There’s a young chef in Boothbay Harbor some are calling a prodigy.
Nathaniel Adam, the executive sous chef at the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, took the coveted Judges’ Choice Award at the ever-popular Claw Down lobster bite competition Sept. 14.
Pitted against 10 other local chefs, Adam wowed the four judges with his combination of butter poached lobster with sweet corn and candied thyme brown butter emulsion, a crispy sea salt tuile, and a puff of vanilla tarragon seafoam with a sprinkling of red tobiko.
Being a blind tasting, the judges had no idea whose lobster bites they were sampling, and Adam drew the short straw for his place in the line. His would be the first taste, which is considered a drawback in a competition like this one. With 10 other lobster-y bites to follow, the first one often recedes to the back of the mind.
But Adam’s bite remained in the forefront of the judges’ minds throughout, and in the end was declared the best.
The judges were not simply food lovers who know something is good when they taste it. Chris Papagni is a former executive vice president of the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Arlin Smith earned a bachelor’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America and ico-owns three highly regarded restaurants in Portland. Pamela Laskey owns Maine Foodie Tours, and won the 2017 Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year Award for Maine. And Diane Hudson is a food and features writer and photographer in Portland.
All four have been in the business of food longer than Adam has been alive.
It might surprise you to learn that, with almost nine years’ experience in restaurant kitchens from southwest Florida to Boothbay Harbor, and now overseeing 22 employees in the large kitchen that serves both Paul’s Steak House and Grille 19, Adam is only 22.
Laskey had this to say of Adam and his lobster bite: “Nathaniel's dish was the first one we judged. We were all very excited by the unique combination of ingredients and presentation. I recall the sweet corn and sea salt tuile offering a great balance of flavors, as well as the butter poached lobster accented by the red tobiko. The foam just topped off the presentation and it eked out its closest competitor.
“Needless to say, we were all so surprised when we met Nathaniel, to see how young and self-taught he is. What a natural talent!”
Born in Detroit and raised in Bonita Springs, Florida, Adam has learned his trade from hands-on experience and books, never having received formal training. He started cooking when he was very young, to help his single mother and three brothers. Since then, most of his experience has been in country club kitchens.
“I went from graduating from high school, straight into it,” he said. “I read the right books and invested a lot of time.” At 18, he was hired as a sous chef in an Italian restaurant in Bonita Springs.
“I’ve worked for some very good chefs who’ve helped me come to where I am today. It really doesn’t matter how much experience you have – what matters is having the right experience.”
The chef said he put a lot of thought into his dish at Claw Down. “I used traditional techniques and flavors that go with lobster. Tradition is important to me, and vanilla and tarragon are traditional flavors to pair with lobster.”
Adam is something of a scientist in the kitchen, too. His vanilla tarragon seafoam was made using a scientific trick. “I researched molecular gastronomy,” he said. Molecular gastronomy blends physics and chemistry to transform the tastes and textures of food. “You can actually make your own caviar and foams. Science is cool. I love science.”
Boothbay Harbor Country Club Executive Chef George Schimert spoke of his young protegé in glowing terms. “I’ve been a chef for over 40 years, and with all the young talent I’ve worked with, Nathaniel is the top one. He’s not afraid to fail. He’s fearless, and he inspires people to do their best. Imagine what he’ll be like in 10 years.”
Adam said his main goal is to find the best ingredients and treat them with the proper technique. “I try to get the best flavor and keep the integrity of the ingredient without breaking it down. I’m always trying to give people something they haven’t had before, and do something I haven’t done before.
“This is my life. I dedicate everything to it. Even when I’m not here I’m constantly thinking about food, and my girlfriend is always on my back about it. She’s awesome.” His girlfriend, Megan Conway, works at Grille 19.
“This all came from me really wanting it,” Adam said. “I just took it slow, and I’m a self-reflector, so I look, every day, at what I can change, and what I can fix, and how I can do better.”
Adam will be competing with other chefs from all over Maine, including The Thistle Inn’s Dick Reid, who won the People’s Choice Award at Claw Down, at the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year competition at Harvest on the Harbor in Portland on Oct. 20. The event will take place at 58 Fore St. beginning at noon.