Checklist—cars loaded up and off we go. The audience of 200 is lined up at the door anxiously awaiting the opportunity to sample the lobster dishes of three contestants, be entertained by same three chefs on stage, and finally get the chance to vote for their favorite. I must admit hearing “Chef Margaret’s here, hello chef, best of luck to Mac, it’s the mother-son team” from all corners of the waiting crowd makes me feel like I am the one about to be back on stage…. Nope…I am to be the wilberforce behind the curtain. The one who will keep the rest of the team calm and focused and make sure the water is boiling and no one misses a spec when putting the lobster on during plating.
image courtesy of harvestontheharbor.com
Now the flurry begins, we have less than an hour to get everything boiling-everything reheated-judges plates are photo plate-perfect and orchestrate the plating of another 200 plates. We were promised induction burners (a professional type of hot plate that has water boiling in 90 seconds). What we walk into is a row of butane gas portable burners, and no one has thought to put in fresh cans of butane….Obstacle #1. Mac and I think alike and at the last minute packed up one of our induction burners… Saved!
Ricotta gnudi, a delicate tiny Italian style dumpling (for lack of a better description), is to be cooked on site. We will have to hustle to make this happen on portable butane burners. Obstacle # 2-the Alto Sham aka hot box onsite is luke warm (barely). Its purpose is to hold hot food, but at 120 degrees. You could put a baby in it for a nap and still need a blanket…. Mac thinks fast…All the stainless bowls we brought for just in case we need them are put on top of the pots of “slowly boiling water”, and the lobster in brown butter is dumped in for a faster reheat. Meanwhile, the induction burner we brought along is boiling pot after pot for a “boiling pot Chinese fire drill”. Boil 1 swap it out, boil 1 swap it out….
The back stage area is a bit chaotic as three cooking teams try to work, and a half dozen culinary student helpers stand in the way with “deer in the headlight eyes”. I snap into executive chef mode and start assessing the space and working on a game plan so that when Mac in on stage charming the crowd, his food will be plated in order and go out as it should.
We love Melissa Bouchard, executive chef at Dimillos Floating Restaurant. She is the first chef up. Her team is working on plates, the dish is beautiful, but I know from experience that being the first on stage sucks. Mac is number two and we are now in control of our destiny and everything is going according to plan.
Bless the heart of the third chef, Kerry Alterio of Café Miranda. In all the chaos, he actually asked if we needed help. I’m thinking “that’s a switch”. At my last national competition, a southern chef stole my butane back ups and my power strip. My sous found them hidden behind a trash can….
So here we go. Dina will cook the gnudi, toss it gently (Ricotta gnudi is delicate as a cloud, it breaks easily but when it keeps itself together and makes it to the plate and then the lips in one piece, it is like eating something an angel kissed.) in the truffle cream sauce, and pass it on to the student who will be plating it. I’ll take chanterelle duty until a student sees the placement and takes it over. (Side note on chanterelle mushrooms- they are a highly sought after wild foraged species-currently not in season in Maine so these costly fungi came to us from the woods of Oregon. Full of pungent woodsy, earthy flavor-the chanterelle is the best flavor friend lobster can have.
Sandra will be on knuckle meat duty, cautiously placing two to three pieces on each tiny plate, and then I will follow the gnudi patrol with perfect claws, placed exactly atop the gnudi. Ifrah will bring up the rear with the chervil garnish. (Chervil-an underutilized herb-actually a member of the carrot family but one of my personal favorites). Then out go the plates.
We can hear Mac talking with Tom Martin, owner of Lucky Catch Lobster (he’s the MC and an excellent choice) as calmly as if they are sitting in a bar having a drink together. He gives a shout out to his brother and Dad who are in the audience (2 votes for sure) I sneak out to take a peak at the monitor. QVC training paid off well. Mac talks directly to Tom and when Tom turns his eye to the audience, so does Mac. Good job! I hear Tom ask Mac if his Mom, the Maine Lobster Chef of 2008, is in the audience. Mac quips “Nope, I got her out back working.”
As the last stack of 20 plates leaves the plating area, we sigh in unison that it’s done. We hear the audience give Mac a huge round of cheer and his lanky 6’5” presence pops back behind the curtain, all smiles. We join Melissa and her team on the sidelines to watch chef # 3 give his pitch.
Finally, the three chefs are called to the stage for awards.
MacKenzie Arrington—Maine Lobster Chef of 2012-Peoples Choice.
Okay-Now we all scramble back to clean up, dump trash, pack cars, carry dirty pans back down Commercial Street and an hour later Mac and Dina are elbow deep in the dish sink. And that is what culinary competition is all about!
***Tomorrow, be sure to check back here for MacKenzie Arrington’s winning Ricotta Gnudi recipe!!***