Just after the James Beard Foundation winners were announced last week, a different kind of food contest was underway, Altrusa’s Great Chili Chowder contest. The big chowder winner this year was Free Range Fish & Lobster whose entry “Grandma Gregory’s Lobster Stew” took home both Judges’ and the People’s Choice awards for the first time.
“We took it all,” said Joe Ray, president of the fish wholesaler, who along with his partner, Bill Denley, worked the cook-off and accepted the award.
The winning recipe has been passed down for more than 200 years in the Bill Denley family. In the 1790s version of farm-to-table, the original butter and the milk in the recipe came from Elizabeth Gregory’s garden. Of course, the lobster was local, and so plentiful she also used them to fertilize the garden.
While not a national competition, there was no shortage of ego at at this year’s chowder contest; Bill Denley says Free Range does not compete every year, because most of the participants are restaurants and thus customers or potential customers of his company.
Entrants are mostly restaurants, seafood distributors plus three senior residences — including the People’s Choice Chili Winner, The Park Danforth — and a caterer paid $100 to enter, plus donating the food, while tasters paid $23 dollars to try their chilis and chowders, raising around $5,000 for the local chapter of Altrusa, which powers literacy programs for young children in Portland. So the competition is for the most part friendly.
Free Range took the People’s Choice for chowder in 2010 and 2013, but came in second last year, and the judges selected a chowder from Ri Ra. Winning both this year is a coup.
The prize chowder, a 20-gallon lobster stew, was made with 40 pounds of lobster, half-and-half and cheddar cheese. Carrot and onion puree plus a bit of evaporated milk add sweetness, Denley said. He learned the recipe as a teenager from his great grandmother, Maude Estelle Savage Palmer, who lived to be 105. Palmer told him she remembered picking lobsters from under seaweed at the beach when the tide went out.
There is more sea lore in the family: Maude Estelle was named after a ship, the Maude Estelle, which grandfather, Captain Jeremiah Gregory lost in a storm off the coast of the Bahamas. Maine trivia lovers: Grandfather Gregory is also an inventor of the doughnut hole, as a way to make greasy cakes cook more evenly by eliminating the soggy undercooked middle.
in 2005, seven generations later, Denley, a lawyer who also owned lobster boat, and Ray, who worked in a fish market, bought Free Range out of bankruptcy. After the first troubled year, the pair gutted the Free Range building, invested in several hundred thousand dollars of equipment and got rid of the fry kitchen. Sales tripled; today the company ships more than 1 million pounds of seafood a year, plus another 1 million sold locally to restaurants and through the retail store.
Denley has had several successful businesses, including owning mortgage companies, served a stint as a State Senator in New Hampshire, and is currently the owner of a small hotel in Costa Rica. So on a typical morning, Ray is the one who gets up at six to bid for fish on the Portland, Bedford and Gloucester, Mass. fish exchanges; his men on the ground eyeball the fish and text him a score sheet that looks like a high school report card, then he bids for the catch digitally.
Ray also buys direct from the boats of about 15 Portland lobstermen, meeting them at the docks off his Commercial Street storage unit, where plastic totes of lobster are dumped into crates in chilled pools, often utilizing pumped in sea water.
While the problem of global warming pushing the crustaceans further north ranks as a major concern, Ray says the local lobster population has benefited from reduced number of cod, who “like vacuum cleaners on the bottom of the ocean” are the crustacean’s main predators. Once, years ago, he cut open a huge cod and it was full of baby lobsters.
“Don’t print that,” he adds, ““Or I’ll be out in a bar getting the teeth knocked out by a cod fisherman.” A boxer in his youth, Ray is only partly joking.
As the day-to-day operator, he is the one who has to negotiate price with the fishermen and they don’t always see eye-to-eye. But last week, Denley took over as chef at the chowder cook-off. “All I do at these shows,” Ray says, “is get bossed around.”
Grandma Gregory’s winning Lobster Stew
1 pound lobster, knuckles, claws, and tail
One quart of half and half
1 half can evaporated milk — 6 oz
Half carrot, one small yellow onion pureed
Ten ounces of fish stock (chicken in a pinch)
One oz cream sherry
.25 to One stick of butter
1 oz shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese