archer's on the Pier restaurants broke a tooth and couldn't make it), so was honored to be in the company of Kerry Altiero (Cafe Miranda, Rockland and the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year, 2012) and venerable food historian/author Sandy Oliver.
We arrived two hours before the event and were "sequestered" in the marina laundry room, which had been transformed by the committee with flowers and other decorations — a charming touch. A round table had a place for each of us, with clipboards of instructions and descriptions of each "bite." Volunteers delivered each chef's entry and we tasted "blind," not knowing who had made what. We had to come to a consensus on the score, a possible 10 points in each of three categories: Uniqueness/Originality; Creativity/Presentation and Taste.
It was a fascinating (and often hilarious) process, particularly because the three of us brought such wildly different perspectives. Kerry, a highly skilled chef (and irreverant wildman), looked for "craft" but was disdainful when it seemed that a chef was trying too hard to be clever without focusing on flavor. Sandy, a home-cooking expert, favored dishes that simply tasted good, even if they weren't especially creative. Most importantly to all of us: lobster flavor had to shine through no matter what the other elements.
In the end, the dish that won Judges' choice stunned us all: Lobster Canoli. This was dessert-like: crispy canoli shells filled with cream cheese and tender chunks of lobster, in a pool of (believe it or not) creme anglais swirled with blueberry foam. Absolutely delicious. That it was created by chef Mike Ham of the Tugboat Inn and Restaurant in Boothbay Harbor — a nice spot but not one that I would associate with culinary wizardry — was a further surpise.
Guests got to vote too; the People's Choice first place award went to the dish the judges put in second place: Lobster Beignets with Cajun Remoulade from Robinson's Wharf on Southport Island (a favorite haunt of mine). We might have scored them higher, but what we tasted were chef Jason Chamness' early efforts, which were sadly a bit gummy inside. As the evening went on, hotter oil produced lighter, crispier