Which Toronto chefs make the best chowder?
The Ocean Wise Seafood Chowder ChowDown, an event hosted at the Fairmont Royal York on Wednesday, amassed Toronto foodies to sample sustainable chowders, sip local craft beer, and rally around a good cause.
I went through a vegetarian "phase" when I was 17. It stuck. I haven't had a burger since 1996. In College I spent a few months as a vegan, and now my pseudo vegetarianism has morphed into the ovo-sometimes-lacto-occasionally-pesco variety. Meaning, I'm eating fish. While I have guilt related to the "pesco" part of my vegetarian label, it has an easy fix - choosing my seafood wisely.
Making responsible food choices was precisely the message stressed by the evening's guest speaker, Alexandra Cousteau (granddaughter of Jacques and founder of Blue Legacy). While traveling the globe to tell the story of our world's water and the critical issues affecting sea life, people often ask her what one person can do to help. "This is what you can do", she says. But I find it challenging to navigate the food-fish waters. What do I look for? What should I be avoiding?
The host of the event is Ocean Wise, a Vancouver Aquarium non-profit association dedicated to the conservation of ocean life through bringing more awareness and education to the cause. Their mission is to make sustainable seafood more accessible to consumers, and they're seeing it happen as they continue to attract restaurant and food service partners from coast to coast. Clearly, with the delectable chowder options on the menu during the event, making sustainable choices doesn't have to involve any further sacrifice.
The message was sustainability, but honestly, we came for the food. Mini bowls of the down-home favourite were doled out by some of the city's finest eateries, paired with samplers from the Mill Street Brewery beer roster.
The participating chefs were vying for chowder gold as chosen by celeb judges Chef Jamie Kennedy, the Food Network's Micah Donovan and Nobu Adilman, and Mill St. Brewery's Steve Abrams. But participants had a say too; a "people's choice" winner was chosen from a silent ballot.
By a long shot, my pick was Marben Chef Carl Heinrich's Smoked Clam Chowder. It had all of the elements of a traditional chowder, but with an incredible depth of smokiness. "We took the whole soup and put it in the smoker," he explains. Coincidentally, it was paired with my favourite beer of the evening, too. The smoky chowder was perfectly complemented and uplifted by the crisp and fruity Mill St. Betelgeuse Belgian Tripel.
Honourable mentions go to Pangaea, who came to bat with a Shellfish Chowder with Ling Cod "bacon" and oyster buns (loved this gourmet take on a classic style, especially the oyster-stuffed roll), paired with Mill St. Wit Beer; and Cowbell with their Smoked Whitefish and Cheddar Chowder (the least chowder-y, but rich with great contrast between the cheesy base and the soft smoky fish) paired with Mill St. Tankhouse Ale.
Rounding out the remaining "contestants" in order of most to least preferred are:
Trios - White Shrimp and Baja Scallop Chowder w/ Jambon d'Iberico, Cornbread, and Menonite Cream paired with Mill St. Pilsner Lager - really flavourful and chunky
Epic at The Fairmont Royal York - "Smokin" Black Cod Chowder with Mill St. Rauchbier Froth, paired with Mill St. Rauchbier - excellent texture, salty and a tad smoky, sweet and crisp veggies
C5 - Celeriac Sea Urchin, Sable Fish and Clam Chowder paired with Mill St. Organic Lager - creamy and ginger-y with tender fish.
Simple Fish and Chips - Jerked Halibut and Cheek Jewels with Sweet Potato Chowder, paired with Mill St. Stock Ale - good heat, not too rich, points for originality
Great Cooks on Eight - China Lemon Rose Tea Smoked Fish Chowder with Smoked Oyster Cracker, paired with Mill St.Lemon Tea Beer - points for staying on theme, great pairing
FisherFolk - Great Canadian Chowder w/ Nova Scotia smoked Haddock and BC Qualicum Bay Scallops , paired with Mill St. Stock Ale - a bit thin, light, nice crunchy garnish
I don't purport to be an expert on chowder, but maybe by virtue of my Maritime roots I should. Chowder is in my blood. My fellow tasters, however, didn't agree with my pick. They instead voted Pangaea to take the "people's choice" honour. Pangaea chefs Martin Kouprie and Derek Bendig also claimed first place as chosen by the expert panel.
Visit Ocean Wise's website for more information on issues affecting our waters and making responsible seafood choices.
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