By Siobhan Crise
8:55 AM EST, January 30, 2013
Feb. 3, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Webster Bank Arena, 600 Main St., Bridgeport
In what's being billed as the biggest culinary event in Connecticut, Chowdafest is taking over the Webster Bank Arena on February 3. That's no mean feat for a soup contest that started off in a Westport church hall a few short years ago.
Some 450 people showed up to the first event in 2008; more than 10,000 soup-lovers are expected to attend the competition in Bridgeport this Super Bowl Sunday.
"It's grown so much," says Robert Troilo, chef and owner of Nicholas Roberts Gourmet Bistro in Norwalk, who reckons Chowdafest is now the premier chowder competition in the country. "I don't know anything else out there to this level. It's just a great event."
So how did a Fairfield County food contest get so wildly popular that an estimated 2,000 people were turned away from the last year's event because of a shortage of parking?
The success says something about the quintessential New England concoction itself: people get passionate about chowder. Nothing speaks of comfort and feeling good like chowder, says Jane Cloutier, who has attended every Chowdafest. It's a constant topic of conversation among her group of friends, says the Stamford resident. "We're chowder-loving ladies."
Chefs too take enormous pride in their clam chowders and are willing to pit themselves against other professionals to prove their soup-making chops. Take James Martell, chef at On The Rocks restaurant in East Haddam, who will cook at Chowdafest for the first time this year, having previously taken top honors in Mystic and East Haddam contests. Competitions are "just something I really enjoy doing," says Martell, who calls his New England chowder "an exceptional blend of everything." New England purists favor a clam chowder that's creamy, featuring potatoes, bacon, onion and, of course, clams. Manhattan clam chowder forsakes the cream for tomatoes, while the less common Rhode Island version has a clear broth.
This year around 25 restaurants are participating in the competition, by organizer invitation only, proffering a total of 28 soups in three categories: classic New England clam chowder, creative chowder and soups/bisques. Each contest-goer gets to taste every item and every ballot counts equally.
The format of the competition makes it appealing to everyone from fervent food bloggers to small kids. "We started going as a family and we still do," says chowder fan Cloutier. "It's a wonderful family event. You see people of all ages." The price helps too: adults pay $10, kids $5 and those aged five and under get in free.
The fact that the event supports the Connecticut Food Bank appeals to competition-goers and helps get the chefs on board. Attendees are encouraged to bring one non-perishable food item for donation and each restaurant cuts a $100 check to the nonprofit to enter the contest.
The Connecticut Food Bank "is a really good cause," says chef Troilo of Nicholas Roberts, who placed first in the soups and bisques category in 2011 for his lobster bisque. Since its inception Chowdafest has raised enough to fund 40,000 meals.
It's no accident that the event is scheduled at a cold time of year when there's not a whole lot else on the social calendar. The choice of chowder as the event's centerpiece, the Connecticut Food Bank link, and the event's format are no chance decisions either.
Behind the scenes there's a maestro coordinating the whole show, who creates the website, charms the sponsors, and even dons the Chowdafest mascot costume when required: meet Jim Keenan.
Keenan, 52, got the idea after chancing upon a chowder competition in coastal Maine a decade ago. As a longtime member of the Unitarian Church in Westport, a community with an emphasis on outreach and service, he decided in 2008 to help the food bank and give local restaurants a much-needed fillip at the same time. And so Chowdafest was born. The Wilton native says he devised the original church-hall gathering always with a view to growing the event — a lot.
As Chowdafest has expanded, self-confessed "chowdahead" Keenan has tinkered with the format and timing of the event. Originally the contest took place over two days at Thanksgiving; the past two years at a Westport middle school it has been held on Super Bowl weekend. The first year there were two categories for soup and chowder, and Stew Leonards took part; now it's restaurant professionals only and three category titles are up for grabs. This year all the soups will be graded on a points system for the first time. The Chef Quahog mascot was introduced last year.
Keenan, who leads the organizational effort with a cadre of friends from the Unitarian Church in Westport, says the extra work involved in growing the event has been marginal. "I've got it down to a science," he says. "I've just been adding the elements. I'm used to working at a large scale." No-one gets paid for their efforts.
Take the volunteers. Chowdafest will have some 100 Sacred Heart University students handing out spoons, distributing ballots and selling merchandise. Church youth groups help to run the kids' activity area. Keenan's experienced volunteer leaders know the drill. "I can just give them their marching orders and they go to town and it's great," he says.
Keenan, who conducted more than 1,000 golf tournaments during his career as a marketing director, knows how to snag corporate support too. Stop & Shop is sponsoring the event for a second time (which "helps a lot" with the arena rental, he says) and this year he's sealed a deal with California-based World Centric to provide compostable cups and spoons for free. (That's close to 300,000 cups, if the predicted 10,000 attendees try every soup on offer). "Sometimes it's who you know. Sometimes it's what you say," says Keenan. "Sometimes it's just lucky."
Keenan has his own take on the ingredients for Chowdafest's runaway success. "We feed the hungry. We do something positive for the restaurants. Everybody who attends thinks they got the best deal in town and can't wait for next year. That's why it's been growing exponentially."
But it's him in the driving seat. Keenan ran the first four Chowdafests while working full-time at a golf company. He was laid off in September and wasted no time in orchestrating another standout event. He brought together 502 people to set a world record for door-to-door caroling in Westport in December.
As for the future of Chowdafest, Keenan's putting a lid on the number of restaurants participating at 36 because there's only so much chowder one soup-lover can reasonably judge. Do expect new faces though: he wants to challenge past winners at the decades-old Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I., to present their soups and chowders in Fairfield County.
The marketer shouldn't have any problem persuading them. The bottom line is that it's good business sense for chefs and restaurants to impress new crowds of potential customers with their wares. Martell, an hour's drive away in East Haddam, is making the trip in part because "we're trying to get our name out there as a destination place."
For the Chowdafest V chefs, there's a lot of soup to make. Nicholas Roberts' Troilo will enter his creative oyster and pork belly chowder for this year's competition; last year he ran out with two hours to go. He's been advised to bring a whopping 40 gallons to keep chowder-lovers happy on February 3.
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