Chowder Cook-Off 2012
By: Natalie Singer, AOS Culinary.
At 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 18, the eleventh annual Chowder Cook-off commenced. It was a cool, calm morning with the promise of a warm day ahead. 12 teams of eager young culinarians filed into the Student Recreation Center’s Banquet Kitchen, ready to prove they were worth their salt in chowder–brewing. The stakes were high—gift certificates, autographed books, and cash prizes as much as $1,000 awaited the winners, and no one wanted to face the possibility of failure. What would your classmates say if you didn’t produce an edible chowder?
It wasn’t a free-for-all either. Each team of students was only allotted one hour to produce their chowder, and could only use two burners. Chef Reilly was on the prowl, ever-watchful for any breaches of professionalism or food safety. All equipment and ingredients had to fit onto two sheet pan, and for some teams, the pressure was mounting. “There wasn’t enough time”, one contestant remarked, “cramped”, and a couple of tables down, another confided in me, “it was terrible.” Sacrifices had clearly been made, and some teams had abstained from St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in order to properly prepare. But preparation is everything, as Team “Captain Hook, Line, & Sinker” proved. “The kitchen was great!” they all nodded in agreement, citing timelines that had been carefully created, and constant communication with each other.
By 12:30, the atmosphere in the gymnasium was relaxed—all teams had finished their chowders on time, and each team had created their own tasting booths. “This has been the best year for showmanship we’ve seen”, Chef Reilly commended, and the displays were truly impressive. At the booth of Team “Red Solo Cup”, tasters were greeted by a wall of empty red plastic cups, and glittering stars adorned Team “Soup-a-Stars” table. There were buckets full of candy, giant paper flowers, grass skirts, and even a proudly displayed blow-up doll in a bikini.
Chef Benedetto, DelleRose, Fischer, Garnero, Goldstein, Johnson, Kanner, Kowalski, Martini, Mosher, Reilly, and Utera walked back and forth between the booths, methodically considering each soup, and carefully filling out their ballots. Students filtered excitedly in and out of the gym, predicting their friends’ and peers’ outcomes as they waited for the public tasting to begin.
At 1:00PM, the line for the ballot booth snaked around the gym. A lively potato dicing competition was held, and the Brew Club was selling their latest creations. One by one, students were presented with an official plastic tasting spoon, a cardstock ballot, and a raffle ticket with the chance to win a flatscreen TV. Students, parents, and chefs mingled and moseyed from booth to booth, chitchatting with the contestants about the secrets of chowder-making. Almost every team agreed that a proper chowder should be made with roux, dairy products, and fish fumet. Some teams opted for making lobster stock, white others roasted their fish and shellfish for a meatier flavor. Almost every team included bacon in their recipes, and crabs seemed to be the shellfish of choice.
From table to table was evidence of culinary creativity and experimentation—Team “All About the Crab” had created a “loaded crab cake” –inspired soup, Team “Bikini Bottom Dwellers” had prepared a Bagel and Lox chowder with smoked salmon and salmon roe, and Fish 3 Ways gave traditional chowder a Brazilian spin with Bacalao. Teams “Sea Pearls” and “We Don’t Have Crabs” both focused on using ingredients conscientiously; “Sea Pearls” utilizing even the shells of the crabs, roasted, in their stock, and “We Don’t Have Crabs” avoiding any ingredients that weren’t in season locally.
To commemorate the occasion, some students should chose to have their pictures taken in front of a green screen, and some showed off their sea legs on a mechanical surfboard. Chef Clark and his MIT’s were busy at work behind the curtain, making evil concoctions to kick the oyster-eating competition up a few notches. In perforated hotel pans sat beautiful, briny oysters, waiting to be opened and later eaten. “Oh great shuckers of the future!” Called Chef DePere to the crowd, as the oyster-shucking contest began, and contestants raced to crack open 6 oysters each.
The crowd continued to weave between tables, and some tables began to run low on chowder. As a professional piano and guitar duet crooned to the afternoon throng, Chef Clark dressed the newly-shucked oysters with his devilish salsa: heaping tablespoons of raw garlic, onion, shallots, habañeros, scotch bonnets, and jalepeños. An audience drew forward to watch, spellbound, as 18 contestants happily—and not-so happily—slurped down mollusk after mollusk.
After the television was auctioned off, and winners were announced in the Potato Dicing competition, the Oyster Shucking and Eating competitions, a Showmanship Award was given to Team “Captain Hook, Line, & Sinker” for best decorated booth. The prize—a stage at Le Bernardin. The crowd drew closer, quiet, but restless. The People’s Choice award, the result of the afternoon’s tastings and ballot-punching, was granted to Team “Soup-a-Stars”, for a well-balanced corn and Maryland Crab chowder. Finally, the judges’ results: in third place, with a chowder that featured clams, shrimp, sunchoke, smoked cod, pancetta, fennel, and saffron, was Team “Captain Hook, Line, & Sinker”. For a subtle and light chowder with an Indian twist, second place was awarded to Team “Jajajiences”(pronounced “ha-ha-hyensays”). And first place – the tension in the gym was palpable, scores of anxious faces turned toward the front, eyes glued to official clipboard—was Team “Soup-a-Stars”, whose soup had won over not just the students and parents, but the judging chefs as well. As the crowd dispersed into the warm afternoon sunlight, the tired but jubilant teams returned to their booths to congratulate one another and dismantle their displays. The eleventh annual Chowder Cook-off had been a success.