By James Lomuscio
UPDATE The creeping traffic to the entrance at Westport’s Sherwood Island State Park today seemed to rival Whitestone Bridge toll booth jams on Thanksgiving. So too did the back up along I-95 to Exit 18.
Pike Place Chowder of Seattle, Washington was a popular stop today for Chowdafest guests at Westport’s Sherwood Island State Park. It took first place in last year’s New England chowder category. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
The 10th annual Chowdafest, the brainchild of pitchman Jim Keenan that began humbly at the Unitarian Church in 2007 proved a major regional draw.
In between serving up small cups of bacon flavored tofu chowder in the event’s vegetarian competition, Gus Christman III, chef at The Harvest at Railroad Place, could not believe the turnout.
“They said they sold 10,000 tickets, and they expected another 2,000 at the door,” Christman said, wondering if that estimate were conservative. “I hear 95 is backed up all the way to Norwalk.”
All of the park’s lots from West Beach to Each Beach were near capacity.
As he walked with his family from West Beach to East Beach where the festival was underway, David Fisher of Ridgefield said attendance seemed twice that of last year,
“I think they are going to run out of chowder,” he said about the 40 restaurants set up in tents and ladling out samples.
He wasn’t too far off about the event that began at 11 a.m. and ran through 3 p.m.
Around 1 p.m. Chef’s Table of Fairfield had posted a sign, “Out of gumbo. On the way.”
Everyone in attendance was a judge. At the gate, each had been given a spoon, a ballot, and pencil to judge the best chowder in five categories: New England clam chowder; traditional clam chowder; creative chowder; soup and bisque; and vegetarian.
There was a huge traffic backup today as guests headed for Chowdafest at Westport’s Sherwood Island State Park. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
Not only did the $20 entrance fee for adults, $5 for children ages 6 through 12, allow them a sample to judge, but to “enjoy unlimited sampling,” said Keenan. Ballot boxes had been set up in the park.
The restaurant 250 Market of Portsmouth, N.H. came in second place last year for best New England clam chowder, ironically bowing to Pike Place Chowder of Seattle, Washington. Chef Brandon Marche said this year 250 Market, listed first on the ballot, was determined to take first prize.
“We’re number one on the ballot and number one on the palate,” he said.
Despite his efforts, however, Pike Place was named best classic New England chowder for the third year in a row.
Chef John Fox of Crabby Al’s of Thomaston put his own spin on Manhattan clam chowder, hoping to give his restaurant a shot in the creative category.
“It’s not really Manhattan; it’s unusual,” he said about his high-test clam mix boosted by cayenne pepper, Tabasco and other spices.
Harvest’s Christman said his tofu bacon chowder gave him an advantage in the vegetarian competition.
“You know, ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter?’ I can’t believe it’s not meat,” he said.
With an hour-and-a-half to go, Steve Carpentieri, owner of Dunville’s in Westport, said his team had 12 gallons of Rhode Island clam chowder left out of the 60 brought.
“It’s perfect chowder weather,” he said, noting the clear, crisp skies and temperatures in the mid-60s helped draw record crowds.
“This is the busiest it’s ever been,” he added, saying Dunville’s has participated since Chowdafest first began. At the end of the day, Dunville’s was named first place winner in the traditional clam chowder category.
As she prepared to leave, Diana Thomson of Fairfield said this was the third year at Chowdafest and the first time she did not sample all of the offerings.
“This year I only sampled a third,” she said, adding that the event had become too crowded and a bit unwieldy, “and they ran out of water and coffee.”
“Still, I think it’s a wonderful event,” she said.
The list of winners announced late today:
Classic New England Clam Chowder:
1st: Pike Place Chowder – Seattle WA
2nd: B.R.Y.A.C – Bridgeport
3rd: Sedona Taphouse – Norwalk
Traditional Clam Chowder:
1st: Dunville’s (Rhode Island) – Westport
2nd: Crave 52 (Rhode Island) – Fairfield
3rd: Donahue’s Clam Castle (Rhode Island) – Madison
1st: Our House Bistro – Winooski VT – Fried Seafood & Sweet Potato Chowder
2nd: Sam The Clam Pub and Grub – Plantsville – Caribbean Clam Chowder
3rd: Hub & Spoke – Bridgeport – Smoked Chicken & Corn Chowder
1st: Crab Shell – Stamford – Lobster Bisque
2nd: Geronimo – Fairfield – Chicken Tortilla Soup
3rd: J. Timothy’s Taverne – Plainville – Cheddar & Ale Soup
1st: Old Post Tavern – Fairfield – Truffle Mushroom Bisque
2nd: Harvest Wine Bar – Westport – Smoked Corn & Squash Chowder
3rd: Harbor Harvest – Norwalk – Zucchini Blossom Bisque
This story has been updated with the winners.