Lefty’s Tavern Knocks Off the King of Red at Annual Chowderfest Cook-Off Classic

By DAVID BIGGY | Oct 04, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill The crew from Lefty's Tavern celebrate their win.

With tears of joy streaming from his eyes, Oscar Morera clutched the championship platter trophy like it was his child on Oct. 1. And rightfully so. The man behind Lefty’s Tavern’s Manhattan clam chowder pulled off what many may have considered the unthinkable, ending a 15-year run by Stefano’s Restaurant in the 29th annual Chowderfest Cook-Off Classic.

“It’s awesome,” said a humble Morera, surrounded by Lefty’s crew as they celebrated their huge victory. “It takes a lot of effort to win. If you add it all up, it took about 70 hours to make the chowder. But I have an awesome kitchen staff, and it was all worth it. It’s all just awesome.”

About an hour before Chowderfest organizer Todd Elsasser and Jillian Panzone, event co-chair with Christopher Schwab, announced the winners, the buzz over Lefty’s chowder inside the voting tent was quite loud. As wave after wave of chowder lovers dropped their red chips into the buckets, it was clear that Lefty’s was in the title hunt from the start.

“I voted for Lefty’s,” said Pennsylvania 10-year-old Nate Quinn, whose 8-year-old brother, Dylan, also voted for Morera’s red chowder. “It was really good and creamy.”

That’s not to say the New York Yankees of Manhattan chowder wasn’t a hit as it tried to retain its title of the past 15 years. Plenty of Chowderfest guests plunked their chips for Stefano’s, which first got into the Chowderfest game in 1993, won in 1995 and 1997, and then in 2001 began its mammoth run. But this time, the game changed. In fact, the Lefty’s victory marked the third time a mainland-side restaurant has won the red category. Behind Lefty’s and Stefano’s was The Black Whale.

“That Lefty’s chowder was great,” said Quinn family friend Katie Pepper of Collegeville, Pa. “It wasn’t just a tomato-based soup with vegetables. It was creamy. It was smooth, and it had a wonderful taste. It was just the way a red chowder should taste.”

Lefty’s first joined the big show in 2012 and didn’t even place that year. During the past three Chowderfests, Lefty’s has hovered near the top, finishing as the runner-up to Stefano’s in 2013 and then again last year. Morera swore he didn’t do anything different this year.

“I’ve really been doing the same thing since we started doing this five years ago,” said Morera, remaining coy about any tweaks he made to the recipe. “Every year has been pretty good. But, finally, this was the year.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Sparks and his crew from Howard’s Restaurant returned to the top spot in the New England white category, after a three-year spurt from 2012-2014 was ended by The Chicken of the Egg last year – remember, Chowderfest was canceled due to flooding in 2015.

“We didn’t do anything different,” said Sparks, moments after celebrating with his chowder squad. “We just concentrated on what we do, keeping it simple with great ingredients and a lot of love. We’ve got it down to a science now. We put in a lot of hours over a couple of days to make our chowder. It’s hard work but the reward is great. We love what we do.”

At least two of three votes from the Quinn-Pepper bunch went to Howard’s, as did thousands of others. The Chicken or the Egg was second, with Country Kettle Chowda in third for the white category.

“I really liked Howard’s white chowder,” Pepper said. “The flavor was good. It had a nice temperature, and it was really creamy. It definitely was the best one for my taste.”

However, neither the Quinn boys nor Pepper dropped their blue chips for the eventual winner in the creative category, Blue Water Cafe, making it 2-for-2 since the blue-chip category was inserted into the big dance last year. Blue Water again won with its lobster bisque, ahead of La Bamba in second and Cuisine on the Green in third.

“We’ve been serving this soup at the restaurant for the last six years and everybody seems to like it, so it’s a natural for Chowderfest,” said Steve DiPietro. “It’s the same soup, but the only difference is we had to replicate it by 200 gallons as opposed to making three gallons. The trick is to keep it consistent from a small batch to a big batch. But most people were coming back for seconds and thirds, so it must have been all right.”

Also all right was the Chowderfest crowd. The Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, presenter of the event, announced on Monday that there was a record turnout of 15,000.

On Sunday, though, Dave Sheridan seemed to have the best understanding of just how big the Chowderfest crowd was, since most of them streamed through the tent to cast their votes.

“I’ve been the voting captain for about 10 years now,” Sheridan said. “I’ve been volunteering with Chowderfest pretty much from the start and I’ve seen some big crowds over the years. But this year, it’s been really busy. From this spot, it looks to me this might be the biggest crowd ever. It’s definitely the biggest I’ve seen in 10 years.”

Of course, the weather was phenomenal – a pleasant and sunny 65 degrees with a light breeze from the bayside.

“I’ve gotten soaked a few times out here,” Sheridan said. “But you can’t beat this weather. It’s a great event and it’s really good for the community, especially when the weather cooperates. Now I’m looking forward to the traffic lights being turned off.”

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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