Chowder Heads, Get Ready: Montauk’s Annual Competition is Near

Crowds gather at the 2017 Montauk Clam Chowder Contest. Gavin Menu photo

It happens but once a year. Every Columbus Day Weekend, the hamlet of Montauk hosts its widely attended Fall Festival, the highlight event of which occurs on the Saturday of the weekend. For the past 37 years, the Montauk Fall Festival Chowder Contest has been the talk of the town, displaying a dazzling array of red and white clam chowders. The winner walks away with bragging rights, yes, but also with his or her establishment’s name etched for eternity onto a trophy cup, displayed prominently by the Montauk Chamber of Commerce.

The Chowder Contest has a yearly panel of judges — local chefs, tastemakers, and food writers, among others — who, in a blind tasting, evaluate chowders (both red and white) based on a standard-issued rubric. “We are very easily swayed when there’s a little garnish on top,” confessed Laura Donnelly, food editor for The East Hampton Star, long-time judge of the Chowder Contest, and self-professed “chowder-head.” The rubric includes, among other criteria, appearance, taste, and texture, and also provides a space for judges’ comments. “When I first started doing it [about eight years ago, she estimates], they just lumped all of the chowders together, the red and the white,” Ms. Donnelly said. Over three decades later, chowders are now divided into red and white categories, with corresponding awards for each (winners for first, second, and third places are recognized).

The contest itself begins at 11 in the morning, but patrons line up well beforehand in order to purchase mugs, collectibles in and of themselves; each year, the Chamber of Commerce changes the design. The purchase of a mug entitles its owner to two chowder “tastes,” out of 15 to 25 participating restaurants. In addition to the judge’s award, a people’s choice award, based on these tastes, is offered. “We sell 5,000 mugs a year,” Montauk Chamber of Commerce President Paul Monte said. “Usually, by the time people are through with their mugs, there’s no more chowder left.” Hungry chowder-heads have been known to line up as much as an hour and a half prior to the contest’s opening. The contest ends, officially, when the chowder is gone. Judges are required to taste and evaluate all submissions, and they typically arrive before 10 a.m., power-chowdering through until about noon. Their time and expertise are rewarded with an accompanying beer, a lagoon of free chowder, and a free mug at day’s end. The beer was Donnelly’s idea, spearheaded a few years in. “You need beer with chowder to wash it down,” she said. “It’s serious work, you know.”

Last year’s winning Manhattan Clam Chowder Inlet Seafood. Michael Heller photo

One thing about clam chowder: Those who consider themselves aficionados have a lot to say about what it should taste like. Chowder Contest judge, Babylon native, and professional chef Paul Roman has a very clear vision of the perfect clam chowder. “A chowder, by definition, has to have potatoes,” he said. “I like it thick. Not thick and gloppy, but fairly thick. I like it to have some body to it. I tend not even to put a lot of ingredients in it. I like a little hint of thyme in my chowder, but nothing overpowering. Sometimes, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” Roman considers himself an equal opportunity chowder eater, enjoying both the red and white iterations, while Donnelly prefers to judge the whites. “There was one year that a judge for the red didn’t show up, so I felt super brave and said that I would try all of them,” she said. “But I really do prefer the whites, because they vary more.”

In order to enter the contest, businesses must be Montauk-based. Winners of the past have included some surprises, including the pizza restaurant Sausages. And participation, Donnelly said, runs the gamut, representing restaurants “as high as the Crow’s Nest or Dave’s Grill on down to Sausages and John’s Pancake House.” Largely, the judges agree on which chowders are award-winning, although they often don’t draw the same conclusion as the masses. “I know what I’m looking for in either one,” Roman said. He has, in the past, won the chowder contest with his own version. “The clams are key. I have found that, whenever I won a contest, I got clams from a certain guy. The water’s different, the bottom’s different, they feed different…”

Last year’s winning New England Clam Chowder from the Backyard Restaurant at Sole’ East. Michael Heller photo

According to Monte, votes are tallied and winners posted by the close of the day on Saturday, although the official pomp and circumstance — the crowning of the Chowder Champions, if you will — takes place during the fall festival’s denouement, the Sunday of Columbus Day Weekend. Roughly 30,000 patrons turn out for the fall festival each year. “Some people will go the day before and buy their mugs and tickets so that they don’t have to wait on line to purchase [them],” he said. The Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the town, closes off Main Street from one side of the green to the other. The line for the chowder itself, which begins off of Main Street, has been known to loop around and around. Of the many events sponsored by the Chamber, including the imminently popular Thursday farmer’s market, which runs from June through September and reemerges for one weekend as a supplement to the fall festival, the Chowder Contest is among the most popular.

And what must a judge know before stepping into these inimitable shoes? Chowder tasting is hard work. “I don’t think [the average person] has the stamina to try 15 of one and 9 of another,” Donnelly said. She offers this piece of advice for aspiring judges, however: “You don’t have to eat it — you just have to taste it. Because you can’t eat even a quarter of a cup of chowder and expect to do that 12 times.” That’s worthy advice for the novice taster.

Time is running out for Montauk chefs to perfect their chowder game. Last year’s winners included, for red, Inlet Seafood Restaurant, Sausages, and Quinchos, while Shagwong, the Backyard Restaurant at Solé East, and the Point went home with accolades for whites. As for this year, well, chefs should expect fierce competition. The 37thAnnual Montauk Fall Festival Chowder Contest will take place on Saturday, October 6 at 11 a.m.