Weekend Draws Thousands Into ‘Chowder Capital Of NJ’
Beach Haven — Chowderfest 2019 was a party for 13,506 people with the “lobsta” bisque flowing from a copper kettle along with 15 other creative and traditional chowders competing for the vote, plus bands and beer to top it off.
The 31st annual Chowder Cook-Off Oct. 6 was stirred by “perfect fall chowder weather, high-energy restaurants, enthusiastic crowds and passionate volunteers,” summed up the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s mandatory,” said one local woman about the fact that she attends every year.
So do the Philadelphia/Surf City couple Shawn and Donna Hawthorne, who had trouble making up their minds which in this year’s stepped-up “creative” category to vote for.
“That’s a hard category to choose between – La Bamba (poblano pepper-crab chowder) and Parker’s Garage & Oyster Saloon (smoked scallop-black truffle-leek) were very good, and who can forget The Woo Hoo’s clam chowder ice cream – awesome,” Donna described.
About that clam chowder ice cream – the savory-sweet stunner that claimed a win last year – due to its name, it was approached cautiously, then consumed. They ran out.
“We ran through 190 gallons of clam chowder ice cream,” a helper named John told tasters at 3:30 p.m., a half hour before the closing ceremony.
“People make a face when they hear what it is, and they try it and then they come back for more,” said The Woo Hoo co-owner Shaun Kilroy, whose wife, Megan, created the recipe. “We had people coming back again and again for more. We definitely want to do it again; I think next year we’ll mix it up and we might try something more quirky.”
There were tasty traditional-style chowders, too, such as the chunky potato-and-seafood-laden version carefully transported in iced-down form from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. Bread & Brine was this year’s out-of-area invitee.
Owner Alex Sze learned the weight of “a ton of chowder.” He was not exaggerating.
“I’ve been telling everybody I made a ton of chowder. It’s literally a ton of chowder; that’s how much 200 gallons of chowder is,” Sze said. “I didn’t know the amount of work that was involved, but this is a great event.”
Came From Where? From Coast to Coast
In its 31st year, Chowderfest has overflowed with what it was founded to do, extend the tourism season past Labor Day. Thirty years ago, we would not have seen a family in oversized clam hats pushing a bulldog in a stroller down the main street in October.
They were in good company – Chowderfest Weekend, which fills Saturday with a free Merchants Mart on the festival grounds, reaches across the country.
In 2019 it brought in chowderheads from California, Connecticut, Colorado, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine. Major cities such as San Diego, Savannah, Houston, New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia were also represented in the crowds that spent the day tasting chowder and enjoying the festival experience, said Lori Pepenella, CEO of the presenting Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce.
From New Jersey, 306 out of the state’s 565 municipalities were represented; “continuing to make LBI a culinary hub and the Chowder Capital of New Jersey,” Pepenella said.
The participating restaurants cooked a total of 2,880 gallons of chowder.
And the Votes Are In For 2019 Cook-Off Winners
At the award ceremony hosted by Dan Turi from the Beasley Media Group, event coordinator Todd Elsasser and the Chowderfest committee recognized the tremendous effort represented of red, white and creative chowders. Along with co-chairs Jillian Elsasser and Christopher Schwab, they presented 19 awards to:
New England – Grand Champion, The Chicken Or The Egg; second place, Hotel LBI; third place, Kubel’s Too.
Manhattan – Grand Champion, Lefty’s Tavern; second place, Shore Fire Grille, with the win dedicated to the memory of co-owner Timothy Kohlheim; third place, Bistro 14.
Creative Seafood – Grand Champion, Country Kettle Chowda; second place, La Bamba Mexican Restaurant; third place, Parker’s Garage & Oyster Saloon.
Rookie of the Year – Hotel LBI.
Other winners included Best Shore Motif, Country Kettle Chowda; Most Enthusiastic, Lefty’s Tavern; Most Creative Booth, La Bamba Mexican Restaurant.
Behind the Scenes, They’re All Winners
For Lefty’s of Barnegat, it was the third year in a row winning Grand Champion for their red chowder, whose smooth broth contained a little kick. Kick of what, we’ll never know. Chef Oscar Morera and owners the Saropoulos family don’t give away secrets.
“We can tell you the secret ingredient is love, and that’s all,” namesake “Lefty” Saropoulos said, smiling.
Speaking of love, think of Tim’s Tribe, as the crew for Shore Fire Grille named themselves in honor of late restaurant owner Timothy Kohlheim. They made sure Shore Fire Grille had an entry in the Cook-Off.
“We all came together to try and make it work for Tim,” said Doug Moore, behind the booth under the red tent. “Nobody here is staff today; it’s all friends, all volunteers. And the restaurant in Surf City is fully staffed today. People just loved Tim, and came together to make it happen.” He added an hour before votes were counted, “And if we can win today, it’s icing on the cake.”
Country Kettle Chowda’s “Lobsta” Bisque entry featured the Bay Village shop’s lobster offering, even though it was its New England chowder that helped launch the festival at the beginning.
Of the attention that lobster bisque was getting at its booth this year, “We’re loving it,” John Bell Maschal said. “We always want to promote our lobster bisque as it’s really been taking off in the last five or six years; we’re making more and more of it every year.
“It’s a great opportunity because there were too many whites, and they asked us to enter the creative category, so we jumped at the chance.”
The Chicken or the Egg’s’s crowning in the white category was a reprise of its Grand Prize from 2016, and it has collected many awards since first entering in 1991.
Much technique went to work the week before Chowderfest, and right up to the time a taster picked up a 2-ounce souffle cup to sample.
Behind the scenes at the booth of Cuisine on the Green at Atlantis, culinary instructor Bruce Van Sickle showed us how the team handled transporting their seafood chowder from the restaurant of the Ocean County Center for Culinary Arts, in Little Egg Harbor. The adult students had learned “batch cooking” at the school.
The finished chowder had been flash-chilled and then vacuum sealed in smaller bags that were kept warm at the festival in a barrel of heated water. The yet-to-be served portions were never exposed to the air until they were needed, and there was no scorching of a big pot.
Overall, the voting was close between some entries, and everybody had their favorites.
The Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce concluded: “A special thank-you to all the hard working restaurants that pleased and fed crowds throughout the day: Kubel’s Too, Chicken or the Egg, Hotel LBI, Ocean County College Hospitality Program with booth design from Stockton University, Bread & Brine, Lefty’s Tavern, Mainland Kitchen & Pub, Cluck’n Crabs, Shore Fire Grille, Bistro 14, Black Whale Bar & Fish House, Country Kettle Chowda, La Bamba, The Woo Hoo, Cuisine on the Green at Atlantis, and Parker’s Garage & Oyster Saloon.”
The chamber issued “a sincere thank-you to all the Oct. 5 Merchants Mart vendors, all first responders, especially Great Bay EMS, Barnegat Light First Aid Squad and Stafford Volunteer Fire Co. and their mascot, Sparky, for being part of the family activities on Saturday.
“The chamber also thanks the fantastic band lineup, the Star Spangled Banner performed by Hadley Magaziner from the Tide Table Group and the outstanding children’s entertainment. Thank you to the 17 Chowder Caddy competitors and congratulations to the Beisel Family of Exeter, Pa.”
Net proceeds of this event fund ongoing business programs, operate the region’s official visitor center, support local projects and assist with grant funding and destination marketing campaigns throughout the year.
The Chowderfest committee has already begun plans for a spectacular 32nd Chowderfest weekend taking place on Oct. 3 and 4, 2020.
— Maria Scandale