Monday, March 19, 2012
On Judging A Lobster Competition: Part I
I was recently invited by Shucks Maine Lobster to judge a food competition at the International Boston Seafood Show and it was a really fun experience. When I arrived, there was a production team setting up lights and cameras to chronicle the event. It was a little intimidating since I am usually behind the camera myself but when I realized that the real star was going to be the food I was totally at ease. This was the national competition where four chefs from throughout the U. S. A. would be competing to go onto the international round this summer and compete for a $5,000.00 prize. For seven hours we watched the chefs at work, took notes and tasted the dishes. We ended up eating four whole lobster dinners over the course of the day.
I was joined at the judges panel table by Carolyn Faye Fox (l) of the Improper Bostonian and NPR's quiz show Says You! and Jean Kerr (c) Editor-In-Chief of Northeast Flavor magazine. After reviewing the judging criteria and chef biographies, we were ready to begin.
First up was Chef David Quintana of Kobe's Kreations in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chef Quintana had spent some time studying with Chef Wylie Dufresne, the famous chef at WD50 in New York. I'd seen Chef Dufresne at Harvard last fall as part of their Cooking and Science series, where he lectured on his use of "meat glue" at his restaurant. As it turned out, Chef Quintana would be using the famous ingredient Activa GS, otherwise known as meat glue, in today's recipe.
His plate was quite ambitious, not only involving the meat glue but also a sous vide and a hickory smoker. The goal: A Deconstructed Lobster Roll. It was an interesting concept that really intrigued me. Instead of chopping up the lobster meat and mixing it with mayonnaise he would actually use the glue to form the meat from an entire lobster into, well, basically, a lobster hot dog. That would be placed into a thinly-sliced piece of bread lightly fried in butter and served atop a parsley aioli.
As the lobster meat wrapped in plastic was cooking in the sous vide, chef prepared the aioli. Again, I was impressed how he made this look almost exactly like a smoother textured lobster tomalley using blanched parsley in the mayo.
The prepared dish was placed under a glass globe infused with hickory smoke. Using another technological wonder, the mini smoker, and a plastic tube, chef was able to direct the smoke right into the globe much to the amazement on onlookers.
The plated dish was beautiful and the taste was very unusual and interesting. When you lifted the dome you could experience the waft of the rich hickory smoke that was reminiscent of Chef Grant Achatz's use of aroma in techo-emotional cooking. It really did bring back memories of lobster and clam bakes at the beach, those happy summertime, carefree childhood days. The hickory, however, did not really infuse itself into the taste of the dish. Brilliant idea.
As is often the case in competitions, Chef Quintana was the victim of time. He overcooked some of the rolls. Not able to use the more burned pieces, he had to cut the others in half, giving us half a roll instead of a full roll. Still, an impressive and creative recipe.
Next up was Chef David MacLennan of Columbus, Ohio's Latitude 41 Restaurant. His dish would be a trio: Lobster Pot Pie, Lobster Salad and Lobster Hot Dog. Again, inventive but requiring a bit less technology.
The lobster hot dog was created in a similar way to the first recipe. Here, the lobster meat was pureed with cream, egg whites and Old Bay Spice. The mixture was then wrapped in heavy duty plastic into the shape of mini hot dogs and dropped in boiling water for just a few minutes to set.
Shucks produces it's lobster meat in a very unique process that allows them to provide chefs with the fresh meat of a full lobster without the shell but fully intact in shape and size. Over the next few weeks, I'll be developing my own lobster recipe using the Shucks lobster meat so I won't give too much away but, suffice to say, I'll be showing the product and recipe in detail at that time. These chefs all seemed to love working with the product, however, and I can't wait to, either. I did discuss with the other judges how it was taking me a little time to adjust to seeing a full lobster without the shell. After spending every summer of my life on the southern coast of Maine, working at The Ogunquit Lobster Pound, and personally steaming more lobsters than I could ever count, it was a daunting sight.
The final plate. The Lobster Salad was a formed salad with avocado, blood orange, sun chokes, celery root, fava beans and peas, served with a citrus vinaigrette. Very nice.
Atop the Lobster Hot Dog was a celery and citrus aioli and fried onions. Also very nice. The mini rolls were made by taking dinner rolls and slicing off the ends to make tiny hot dog rolls, then, of course, lightly frying them in butter.
The Lobster Pot Pie was good but, again, chef was a victim of time, that thing which it often all comes down to in a contest. The pastry crust was undercooked and gummy. Still, an excellent attempt. It was clearly going to be a tough competition.
Stay tuned for Part II with two more recipes and the winner!