The fall weather held off for a little bit longer on Sunday, Oct. 1, and thousands of clam chowder lovers took advantage by heading to Sherwood Island for ChowdaFest. The event is held annually at the end of summer, with restaurants and bars from across the country (yes, the country) putting their chowder up for competition. Darien was well represented, as Rory’s is one of the very few restaurants to be a participant in each of the nine years ChowdaFest has been held. Chef Bryan Malcarney has now entered the ChowdaFest Bowl of Fame. Malcarney is one of only nine chefs to receive the honor in the near decade of ChowdaFest events.
The event ran from 11 to 3, and featured entries from over 40 chefs and restaurants. Chowdafest was so popular that by 1, cars were backed up from Sherwood Island onto I-95 in both directions waiting to get their chowder fix.
ChowdaFest organizer Jim Keenan said that according to the park it was the largest event that had ever been held at Sherwood Island.
“I can emphatically say we’ve never had a crowd that big. I want to say it even doubled last year,” said Keenan. Food Network was on hand filming the event as well for an upcoming show on seafood events. Senator Richard Blumenthal had planned to attend by the traffic became so serious just to get into Sherwood Park that the Senator had to cancel.
Mini of Fairfield County, based in Darien, is an event sponsor, and hosts a gathering at the dealership before caravanning, rally car style, to Sherwood Island for the event as well.
ChowdaFest! Chef Bryan Malcarney of Rory’s in Darien enters the Bowl of Fame this year. Come try some chowder and say congrats! pic.twitter.com/cCiK9mbGJu
— The Darien Times (@DarienTimes) October 1, 2017
Chowder enthusiasts get a spoon, map of the restaurant tents, and a scorecard to grade the chowders. The scale on the scores ranges from a seven to a 10.5.
“Someone told me it should go from zero to ten, and I said no, seven to ten. They asked why, I said because I don’t invite anyone who is less than an 8,” said Keenan of the scoring system. Keenan added that this year had the highest average scores they had ever recorded.
“We had four places who have won three or four times, but there isn’t a bad, or even an average, chowder in the whole lot,” said Keenan.
Participating chefs included some that have been fixtures at the event for years, setting records with their wins, including Pike’s Place and their New England clam chowder.
“Pike’s Place made it a three-peat, they were amazing,” Keenan said of the Seattle restaurant. “They flew out 28 people, they were stacked,” he added.
“Our House Bistro won for the third straight year in their category,” Keenan said. The category won by Our House, based in Vermont, was the creative chowder, as they entered fried seafood and sweet potato chowder with a nearby bar for toppings and vegetables.
“Dunville’s has entered six times, this was their third championship, and they really do a great job,” Keenan said of the Westport restaurant. The category taken by the Dunville’s Rhode Island Chowder was “traditional” clam chowder, meaning only Rhode Island and Manhattan chowders.
Another regular entree was Crabshell in Stamford, who won the Soup and Bisque category with their lobster bisque.
“Crabshell has entered four times in nine years, and this is their fourth win,” Keenan said, again pointing to just how many local restaurants take part in the event.
Other restaurants participating included My Brother’s Place from Webster, Massachusetts, Roberts Maine Grill, and the Mario Batali owned Tarry Lodge with an italian inspired Montauk Chowder. Blue Buffalo offered up a “canine cafe” for the many dogs that came to the park, and there was a “little necks” tent for young children to play.
“Of course Rory’s was a big local hit, yet again,” Keenan said of the Darien mainstay.
“#32 on your ballot, #1 in your hearts” – Rory’s!! The competition is getting fierce! Make sure you vote so your favorites win!! pic.twitter.com/ayN9wjZIWJ
— Chowdafest (@chowdafest) October 1, 2017
The event remains tied to a cause called Food Rescue US.
“It’s all about rescuing food. The problem with hunger is, it isn’t just food. We have food, it’s just poorly distributed and it gets wasted. This charity focuses on preventing waste and redistributing to best use what we have. It’s a really sustainable platform,” Keenan said, adding that he personally is a food rescuer, driving a car full of food to a local shelter every Sunday.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to fund over half a million meals for people, and last year we did 400,000,” said Keenan of the tremendous success.
The event has grown every year, attracting “chowdaheads” from all over the northeast. With well over 10,000 people attending this year, the event may even outgrow Sherwood Island at some point. Not a bad problem to have, as money raised at the event goes to a worthwhile cause, and restaurants are overjoyed to attend.