Our concept of Chowdafest simmered about 10 years ago stemming from a vacation in Kennebunkport ME after stumbling across an amateur competition in the basement of a small church. I had never seen anything like it in CT or anywhere for that matter. I certainly had never heard of the infamous Chowder Cook Off in Newport. While the premise of Chowdafest is basically the same as that contest in Maine, our event is distinctly different than Newport in so many ways.
Our first Chowdafest competition was in the Unitarian Church in Westport and it was then I learned about Newport's event after researching chowder competitions. I met Rich Travis of the Newport Waterfront who conducts the Great Chowder Cook-Off. He sent down their clam mascot to Westport to participate and promote their event that happens the first Saturday in June every year. It was a win-win situation as we had no mascot at the time like we do now and it added an element of fun. It was the like the big sister we never wanted LOL.
It wasn't until last year that I actually attended Rich's event in Rhode Island. He gets on average 10,000+ people to annually attend and they've been at it for over 30 years now so they must be doing something right. Our events are noticeably different. Chowdafest is football themed and held on "SOUP"er Bowl Sunday in later January or early February when it's cold and it's chowder season. Their event kicks off their summer tourist season. We have four categories including a soup/bisque division (they don't feature soup or bisque). We allow everyone to rate each sample versus just picking one favorite among many. We're less than half the cost to get in. We have almost twice as many entries and restaurants and most importantly, we raise money for the food bank while the Newport event is focused on bringing tourist to the famous destination.
I saw Rich at our past Chowdafest competition in February. He came up to say hi and I didn't recognize him at first so I just quickly said hello. After I realized it was him, I said "Hi Rich" in my best Seinfeld imitation like when he greets Newman with some disdain. So I asked "So what sponsor, restaurant or idea are you stealing this year?" and he responded laughing "Jim, it's not like that". I gave him the old double take and he added "OK, maybe it's a little like that". Funny line - he's a nice guy.
Two years ago our friends at Stop & Shop came on board as a sponsor. Little did I know that Rich is always doing his homework and had been attending or watching from afar on our success. One year later, Stop & Shop was a new sponsor of the Newport event (different division though). Last year, we welcomed FIAT of Fairfield County as the Official Car of "Ciao" dafest. There was no obvious reason to have this Italian car manufacturer at a chowder competition except that the brand evokes fun and Italian's are known for great cooking. Well, Chowdafest is a fun culinary competition so it was a great partnership. Beep Beep - guess what new sponsor showed up in Newport this year?
Well, I made my annual pilgrimage to Newport this past weekend. An unbelievable crisp, clear, gorgeous 75 degree day. The Jamestown Bridge was backed up over a mile to get off to downtown Newport. The town was packed but not everyone was there for chowder of course after all, it is Newport. I ditched the usual parking garage and visitors center and found a local side street with a spot just a block up from the Yachting Center. I blew off breakfast knowing I would be sucking down some decadent chowder. Had my on-line ticket with me, breezed in and off I went. Enjoyed talking to many of the restaurants who surprisingly heard of us. There were only a handful of RI based restaurants there as most institutions were outside the state including CT. There are a lot of other vendors at the Great Chowder Cook-Off selling or sampling almost anything you can think off. The biggest lines weren't for the chowder but for the wine & beer. There's no doubt that the Great Chowder Cook-Off is designed to be a party! While Chowdafest is certainly a celebration, we feel if we become more of a party, it will take something away from the seriousness of the competition.
I just can't help felling that Newport is stealing our ideas, sponsors and restaurants. It was then that I wondered if they felt the same way about us. Our latest sponsor "The Farmer's Cow" was once a sponsor of Rich's. I had not known that when I pitched our friends up state last year. I had wanted the "milk-mustache" folks which is a consortium of Wisconsin farms to be a sponsor. Despite the obvious dairy connection to chowder, I didn't think we could "Get Milk" from this WI based company and then I realized we had something just like it here in CT, The Farmers Cow! I sent their marketing director an email proposing they be a Chowdafest sponsor. She was out of the office recuperating from knee surgery but she checked her email and called in about 15 minutes saying "we're in - both feet". They were a big hit at the arena, sampling their products and getting the word out about the brand to an appreciative audience. They were thrilled and immediately re-enlisted for Chowdafest this year saying we provided a great sponsorship value. Well, the Farmer's Cow wasn't involved with Newport this year and I'm sure Rich feels we stole them. Certainly not our intent but I can see how it would appear that way. You think he's calling me "Newman"?
We also have a few restaurants that used to compete in Newport that are in Chowdafest now but again, did not know that at the time we invited restaurants to participate. So now, I'm looking at Rich a bit differently and realizing imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If we weren't trying to raise the bar every year and doing something right, Rich wouldn't be paying attention and I suppose I wouldn't be driving 2 hours to attend his gig either. There is some good chowder up there - worthy of participating in Chowdafest (wink).
Rich said to me this year when he came down to Bridgeport "It's official. You're now the 2nd best chowder competition in New England". In some respects he's right. He does draw more people (for now) and he's got that Newport vs. Bridgeport thing going on (for now) but there are many things we're better at that's he's taking notice. So thanks Rich. We're happy to be #2 but just letting you know, we're not satisfied with stopping there. Congrats on another Great Chowder Cook-Off.