Sunday, January 30, 2011
come chowder-up on Saturday everybody.
Saratoga Springs set to welcome chowder heads again
Sunday, January 30, 2011
By Jeff Wilkin (Contact)
Photographer: Bruce Squiers
Connie Crudo relaxes at Bailey’s in Saratoga Springs with chowders prepared to promote next month’s Chowderfest in the city.Text Size: A | A | A
As queen of Saratoga Springs’ summer society, Marylou Whitney knows all about haute cuisine.
Quail in puff pastry shells — served with foie gras and truffle sauce — is a natural for an August party.
As a queen of Saratoga Springs’ winter society, Connie Crudo is an expert on hot cuisine. Clam chowder, sausage chowder, corn chowder and shrimp chowder are naturals for the February party Crudo puts together every year.
The gathering is Saratoga’s 13th annual Chowderfest, part of the city’s Winterfest. This year’s pilgrimage for potatoes, clams and assorted vegetables will be held Saturday from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. About 60 restaurants will serve chowder in 3-ounce cups for $1 a sample, and about 60 chefs hope their concoctions are convicted of culinary excellence — and win one of six “best of” categories.
“I think Chowderfest is an affordable, fun thing to do on a cold day,” said Crudo, membership and services coordinator for the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau and unofficial queen of the party. “I think we’ve got great restaurants and these restaurants have great reputations. There are diverse offerings, and there are a lot of bars that sell chowder, too.”
Saratoga Springs 13th annual Chowderfest
WHERE: Assorted restaurants in Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $1 per 3-ounce sample of chowder
MORE INFO: www.discoversaratoga.org/chowderfest
The festival is a big deal for both restaurants and chowder lovers. “It’s a very family-oriented event,” Crudo said. “You see a lot of large groups, it’s great for the kids and it’s great for the older people. Everybody comes bundled up and prepared to stand in line.”
They pick up their ballots first, from any bar or restaurant on the chowder roster. They’ll taste the thick soups, and vote for favorites in categories that include “Best on Broadway,” “Best off Broadway,” “Best Newcomer” and “Best Non-Downtown.” Ballots will be dropped off at the Saratoga County Arts Council and the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center and tabulated later in the day.
Exploration and discovery
Exploration and discovery are two reasons people decide to try dozens of chowders, depending on their appetites. “There’s everything,” Crudo said. “There’s vegetable, there’s chicken chowders, clam chowders, shrimp chowders, Southwestern chowders. I can’t tell you who is serving what because that is top-secret, confidential information until the last minute.”
The event started small. “I have records that go back to 2002, and in that year there were 18 participants,” Crudo said. “In 2010, we had 56 participants.”
This year, Sperry’s, Lillian’s, the Parting Glass, Gaffney’s, Maestro’s and Stadium Cafe are in. So are Wheatfields, the Wishing Well, Cantina, the Grey Gelding, Hattie’s and the Seven Horse Pub. Even Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on Phila Street gets a piece of the action. Scoops of the store’s “Phish Food” ice cream were sold as dessert chowder in 2010. There are even chowders for dogs — pooch-friendly stores “Dawgdom,” “Impressions of Saratoga” and “Sloppy Kisses” will have bowls for the bark set.
Money raised by the convention bureau — each restaurant pays a $150 participation fee — is given to charity.
Joe Richardson, who owns both Bailey’s Cafe on Phila Street and the adjoining Peabody’s Sports Bar and Grille, said Chowderfest provides a boost for the community the same way Saratoga’s popular First Night does on New Year’s Eve. Other restaurant owners say the same thing — chowder attracts people to city kitchens during what is traditionally a slow time.
John Capelli, executive chef at the Olde Bryan Inn on Maple Avenue, said competitive spirit mixes with community spirit.
“It’s not necessarily about us winning,” Capelli said. “We all win. It’s a situation where Saratoga is known for a lot of things, horse racing, the spring waters and such, but we also have an excellent variety of restaurants. There are over 100 places to eat in this city. It’s an opportunity for people to maybe go to a restaurant they’ve never tried before.”
Sizing up the competition
Chefs can also check out what’s happening in other kitchens.
“You want to find out where they’ve got something better than you,” Capelli said. “So you can figure out what they did a little bit different. You’re sharing recipes. As competitive as it is, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve got chefs that come down and try ours after they wrap up and vice versa. One of the things I’m saying if I’m serving is, ‘Who’s the best so far? What do they have out there?’ We’re all curious about what each other is doing.”
Capelli said it’s also fun to watch people during the chowder Saturday. On snowy days, he’s seen people slide up to the Olde Bryan on cross-country skis. They park them next to the fireplace and sip the hot stuff. “It’s kind of like a live-action Norman Rockwell moment,” Capelli said.
Louis Maggiore, operating partner at Longfellows on Union Avenue, also appreciates the crush for chowder.
“If you walk down Broadway during the Chowderfest, there are people everywhere,” he said. “It’s great for the restaurants, people are talking to each other, everybody’s tasting a bowl of chowder, they’re having a good time. They make an all-day thing out of it, it’s almost like tailgating at a football game.
Richardson expects a lot of people and a lot of chowder at his two locations. “Last year, we did 1,911 cups at Bailey’s and 1,260 at Peabody’s — we ran out at 3:30 there,” Richardson said. He’s planning on between 60 and 70 gallons for the two restaurants this Saturday. And crackers — all Chowderfest participants get two cases of oyster crackers from the Westminster Cracker Co. in Rutland, Vt.
Crudo begins preparing for Chowderfest around the middle of December. Restaurants sign up, the party starts rolling and Connie is soon spending most of her time on chowder business. Office colleague Angela LaTerra takes care of advertising in newspapers, radio and magazines.
While chili contests still outnumber chowder parties, Crudo said soup shows are catching up. “They’re becoming more common,” she said. “Ballston Spa does a chowderfest now, Troy does a chowderfest now. I’ve got people calling me, ‘How do you do it? How can I have a chowderfest?’ I’ll share. Just don’t have it on the same day as ours.”
Because chowder heads are on the streets during the winter party, weather can be a concern. “A couple years ago, we had an ice storm the night before,” Crudo said. “By the time we got downtown, it was all cleaned up. The city has been very cooperative.”
Tabulating the votes
This year, Chowderfest has a new wrinkle. Instead of counting ballots over the weekend and announcing winners on Monday — the practice in past years — chowder fans are invited to a second party at the Saratoga City Center at 5:30 p.m. Ballots will be tabulated, and a cash bar and disc jockey will keep people occupied until results are announced.
“We’re trying to keep them downtown for a couple extra hours,” Crudo said.
And the event is becoming more ecologically friendly. A reusable mug with lid and spoon is available for $5, so people who make the purchase won’t be using and tossing bunches of disposable cups and spoons. The mugs are being sold at Celtic Treasures, Crafters Gallery, Crush and Cask Wine and Liquors, Impressions of Saratoga and Just Plain Good/Life Is Good.
Chowderfest is designed to warm interiors, but Crudo said some people want to warm exteriors, too. That’s why festival long-sleeve T-shirts have always been popular. The 2011 model costs $7.
“I once got an e-mail from a man in Florida who had always attended, but said he couldn’t make Chowderfest because of illness,” Crudo said. “He said, ‘I need my shirt. Can you mail me one?’ So I did. Can’t break up his collection.”
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