Notes From the 16th Annual Seattle Waterfront Neighborhood Chowder Cook-Off

You knaves. You pandering, caterwauling varmints. This is not the Miracle Whip Challenge. It’s not the goddamn Bisquick Invitational. It’s not the Campbell’s Cream Of Mushroom Peek-A-Boo. It’s the 16th Annual Seattle Waterfront Neighborhood Chowder Cook-Off. The SWNCCO. You do not phone this in. You do not run to Safeway, get canned clams and a gallon of half-and-half, throw that crap in the pot and expect sorcery to mutate out an award-winning chowder. I will f***ing clam bam the next person I hear about doing something like that.

This is the eighth year in a row my family’s attended this. I have noticed some patterns in how restaurants handle this clam chowder cook-off.

1. Anthony’s Pier 66 just never brings it. Never. They never have their head in the game. They never innovate. They just shove what they make every day out there and figure you’ll drool for it because they are the big fish (ha) on Pier 66. I have never ranked them in the top half, I don’t think. This year they were dead last.

2. Ivar’s also phones it in every year, and since they’re the most recognizable brand name on the waterfront and carry the most popular reputation, I guess I understand that. To a point. But whether they’ve sucked or succeeded with me depends almost entirely on the time I get to their chowder. If it’s been sitting a long time, it usually sucks. If it’s hot off the stove, generally, they do okay. This was one of their better years, but it was only good enough for fifth.

3. The Six Seven at the Edgewater takes this shit seriously, year in, year out. I think up until last year they’d won several years in a row (I cannot locate the official records) and they made a point to tell me last year. The Six Seven has never finished below third place any year I’ve done this. This, however, was a year in which they finished third.

4. Finally, you just never know what’s going to come from the Bell Harbor Conference Center. Because they’re a meetings facility. They’re not so much concerned with their cuisine because they’re too busy fixing overhead projectors and optimizing their A/V displays for PowerPoint and stuff. Some cook-offs, they will surprise you with their depth. Other times they make you feel like you’re inconveniencing them by asking for the chowder that you paid a good entrance fee for. One time they ran out of chowder, which has never happened with anyone else, and were nonchalant about it. I was incensed. I was livid. I got down on my knees outside the boiler room and screamed, “Why, why, for the love of God why?” And then I was raptured. But they sent me back because of some unpaid parking tickets.

This year there were some new wrinkles.

1. Lobbying. The Chowder Cook-Off participants have never pandered for votes. They’ve never explained their M.O. But this year Hook & Plow went to enormous lengths to curry favor with my daughter. “You know why we won last year?” the presenter said to Lucie, as he pointed to the stamp on our “passports” indicating that we’d visited their place. It was in the shape of a pig. “That’s why! Bacon!” Then he stamped Lucie’s wrist to remind her to consider them when casting her final vote. The Hook & Plow did have some lovely, thick bacon in their chowder, and going into the homestretch they were my leaders. But it had nothing to do with the bacon, or the expertly sliced chives they thoughtfully sprinkled on the soup. (That’s another wrinkle indigenous to the Hook & Plow. Their soups were carefully crafted, then flourished with a dollop of chives just before serving.)

Bell Harbor Conference Center bragged about, not just their chowder, but their creative process. “Everybody else just does the same chowder year after year,” the server said. “Bell Harbor does something different every year.” That’s true. Sometimes it’s good – a couple of times it was a solid dark horse – and sometimes, not so much.

2. Asking my status. No participant has ever asked me “Do you have any favorites so far?” Ever. Ever. This year two of them did. And it’s a question I wouldn’t answer. Do you think Steven Spielberg called up his Academy friends during the last award season and asked, “Say, got any favorites for Best Director?” Of course not. It would be uncouth. And if he were to call me up, if I was a member of the Academy that is, I wouldn’t tell him. “Uh, yeah, you’re pretty good Steve, but this year I preferred Ang Lee.” Are you kidding? Never tip your hand. Never.

3. Fisherman’s failed. This is a first. Fisherman’s was always a consistent top five finisher for me. One year I proclaimed them best. This year they went way down.

4. The Crab Pot used a lot of thyme. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal to me, but I have some very painful past moments concerning the use of thyme in clam chowder. See, awhile back I had this girlfriend. We made plans one afternoon for me to come over to her house to make her some clam chowder. I got the recipe from a book. The ingredient list included thyme. My then-GF got a little persnickety about it. “Thyme? What are you using thyme in a clam chowder recipe for?” To make it worse, between the time I purchased the thyme and the time I started cooking we ran into one of our mutual friends at the bar. Then-GF started complaining about how I needed thyme for my chowder. This mutual friend supported her. “I’ve never heard of thyme being used in clam chowder.”

What? What the hell is wrong with you people? Obviously someone used thyme in clam chowder before because I found this flippin’ recipe that calls for it! Are you saying I can’t read? Are you saying Martha Stewart (or whoever it was) is an insurgent, reckless thyme slut? And when did you get so straight-edge about clam chowder? Where in the code does it say you can never use thyme in clam chowder? The hell? I’m using thyme. Screw all y’all.

So to taste the Crab Pot’s clam chowder recipe, which was absolutely drenched with thyme, was a great moment of absolution for me. Here, you shrieking harpies. Here’s your goddamn thyme. At a restaurant. I’m vindicated. (Really, the only remnants of my past that need to be vindicated are in the realm of cuisine. Everything else has been taken care of or swept under the karmic rug.)

However, I only ranked the Crab Pot fourth. Good, but too much thyme.

5. The recession took Steamer’s. They weren’t there this year. They closed their waterfront location. They never contended as far as I remember, so less work for me.

As far as who gave us the best chowder – well, despite my manufactured indignity over Hook & Plow begging for votes, their chowder with thick-cut, smoky bacon and chives was pretty damn good. It had balance and assertiveness. It had amazing texture. It was so delicious, I gave it second place. Bacon solves almost everything, but "almost" is for slackers.

The winner was… Bell Harbor Conference Center. Their chowder was so amazing that after I got home I googled who their executive chef was: Jay Bartleson. It wasn’t even close. For one thing, Bartleson published his ingredient list – shallots (I will always like you if you use shallots), Andouille sausage and spiced rum. When I saw “spiced rum” I was apprehensive – I usually don’t favor recipes that use hard liquor, and rum has never been my drink of choice. But good Lord, it worked this time. It gave such a distinctive and pleasing edge, I exed the other contenders out of my head. And there’s a reason Andouille sausage exists – it almost unfailingly guarantees that whatever dish it’s in will not suck.

So there you go, Seattle waterfront restaurants – at least this year, you got beaten by a meetings facility. Maybe you could book a room there and use PowerPoint to figure out why you lost. See you next year, maybe.
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