The recently-elusive sun sent its own “cheers to 30 years” for the 13,000 attendees at Chowderfest in Beach Haven Sunday, Sept. 30. Ask any given group as they were leaving what they enjoyed most, and they listed “the weather” as high up as their favorite chowder. But this shell-abration in many ways made LBI the “Chowder Capital of New Jersey.”
One family who came down from New York gave instructions as they were leaving on what not to miss: “Crunchy” the T-Rex and Blue Water Cafe’s “to-die-for” lobster bisque.
They were right. Chef Steve DiPietro’s bisque brought the grand championship back for the third year in a row to Blue Water Cafe in the dynamic “creative” chowder category. And the roar of the lifelike T-Rex carnivore captured the essence of all who love an all-you-can-eat competition.
“With beautiful weather, a record number of restaurants, enthusiastic crowds and passionate volunteers, the event thrilled anniversary crowds with many surprises,” summed up Lori Pepenella, chief executive officer of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, which presents the LBI Chowder Cook-Off Classic.
Crowd darlings were the exuberant chef team from Ireland, who as the first competitors from overseas made Chowderfest international.
Nancy’s Barn, from Ballyliffen, is renowned for its homemade food, especially the seafood chowder that last June won first place in the Great Chowder Cook-Off World in Newport, R.I.
The Irish team landed here to accommodations that included a warm welcome to use the kitchen at the Ship Bottom firehouse. There they made not only 250 gallons of creamy seafood-laden chowder, but Irish soda bread that should rightly go with it.
As with the other competitors, they started days in advance but much pot-tending was still to be done on the Taylor Avenue field all day Sunday.
Nancy’s Barn owner and chef Kieran Dueh Doherty talked about it even as he offered this reporter a bite of the cheesesteak that was “my breakfast” at 3 p.m.
“We’re having so much fun here. It’s fabulous,” Doherty said. “The people here are so friendly, they’re so welcoming. The reception that we received is mind-blowing. I’ve never experienced a welcome like it.
“The crowd is phenomenal,” he went on. “They’re crazy about our soda bread. My sister Edel made 2,000 soda breads, by hand. We made it like a seaweed black pepper bread and we used Irish butter and buttermilk to accompany the world-famous chowder.
“And my brother flew in from Australia and my little cousin came from Boston.” Bernard Harkin, another chef from Sally’s Barn in Ireland, wiped his hands and introduced himself as the man who was stirring the pot all day to keep it from burning.
They made 250 gallons “to play it safe,” Doherty said. Restaurants were advised to make at least 200 gallons – entrants don’t want to run out of samples; tasters can’t vote for them if they didn’t get a taste. And many years, that has happened.
Sally’s Barn took home second place in the creative category – Doherty had predicted a hopeful spot in the top three. It was the third time the crowd at the awards ceremony was treated to the sight and sound of the squad breaking into “the Irish football song” while waving their country’s flag. They had already won the “Rookie of the Year” award and “Most Enthusiastic.”
“Taking home some hardware,” Chowderfest Coordinator Todd Elassser congratulated. “I understand this is being broadcast to 10,000 people back in Ireland.”
The Woo Hoo captured the third highest number of votes from tasters in the creative tent with Clam Chowder Ice Cream. One well-dressed visitor proclaimed it “surprisingly good!” And it was.
“It’s corn, clams, honey, the heaviest cream you can get … and it’s awesome,” described sample server Barbara. “It’s the Woo Hoo – woo hoo!”
At the awards ceremony, Elsasser noted that an ice cream version of clam chowder “blew the category wide open.” He added, “That’s about as creative as you can get.”
The creative seafood category is relatively new, added in 2016. Anticipation also preceded the announcement of winners in the New England (white) and Manhattan (red) categories. Quite a few restaurants in the past have held bragging rights for years, and then that upset year came when a different restaurant took it away, to in turn relinquish the crown again down the road.
Winners for 2018 are: (New England): Howard’s Seafood Restaurant, grand champion; Chicken or the Egg, 2nd place; Country Kettle Chowda, 3rd place.
(Manhattan): Lefty’s Tavern; grand champion; Stefano’s Restaurant, 2nd place; Buckalew’s Restaurant & Tavern, 3rd place.
Howard’s had been the defending grand champ, winning in 2017, dropping to first-runner-up in 2016, and grand champ the three previous cook-offs. 2015 is the only year in Chowderfest history that the event was canceled, due to a weather emergency declared by then-Gov. Christie. (The festival is “rain or shine” and 30 years have produced a variety of hot, downright cold, chilly “chowder weather,” field-sopping rain, and on Sunday, perfect.)
Lefty’s had been a two-time first-runner-up in the red race before taking the top title last year. It live-streamed the awards ceremony on Facebook, letting fans back in Barnegat, and all over, watch as the winning announcement happened.
Blue Water Cafe also used social media to give thanks by the thousands, and to congratulate those closest to the kitchen: “Thank you to our awesome crew for another wild Chowderfest Weekend! Thanks to our Bisque Boys for cooking & heating lobster bisque all day in the sun – we couldn’t do it without you! Thank you all for voting Blue Water Cafe Creative Grand Champion for 3 years in a row!!”
The Chowderfest Committee extended a thank-you to all 19 hard-working restaurants that pleased and fed crowds throughout the day. In addition to the trophy winners, they were: Cuisine on the Green at Atlantis, Delaware Avenue Oyster House & Bar, La Bamba, Sunny Rae’s Kitchen, Bistro 14 Restaurant & Raw Bar, Black Whale Bar & Fish House, Ocean County College’s hospitality club, Polly’s Dock, Tuckers Tavern, and Wally’s.
Wally’s owner Mike Tomko was behind one of the more fired-up crews who were putting their smiles into the effort. “Everyone had fun,” Tomko said as the voting time neared. “To make 200 gallons in two days, figure that out, in a small restaurant, that’s a trick,” he said, “And then you want to allow everyone to have fun, because if everyone’s not having fun, then, you know, why do it?”
There were awards for the impressive booth backdrops, as well: Best Interpretation of the Theme: Country Kettle Chowda (whose founder John Maschal had brought the idea for the festival back from Rhode Island more than 30 years ago); Best Shore Motif, Black Whale Bar & Fish House; Most Creative Booth: Delaware Oyster House.
In addition, the 2018 grand champions received a special recognition award from Edible NJ magazine, which also presented the chamber of commerce with a special recognition in honor of the 30th anniversary.
Chowder for a Cause; Tony Luke’s Touching Tune
The closing ceremonies for this milestone event began with Tony Luke Jr., the cheesesteak restaurant entrepreneur and competitive Food Network star from South Philly who took the stage to thank all the restaurants for their extraordinary efforts. Before the event began he wished competitors good luck at each of their booths.
Luke also during the closing ceremonies sang a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” in honor of his oldest son, Tony III, who died of a heroin overdose at age 35.
In honor of the 30th anniversary, last year’s restaurants voted for a qualifying nonprofit to be the Chowder for A Cause Charity to benefit from a portion of net proceeds of this year’s event. David’s Dream & Believe Cancer Foundation was selected and has partnered with the chamber throughout the anniversary year. The event also serves as environmental nonprofit ReClam the Bay’s major fundraiser of the year, selling chowder caddies while educating attendees about the importance of shellfish in the local ecosystem.
This year’s Chowderfest presenting sponsors were Sysco, Barefoot Wine, The SandPaper/Beachcomber, Bud Light, Ritchie and Page, Westminster Bakers Co., Hackensack Meridian Health Southern Ocean Medical Center, DiFeo’s Auto Group, AtlantiCare, Fantasy Island Amusement Park, Atlantic States Group, Panzone’s, G Anderson Agency, Anderson Insurance Agency, Barlow GMC, Ocean County Board of Freeholders and NJ Division of Travel and Tourism and WJRZ- Beasley Media Group. Glenn Kalina from WJRZ FM served as master of ceremonies.
Additional support was provided by Buccaneer Motel, Potts Excavating Inc, Sally’s Seafood, the Borough of Beach Haven, Southwick’s Marina, Beach Haven police, Ship Bottom and Beach Haven volunteer fire companies and first aid squads, Thundering Surf and Murphy’s Market, the Chowderfest Committee, chamber of commerce staff and volunteers. Elsasser said there were 300 volunteers this year.
Chowderfest was created to promote tourism past the traditional Labor Day weekend. This year’s festival experience was kicked off by the Ocean County Emerald Society Pipes & Drums and the national anthem, sung by Hadley Magaziner.
Some VIP ticket-holders picked prime seats at the VIP Big Screen Beer Garden. After getting their fill of chowder, the crowd danced to live music all day from Ted Hammock and Jason Booth, The Pickles and The Impulsives.