What’s the secret to the best bowl of clam chowder? Ask any chef at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk 42nd Annual Clam Chowder Cook-off and you’ll get a laugh, maybe a knowing smile — but no answer. 

Celery, perhaps. Onions and potatoes, obvious staples. Bacon fat, which many chefs swear by. But the ingredient that gives the chowder that extra ‘something’? That part is kept closer to a chef’s chest than their cooking knives.

“I guess you would say it’s a secret because I’m not going to share it,” said amateur contestant Tim ‘The Toolman’ Seyer.

The annual Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Clam Chowder Cook-off began in 1982 to raise funds for Santa Cruz City Parks and Recreation Department’s youth programs. All proceeds go towards the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department, which saw over $80,000 raised in last year’s cook-off.

Photo by Arthur Wei.

Over the past 42 years, the cook-off has become a beloved tradition for cooks and chowder enthusiasts who share a love for the classic seafood dish. For attendees, the festival is a pinnacle of the community.

The competition takes place over two days, with the amateur competition on Saturday and the professional portion on Sunday. Awards included “People’s Choice,” “Most Tasted,” and “Best Theme.”

Saturday’s amateur competition was made up of talented independent cooks who competed using family recipes, home-cooked techniques, and most of all, love. Sunday brought together restaurants, caterers, and food service providers who brought seasoned expertise to the table. 

Brian Edwards and his team, Silence of the Clams, have participated in the amateur portion of the competition every year since 2006.

“For me, it’s the funnest day of the year. Forget Christmas, forget everything else. I’ve got my friends and family out here cooking with me,” Edwards said. 

Contestants used both stellar cooking skills and humor to attract tasters to their chowder booths. Teams like the Mutha Shuckahs, Rocky Horror Clam Show, and Bloody Brilliant Chowder (BBC) filled this year’s amateur roster.

A life-size doll of Hannibal Lecter guarded Edwards’ team, who all wore FBI hats as they chopped vegetables and drank Bloody Marys. Their Silence of the Lambs theme won 2nd place in the Best Booth Theme award in the amateur category. 1st place went to team Clamstock, a parody of the music festival Woodstock. 

Chefs were given an hour-long period to prepare their ingredients with no heat. When the two-hour cooking period began, the flavors in the air were in delicious abundance. Thick cuts of bacon sizzled in pans, their smell blending with diced garlic and onions. Chunks of butter and cream were mixed into the concoctions, and, of course, canned clams simmered in broths seasoned with anything from thyme and bay leaves to Cholula hot sauce.

“I would shake your hand, but I have clam juice on mine,” Edwards said with a grin. 

Throughout the competition, the debate raged on: what was better — Manhattan style or Boston? However, both dishes were celebrated, with their own respective award categories. 

The difference between Boston and Manhattan clam chowder? Their bases. Boston clam chowder is typically cooked using a mix of milk and heavy cream. Manhattan, alternatively, uses tomatoes and other vegetables like bell peppers. 

Judges for the competition included Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley and Congressman Jimmy Panetta, who represents California’s 19th Congressional District. 

“It was an outstanding time, and I’m a little full right now,” Congressman Panetta said. 

Rainfall on Sunday impacted the number of people attending the professional competition. But for guests in attendance, there was no need for consternation. The gloomy weather set the perfect scene for chowder to flow.

“It always reminds me of feeling safe and being warm in the wintertime, in this nice rainy weather, staying warm with a nice bowl of chowder,” said professional contestant Zach Bradbook of Seascape Golf Club.

Each day, attendees — many donning clam hats or Mardi Gras beads — made their way to the stands for a taste of each booth’s presentation. 

Finding the best clam chowder involved considering the creaminess, texture, and balance of vegetables, as well as the flavor profile of the clams — a challenge eagerly taken on by the public. Their chowder meals were often accompanied by a slice of sourdough bread and cold ale. 

How far would someone go for a taste? For Washington residents Kelly Kohler and his wife, it’s a trek that’s worth it.  

“1,000 miles for a bowl of clam chowder,” Kohler said.

Photo by Arthur Wei.