I’m not sure what year I first experienced Chowderwreck in Saratoga. Perhaps it was 2010 as a regular citizen rather than as part of a participating restaurant. Two places were enough. The first was about a twenty-minute wait and the second a bit longer. I remember the second chowder on my itinerary as inedible and thinking there’s no chance I’m waiting in another line for a scant 3 oz. portion of chowder or some concoction people are calling chowder. That doesn’t mean there weren’t (and still aren’t) places making good chowder or soup. It was just that I’m an impatient person and wasn’t willing to gamble 30 minutes of my time in hopes that I would stumble on a culinary gem.
My next experience was during a short stint at The Seven Horse Pub. I was called into work early to help prep more of their “award-winning” seahog chowder that contained no seafood aside from Sysco lobster base. The lines were long and the building was packed with obnoxious drinkers. I remember thinking to myself that most of these people aren’t as good at day drinking as they were passing out on the sidewalks and vomiting in the streets.
There’s an award for most chowder served. What about the most served chowder? Southwest……….
I believe in thinking outside the box. But chowder is chowder, and soup is soup. In other words, variations on chowder start with chowder and the chef’s imagination leads it to something interesting, but still chowder. Soup is still soup.
My first time making chowder for this event was at The Wine Bar in 2012. I went against the grain and made clam chowder. It was a lot of work. Hard work doesn’t scare me a bit.
I have never had a desire to win Chowderfest. My philosophy is that the best way to promote the virtues of your restaurant is to work hard every day and make it the best you can. Winning event prizes does nothing to better your food and service. In fact, too much focus on outside events can deter you from what’s important. While I will agree that some events are a good way to support a favorite cause or to help expand your customer base, it’s a waste of time and resources to extend yourself for a day to cater to a crowd that will not improve your business throughout the year.
The current state of Chowderfest can best be described by a prominent local musician. He said the following: “I’m not crazy about the direction of Chowderfest in Saratoga. Without getting into a whole diatribe I will cite a few things that I witnessed while being on-site between the hours of 2-7 pm. At least 4 fights and countless inebriated people being tossed out of bars. Three young ladies sitting in the snow vomiting. One of them had their cooter out. Completely overwhelmed staff at every corner. Plates, cups, chowder, human chowder, broken glass, piss. Everywhere. It was disgusting.” This has also been my observation over the past few years.
We decided not to serve chowder at The Wine Bar this year, but we did open at 11:00 rather than our usual 4:00. It’s difficult not to take advantage of having 30,000 people walking around in February. We served our happy hour menu and of course, drinks. The food part was easy. The difficulty really fell on the FOH staff. These events in Saratoga bring a different crowd, a drinking crowd. As 2:00 rolled around the place started filling up and the party soon got into full swing. From the kitchen I could hear the hooting and hollering, the f-bombs, and the general obnoxious behavior not generally occurring at WB. There was a customer complaint about the language flying around, and one of our employees that was using the men’s room reported that a couple of drunken yahoos were trying to break the door handle while he was in there because they wanted to get in immediately.
I’ve come to expect this behavior at Chowderfest, but for some reason I’m always surprised by the behavior of grown-ups. I’m not only talking about the 20-something crowd, I’m talking about the 40-50 crowd. The two men trying to break into the men’s room were my age and clearly intoxicated. This is the scene all over town. If you didn’t attend and only saw a blurb on the news, it looked like a family-friendly, meet-your-friends-for-some-chowder kind of event. Sure, of the 30,000 that attend there were plenty of folks having a good time waiting in line with their friends and rating all the entrants. Their experience was chowder-centric and they acted like adults.
You cannot tell me it’s just a few bad apples that give the impression of a wild drinkfest. There are an awful lot of people who come for the party with no interest in the spirit of the event. Given a choice, I’d avoid Saratoga on Chowderfest day, as well as St. Patrick’s Day and May 5th.
Complaining without a solution is just whining. I’ll give you some thoughts on that next post.