George

It’s become one of our favorite events of the year: the Maine Restaurant Association’s annual awards banquet.

Imagine wandering the room during the pre-dinner reception, eating amazing appetizers from some of the state’s best restaurants and chefs, including the new chef at The Nonantum Resort, a spectacular place on the water in Kennebunkport, and the chefs at the Harraseeket in Freeport — one of our favorites.

Last year, Linda and I ate far too many appetizers and couldn’t eat much of the wonderful dinner served later in the evening. So this year we (OK, she) did a better job of just nibbling the appetizers. But you can’t really blame me for pigging out on braised rabbit empanada, or the lobster and duck egg gnocchi with leaks and king trumpet mushrooms. Yummy!

The event is held at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland, so we reserved a room for the night there. This is our home away from home in the greater Portland area, centrally located so we can walk to many venues, with great rooms and a super friendly staff (including Richard who checked us in). It’s hard to beat the view out over the harbor from our room on the eighth floor.

We’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the restaurant industry, so it was a lot of fun to catch up with them that night. We were very pleased when Chef Josh Berry won the Chef of the Year award. Josh is the chef at Union Restaurant in the wonderful Press Hotel in Portland. We wrote about Chef Berry, Union and the Press Hotel last year.

The event features great videos about each award winner, and you can now see them on the website of the Maine Restaurant Association.

The next day we attended the association’s expo, focused on the restaurant industry with booths by food services and suppliers (yep, more wonderful things to eat) and all others who serve the industry.

It was great to see our friends from Caprara Food Service in Winthrop, and again, a lot of people we’ve met and written about, including Phil Wilbur of Hurricane Deli and Soups in Greene. Phil’s delicious soups are now served by many restaurants.

Maine is blessed with 3,000 restaurants employing 62,000 people — a critical part of our economy. It’s an industry blessed with friendly people and awesome food. I’m not sure if Linda and I will get to all of these places for our travel column, but we’ll try!

Linda

Each year the Maine Restaurant Association holds its Annual Awards Banquet to honor special people in their industry. It is quite an event, starting with appetizers prepared by a handful of great chefs. I carefully chose three small appetizers that would still allow me to enjoy the dinner.

We were familiar with all the restaurants that were featured, and know that they all serve great food. I imagine it is a bit of pressure serving food to your peers who know a whole lot about food. Each bite I sampled was memorable: a mini taco, a flaky empanada and the lobster appetizer George mentioned.

Chefs from 95 Ocean, at the Nonantum Resort, produced that incredible lobster and mushroom appetizer. We were happy to reconnect with Jean Gannet Marvin, the owner, and she introduced us to the “New Steve” who arrived after our visit last year. Chef Steve Sicinski is succeeding Chef Steve True, and if this one bite is an indication of the food, we need to get to Kennebunkport soon.

We visited with people from Bake’n Joy in Massachusetts who were seated at our table. Their company supplies goods to be baked off by restaurants, as well as Boston Coffecakes. (We got to sample their macaroons, coffeecake and muffins the next morning at the expo.)

The dinner menu was inspired by a winning entry from young students of Maine Pro Start’s champion team, from Lincoln. One of the things I enjoy most at this event is learning about what is going on in the industry. Pro Start is a two-year curriculum for culinary students to learn management skills in the food industry. The Maine Restaurant Association is looking toward the future, and currently has 12 schools participating.

Seared scallops with arugula, served with a blueberry vinaigrette was a lovely way to begin. The entree of herb-crusted beef filet and bacon-chive potato croquette impressed me. A perfectly cooked entree for 200-300 people seems like an impossible task, but they did it.

Learning more about the awards recipients is always fun. Top-notch videos portray the winners in a lively way. Johnathan West, who we met last year, won Restauranteur of the Year for Jonathon’s in Ogunquit.

North Center Performance Foodservice won for Allied Member of the Year. Anthony Bussiere, their corporate executive chef, prepared a delicious grilled Harissa crusted sirloin over a couscous salad the next day at the expo.

The expo is held at the Cross Center and features innumerable food products, producers and connections for the food industry. And of course, the food is wonderful.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed by town in the “Best of Maine” section.