Chowder is almost a rite of passage on the East Coast, a time-honored food that incites passion and tradition in people. Nowhere is that more evident than at the Newport Chowder Festival held in Rhode Island every June. The pinnacle of chowder celebration, you'll find cheerleaders chanting "Go Connecticut chowder!" and doing acrobatic moves, clam mascots, the Chowdahead Club, and tons of enthusiastic eaters and fans. The cook-off is a competition that's been going strong for 30 years and doesn't seem to be losing momentum.
The true style of chowder is often debated: Some claim that it should be thick and creamy (New England-style), thin and briny, or tomato-based (Manhattan-style). What's not debated is that it's a chunky seafood soup and it's delicous. Clam chowder is the most famous of them all, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for new and exciting concoctions.
The Chowder Fest covers this contention by placing participants in three different chowder categories: Clam, Seafood, and Creative, with a winner picked for each one. No matter what type of chowder is being made, there are some secrets to success that overlap. We asked some of the competitors and winners of this year's cook-off what they think is the key to the perfect chowder (and snagged a couple recipes). Check out their responses below and let us know if you have any tips of your own!
1. Kevin Thiele, One Bellevue at Hotel Viking, Newport, R.I.
"You need patience because it's a long process." Thiele says that the quality of the ingredients and using just the right amount matters. "You need to make the right consistency. It's kind of an art." He uses a smoked applewood bacon that adds a smokiness to the dish and sherry wine which he says gives it a touch of sweetness.
2. Michael McGowan, Michaels Seafood, Caroline Beach, N.C.
"You need consistency and love." He adds clams, crab meat, scallops, vegetables, potatoes, spices, and herbs to his winning recipe (that he declined to share). He also recommends adding a dash of hot sauce on top for good heat and flavor. His favorite brand? Iguana Gold hot sauce.
Winner of the Seafood Category three years in a row and now in the Hall of Fame
3. Rob DeLuise, The Mooring Kitchen & Bar, Newport, R.I.
"It's all about creativity. People only think about clams and potatoes, but it's getting something different and finding flavors that really work." He skips the clams and instead puts in celery, onions, rock crab and French brie in his winning recipe. Oh that's right, he won the Creative category this year. What does he say to the others? "They can keep their clams."
4. Jon Cambria, Castle Hill Inn and Resort, Newport, R.I.
"Keep it simple. Try to make the seafood scream, use local seafood, and use the juice from the seafood to make the broth." He thickened his with potatoes instead of a roux and opted out of the milk and cream found in most New England-style chowders.
5. Kevin Gaudreau, The Pier Restaurant, Newport, R.I.
"Keep stirring, don't let it burn, and don't rush it — time is everything." He also adds dried dill to his clam chowder and then finishes it with fresh dill. One last tip? "When you serve it, serve it to people when they're hungry — that's the real secret."