'Chowdafest' hooks throng with warm, wild soups
Threatened snow and sleet never really materialized Saturday, but as rain fell and temperatures barely inched above freezing, the 3rd annual Chowdafest helped people warm up from the inside out.
"It's winter time. You want to take the edge off. A good bowl of soup will do that," said Jim Keenan, the event's chairman and described by other organizers as the "chief chowdahead."
An estimated crowd of more than 1,500 people sampled 26 different chowders entered in three categories of competition at the event's new venue, Bedford Middle School. Chowdafest started at the Unitarian Church in 2009 and continued there for two years, "but we outgrew our walls," Keenan said. Last year's two-day event was pared to one this year, he said.
Although renowned chef and author Michel Nischan was spotted in the crowd there were no professional judges. The public voted to determine the winners and runners up in each of the three categories: Classic New England Clam Chowder, Creative Chowder, and Soups and Bisques.
The winner in the Classic category was the Mansion Clam House in Westport; in the Creative category, top honors went to Southport Brewing Co. in Fairfield, and in the Soups and Bisques competition, Nicholas Roberts Gourmet Bistro was the winner for its lobster bisque.
Among the 26 overall entries, eight were classic chowders. "When you walk in you get a spoon and a ballot, and you slurp down (52) ounces of decadence," Keenan said, referring to the two-ounce sampling cups available for each selection.
Most attendees had a personal favorite, like Clemmie Fellowes, 12, of Weston. "I liked MacKenzie's (classic chowder) and the smoked chicarino soup. The one I definitely liked the best was the Italian Corner Deli (classic chowder)," Clemmie said.
"My favorite soup is this one," said Gracie Shaw Rothberg, 4, of Brooklyn, N.Y., pointing to MacKenzie's. Gracie's twin brother Elias said he didn't like any of the chowders, but he loved the oyster crackers. The children were visiting their grandmother in Wilton.
Eight-year-old Graham Smith of Fairfield was passionate about his choice. "He usually prefers cheeseburgers, but he thought River House's seafood chowder was excellent. He asked if he could have seconds," said Robert Smith, Graham's father. As if on cue Graham appeared and enthusiastically proclaimed to his father, "That's the best chowder ever," before getting back in line for thirds.
Others were less decisive.
"All the soups are so good that it's hard to discern which one we like better. We're doing the best we can. They are all almost uniformly delightful," said Milt Meinck of Fairfield. Ultimately, he voted for the classic chowder made by the Restaurant at Rowayton, as did Judy Phillips of Norwalk.
"The event is fabulous, it's relevant to the cause and the food is amazing," said Phillips, who attended with her husband Derek and children Chase and Sawyer, 4-year-old twins.
The cause Phillips spoke of is the Connecticut Food Bank. Those who brought non-perishable items or made donations to the food bank paid a reduced admission fee.
Keenan said last year's Chowdafest raised enough food and money for the Connecticut Food Bank to fund 15,000 meals. "There is a great need and the need continues to grow," said Rick Reichert, the food bank's director of philanthropy.
"It would be nice to win but I'm here to participate and to be able to help the Connecticut Food Bank," said Rigo Lino, owner and executive chef of Mansion Clam House in Westport. Lino has entered all three year Chowdafests. This year he had two entries: a Classic New England and a Rhode Island Clam Chowder. Lino made 20 gallons each of his entries.
Most chefs made about 15 gallons of each of their recipes, which included a Guinness and Chorizo Clam Chowder, Sicilian Sausage and Clam Chowder, Smoked Chicarina Soup, Roasted Cauliflower Soup., Mexican Meatball Soup, Asparagus Soup and Lobster Bisque.
David Rutigliano, owner and head chef of SBC in Southport and one two defending champions from last year, concocted one of the more unusual offerings. "This soup tastes like a BLT sandwich. It's the ultimate comfort food. It's like someone reached out and gave you a hug," Rutigliano said.
"I loved that BLT chowder. That's the one that stands out," said Viringina Gesh of Fairfield. "There are two ways to look at this competition. You can make a soup that has good flavors and try to win or you can make something that's super creative and show people you think outside the box," said Rutigliano, whose second entry was a shrimp, corn and poblano chowder.
Each judge had their own style for tasting and voting, some taking the task quite seriously. While some sampled one entry at a time, others collected a half dozen or so at a time and sat at a table savoring each spoonful. Phillips wrote comments on her ballot as she tried each entry.
Ethan Parker, 10, of Westport devised a scoring system that he, his father Andrew and sister Daphne, 7, employed to choose their favorites. And while his system was meant to assign a number between one and 10 to each sample, Ethan came up with a definitive winner, giving the Buffalo Chicken Soup made by Liquid Lunch of Shelton and Milford a score of 35.
Another crowd-pleaser was the Sweet Potato Clam Chowder made by the Ginger Man of Norwalk. "It was smoky and creamy. If they had a big pot of it I'd take it home right now," said T.J. Roberts of Wilton, who came with his wife Morgan and children, Soliel, 2½, and 6-month-old son Kingston. Morgan Roberts said Soliel loved the unusual chowder "and she doesn't eat anything."
Instead of the crystal trophies of the past, the Chowdafest committee commissioned life-sized football helmet trophies for winners of the competition and smaller replicas for the runners-up. "We're the Soup-R Bowl of chowder and soup competitions," Keenan said.
Classic New England Clam Chowder -- first, Mansion Clam House, Westport; second, MacKenzie's, Fairfield, and third, Old Post Tavern, Fairfield
Creative Chowders -- Southport Brewing Co., Fairfield (shrimp, corn and poblano chowder); second, Ginger Man, Norwalk (sweet potato clam chowder), and third, River House, Westport (seafood chowder)
Soups and Bisques -- first, Nicholas Roberts Gourment Bistro, Norwalk (lobster bisque); second, Liquid Lunch, Shelton and Milford (buffalo chicken soup), and third, Soup Alley, Norwalk and Wilton (El Queso Grande)