By Konstantine Fekos
WOODCOCK TOWNSHIP —
What started as a joke between two cooks in the same kitchen of Montana’s Rib & Chop House turned out two trophies at the Fourth Annual Chili, Chowder & Soup Cook-Off in the Elk’s Lodge No. 219 Thursday night.
“We both entered a soup; me and one of the other kitchen managers,” said kitchen manager Robert “San Diego” Zachary of his colleague and counterpart Ryan King, both of which have cooked since the restaurant’s opening three years ago.
While Zachary walked into the parking lot with both prizes held high, Montana’s still doubled down on wins.
“It’s more flattering to be the people’s choice,” King said.
The people spoke, or rather nodded over plastic spoonfuls of piping-hot soup, to award Montana’s with the People’s Choice Award and Best Soup for the aptly-titled Philly Cheesesteak, while Best Chowder went to Mickey’s Central Fire Station and first-time competitor Saegertown American Legion Post 205 took home Best Chili.
“This is our first year here, so it’s exciting,” said American Legion cook Erica Speck, standing alongside kitchen partner Barrett Lamb. “We were surprised that people took to it so well, being our first time.”
The unpretentiously named “Chili” sat alongside the Legion’s Cajun Sausage, Chicken and Cheese Tortellini and received many a good remark, according to Speck, which along with their award will prompt a return entry.
“We got a lot of compliments,” Lamb agreed. “We’ll be back next year.”
Mickey’s chowder moguls Steve “House” Houser and Miguel Littleton practically called their win, judging by their pot, practically empty a good hour before the night’s end.
“This is the best chowder in the house,” Littleton declared. “Just look at how little is left.”
The 2013 Best beat out last year’s returning contestants Venango Valley Inn, Rolling Fields and Edinboro University’s Highlands Catering, who still put up a stirring fight with fresh dishes Smoke Beef Brisket Chowder, a nice red to complement Edinboro’s Scottish pride and “Down on the Farm” Beer Chowder, which will be served to Rolling Fields’ senior residents.
Few competitors, if any, were strangers to dealing fresh meals daily — whether they be collegiate diners, pub-goers or country club members.
The twist? Not all dishes were conventional.
Veteran competitor and retirement home Wesbury produced a pumpkin and turkey mix called “Spicy Phunkin Chili.”
“It’s different, so expect that,” said creative culinary artist Chris Clawson, director of intergenerational activities, who conceived his creation with inspiration from a family soup recipe.
“I cook somewhat,” he said simply. “I thought it would make an awesome chili.”
First-time entry Timber Creek Tap & Table took an exotic route with a Thai Coconut Chicken soup alongside a more traditional Shrimp Corn Chowder.
“I think (the event) is excellent,” said General Manager Dustin Kelly, part-owner of the approximate 10-month-old restaurant and prewpub. “It’s nice to see so many people come out and enjoy themselves.”
Kelly was happy to see tasters coming back for seconds, considering their stock.
“We made 16 gallons, which was probably 10 gallons too much,” he confessed. “This was our first time, so we wanted to be overprepared.”
All nervousness aside, more than 325 tasters turning out to sample wares can certainly cause one to think “quantity” as well as quality.
“I would say we have over 300 people easy,” said Kathleen Bishop, president of the Crawford County Chamber of Commerce, event sponsor. “I think every year this crazy crowd grows.”
A portion of proceeds benefit Leadership Meadville, a Chamber of Commerce program designed to train the area’s current and future business leaders.
If hearty chowders and creamy soups got people’s attention, certainly a 50/50 raffle, silent auction and classic rock covers courtesy of local band Necessary Experience surely sealed the deal.
“I had a hard time parking,” said Crawford County commissioner Jack Lynch, winding his way through the crowd just to summarize his experience in one word: awesome. “That’s the only way I can describe it. This is one of the better things we do.”
While eaten unjudged, Dove Chocolate Discoveries, Wanda’s Cakes n’ More and Veronica’s Cafe offered a variety of cakes and other confectioneries while Erie Beer Co. set up shop with samples of new summer beers to wash down whatever folks scooped out of their bowls.
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Competitors in the Fourth Annual Chili, Chowder & Soup Cook-Off included Chestnut Street Bar & Grill, Chipper’s Pub, The Country Club, Downtown Mall Bistro, Highlands Catering at Edinboro University, Hotel Conneaut and the Beach Club, Market House Grille, Mickey’s Central Fire Station, Montana’s Rib & Chop House, Parkhurst Dining Services at Allegheny College, Roff School Tavern, Saegertown American Legion Post 205, Timber Creek Tap & Table, Vacavi Cafe, Venango Valley Inn, Veronica’s Cafe and Wesbury United Methodist Community.