We have but one stomach to give for our job. Asked to participate in numerous events, sacred and profane, we mostly decline. But when we heard the word "chowder" and "judge," -- in the same sentence, no less -- we began doing situps and working on our Mayor Quimby accent. Last Saturday, we headed to Monterey, Calif. to help judge the second annual West Coast Chowder Competition, a competition as fierce as the weather was gray and gloomy.
The contest was split into three categories: traditional clam chowder, seafood chowder and a broad category simply called creative. It would have been impossible, or at least painful, to properly sample all the chowders, so the 10 judges were split into two groups. We were assigned to the seafood and creative table, where the wine flowed freely and the entrants ranged from spectacular to atrocious. (The wine was mostly thanks to our fellow judge, chef Patrick Farjas, a garrulous Frenchman with exacting culinary standards and a pathological allergy to water.)
Head judge Paul Lee, a chef and instructor at Monterey Peninsula College, had his students working as runners, ferrying us fresh bowls every 10 minutes or so. The first soup we tasted, a sweet crab and corn chowder, set the bar high. Visual appeal was one of our citerion, and this soup, with morsels of crab leg perched perpendicularly in the flat, wide bowl, was gorgeous. The ingredients tasted fresh and were perfectly cooked, not too mushy or too al dente, and combined into a lightly sweet chowder that was creamy without being too heavy. It earned top marks across the board.
It was quickly followed by a bowl of chunky orange paste that looked like it had already been digested and regurgitated. It was so thick our tasting spoons stood up in the bowl. Dismay gave way to revulsion upon tasting it. It was as though the cook had dumped thickeners and a dash of chili powder into cheap canned soup. As Farjas pointed out, if this is what you serve to judges in a competition, you shouldn't be in the restaurant business. Ditto.
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We tasted some intriguing combos like a tomato-crab-coconut chowder. We also tasted several soups that could have won it all with minor tweaks to their recipe: overcooked shellfish that had turned chalky, too many ingredients, too thick or too greasy. After tasting about 15 chowders, the first soup we tried was, hands-down, the best, a rare but happy occurrence.