Hundreds of clam chowder lovers flocked to a packed Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on Feb. 25 to experience the city’s 31st annual Clam Chowder Cook-Off. The festival lined the entire boardwalk, with booth after booth of contenders cooking up steaming vats of both Boston and Manhattan-style chowders for eager foodies to taste.
“It’s my second time going to the festival … and the clam chowder always tastes amazing,” said Elizabeth Suarez, a third-year UC Santa Cruz student. “Coming here has always been a great way to experience Santa Cruz and to really participate in being a part of this community.”
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the competition included 74 teams of soup-savvy chowder chefs who offered samples of their very own creations. Teams were judged in both traditional Boston white and Manhattan red chowders by a panel of “distinguished chowder judges,” according to the festival’s program. The judging panel included everyone from city council members and deputy chief of police to representatives from a local architecture firm.
Festival attendees also took part in the judging through the People’s Choice vote. With the purchase of a tasting kit, chowder enthusiasts were given People’s Choice voting vouchers to award to their favorite professional and individual chowders — making for a day filled with loud cheering and friendly competition.
Two teams from UCSC’s dining services competed with the support of Sammy the Slug roaming through the festival. Both won People’s Choice awards at the competition’s close. UCSC teams included first-place Professional Manhattan award winners UCSC Redwood Sluggers, led by UCSC executive chef Dwight Collins, and “Most Tasted” award winners UCSC Chowder Slugs, led by director of dining services Scott Berlin.
“We’re here representing university dining services and everyone is participating, from student employees all the way up to the director,” Berlin said. “These are the recipes we serve in the dining halls and [the Cook-Off] is a huge part of what we do during the year. This has always been a fun event for us and it involves a lot of teamwork. We take pride in what we do.”
Contestants were divided into two categories: professionals, which included restaurants and catering companies; and individuals, which included a group of independent chowder connoisseurs. For individual contender Peter Walligora, chef behind Pete’s Clamtastic Chowder of Salinas, Calif., experience in the restaurant division has brought him back to the competition as an individual contender for the past three years.
“I had been competing in the Cook-Off for five years with restaurants, and it was so much fun that I decided to come out and compete as an individual,” Walligora said. “I’ve been coming with my kids for years and we’ve always had fun. It’s a great family event, and who doesn’t love chowder?”
The event doubled as a fundraiser, with proceeds earned from tasting kits — which were sold for $9 and included five tastes — going to the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department. Over the past 30 years, the festival has served as one of the main fundraisers for Parks and Recreation Department programs.
Since the festival began in 1981 at the boardwalk’s Neptune’s Kingdom entertainment center, the epicurean event has raised over $950,000 to fund community centers, local events and activities, and the maintenance of public parks and beaches.
“The first cook-off and festival was held on the 75th anniversary of the boardwalk,” said Marq Lipton, vice president of marketing and sales of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. “We wanted to bring special events back to the boardwalk, and one of the first events was the Clam Chowder Cook-Off.”
Modeled after the Santa Cruz Chili Cook-Off, which was reintroduced in October 2010 for the first time since the late 1980s, the Clam Chowder Cook-Off was organized by boardwalk special events coordinators in collaboration with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Organizers hoped to promote boardwalk events in addition to holding a celebration of the popular soup staple that would bring people into Santa Cruz during the off-season.
“The festival has … become one of the big attractions in Santa Cruz and it really showcases the variety and quality of culinary experience in this city and throughout the area,” Lipton said. “It features a unique side of Santa Cruz in the off-season, and so many people have come out to experience it year after year, rain or shine.”
The Clam Chowder Cook-Off has grown from its 20-competitor size in 1981 to a showdown among 74 chowder teams. It is one of the largest events in the Santa Cruz area, with attendees ranging from locals and students to tourists and chowder enthusiasts.
“The event has really grown down the boardwalk over the years,” said Karen Hamilton, a KWAV 97 FM radio host and one of the event’s announcers. “I’ve been working with the festival for nine years now, and each year you see more and more people come out from all over to taste the different chowders and vote for their favorites.”
Alongside the UCSC Redwood Sluggers for the Professional Manhattan first-place win was Grandma’s Clam Diggers of Aptos, who won for the Individual Manhattan division.
“There [were] so many people there, and everyone just had a great time — from the workers and contestants to those who came to taste all of these delicious chowders,” Hamilton said. “This is truly the definition of a festival.”
Other award winners were announced by the festival’s panel of judges, including awards for the Most Original teams. A full list of winners can be found at Beachboardwalk.com.