LEWISTON — Chefs, restaurateurs and hungry foodies filled the Ramada convention center Monday night for the Central Maine Chapter of the American Culinary Federation's Chef of the Year awards and dinner.
Prior to the awards, chefs' jackets scrambled behind long tables, which flanked the space like a live cooking competition show. Flames leapt from sauté pans as Craig Linke quickly broke down legs of lamb for steak.
With about 250 guests in attendance and 20 area restaurants cooking, the room quickly filled with the sights and smells of a culinary free-for-all. Braised short ribs of beef with demi-glace were served beside sushi. Pork steamship accented with roasted mango salsa was followed by chocolate crepes with Bavarian mocha cream.
"We're trying to make it a fun, fun night," said Randy Smith, vice president of the ACF chapter, chairman of the dinner and executive chef for the evening. "We tried to pick some of the best of the best restaurants."
Smith said that local jazz band Three Point Trio played dinner music, with more evening entertainment provided by comedian George Hamm.
Smith sees the ACF awards and dinner as great exposure for the organization — one that recently has been seeing steady increases in membership.
Determined to make this event the biggest culinary celebration in Central Maine, Smith is already looking forward to next year, when he plans to utilize more space at the convention center and possibly add a martini bar.
Addressing scholarships, Smith said, "We're going to give six to seven thousand dollars away — and the community's never heard of us."
Chapter President Dan Caron said the ACF has made a bit of a comeback recently, citing three chapters in Maine, with 100 members in Central Maine.
Caron, locally well-known for his work with The Green Ladle, showed off sauté pans that replaced traditional plaques for award recipients. "It's more fitting; we're all chefs," Caron said.
Two scholarships were awarded in memory of Roger Ouellette, a chef and longtime member and president of the ACF in Maine, which he helped establish. The Ouellette family has dedicated $15,000 in scholarship funds for students of the culinary arts.
Scholarships of $1,000 were awarded to Alex Wilson, Kristianna Benoit, Angela Butler, Marc Oshansky, Kylie Morris, Jessica Henson and Leay Goldsberry.
Awards were presented for Food Service Director of the Year, Hospitality Person of the Year, Pastry Chef of the Year, Junior Chef of the Year and Chef of the Year.
Kim Austin, Food Service Director from Lewiston High School and national award winner of the Wiley Achievement Award, won Food Service Director of the Year.
Richard Kelly was awarded Hospitality Person of the Year, a category that was open to all aspects of the food service and hospitality industries.
Dara Reimers, owner of The Bread Shack, coach of the United States Baking Team and award-winning baker, took home Pastry Chef of the Year.
Junior Chef of the Year, Kristianna Benoit, a senior at Lewiston High School, is already at home in her new job at Fishbones. She is fifth in her class and was the team captain for ProStart. Her team won the state championship.
"I'm honored, really," Benoit said. Recalling a favorite quote, Benoit said, "Leaders do not create followers — they create leaders."
With a maturity and confidence beyond her years, Benoit spoke warmly of Chef Caron and others who have helped her in the ACF. "The ACF has grown. I'm really proud to be a part of it and have the ability for this kind of networking."
Ken Blais of Rolly's Diner took top honors of the evening, winning Chef of the Year. Blais, a chef for 32 years, 19 of which have been at the Auburn staple, has been a fixture at many charity functions, including the March of Dimes Signature Chef's Auction, Chili and Chowder Challenge, Hospitality Golf Tournament, Relay for Life, The Dempsey Challenge, Little League, the Boys and Girls Clubs and many more.
"It's an honor," Blais said. "I'm shocked and humbled to be singled out in a room full of great chefs."