There’s more than one way to cook a steak, as was clearly evidenced at the inaugural Eastern Maine Chef Challenge, an Iron Chef-style competition held at Eastern Maine Community College Friday night. Three chefs – all EMCC culinary program alums – put pan to fire and tastebuds to the test, in a fast-paced sprint to see who could come up with the most creative, attractive and delicious dish. Yours truly was asked to be one of the judges, and along with Todd Simcox from WABI-TV, Lou Kiefer of the Bar Harbor Inn and auction winner judge Ashley Robinson, we ate some seriously tasty grub that night.
The competitors were Megan Woodbury, chef at Ipanema Bar & Grill and the Reverend Noble Pub in Bangor; Jason Payne, an in-flight personal chef at Bangor International Airport; and Laurie Turner, chef at Pairings in Winterport. After three rounds, in which the chefs and their assembled two-person teams were tasked with coming up with a dish from the ingredients available to them, the winner by judge’s choice was Woodbury’s red team, which also consisted of Brett Settle, co-owner of Giacomo’s in downtown Bangor, and Hillary Herrick, a 2011 graduate of EMCC’s culinary arts program and the restaurant and food service management program who works as a cook at a county penitentiary.
All told, we judges ate nine courses – nine! – and had to exercise a great deal of willpower in order to not eat the array of fabulous appetizers the EMCC students prepared in the cocktail hour before the competition. Nine courses requires a good amount of room in one’s stomach, let me tell you. The secret ingredient, revealed just before the competition began, was good old-fashioned Maine Moxie. I myself am a big fan of Moxie, though Simcox says he can’t stand it. It’s an acquired taste, and it certainly posed a challenge to the chefs.
The first round was all salads, with Turner coming up with a poached chicken cutlet paired with a bright pepper and tomato salad, in a Moxie vinaigrette. Woodbury offered bacon-wrapped shrimp on a bed of spinach, and Payne created a beef tenderloin salad. For course two, Woodbury’s spicy, savory steak, scallion, bacon, kale and fingerling potato hash was the standout, while Turner’s delicate poached lobster over homemade pasta was visually attractive, and Payne’s steak three ways put an elegant twist on steak and potatoes.
The final round was mostly desserts, with Turner’s gorgeous fried rice pudding balls paired with blood orange and papaya salad and chocolate-chili tuile cookie, and Woodbury’s beautifully prepared Maine blueberry and Moxie tart. Payne stuck with the entrees, and served up a Dijon creme chicken with asparagus. In the end, Woodbury’s sophisticated take on comfort food reigned supreme. In all, it was an incredibly well-produced, fun event that I was very pleased to take part in. And I was glad I parked my car a half-mile away, after eating all that delicious food.