Tasters agreed: Tom Brown, the chef at the Freeport Chowder House, prepared the best clam chowder, while Nathan Berube, of Buck’s Naked BBQ and Steakhouse, made the best seafood chowder at the Oct. 4 Chowdah Challenge.

A fundraiser for Freeport Community Services, the Chowdah Challenge, was part of the Freeport Fall Festival. Judges and public taste-testers who paid a fee voted in the competition.

Brown, who grew up in Portland and now lives in South Portland, has been cooking for more than 47 years.

“Cooking seems to run in my family,” Brown said. “My son, Matt, is also a local chef. I get my support from my lovely wife, Janice.”

Berube, 42, lives in Freeport. He was born and raised in Maine and moved back home three years ago after working in the restaurant industry in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for the past 15 years.

“I have a beautiful 8-year-old daughter named Lillian,” Berube said.

Brown and Berube answered questions for the Tri-Town Weekly about chowder and what they like about their profession.

Q: What makes a good chowder? What kind of clams do you use?

Brown: There are three major components to a good chowder. First, I start with the freshest native Maine products I can find. Local seafood, dairy items and fresh vegetables provide the foundation for our chowders. Second, care in preparation. We here at Freeport Chowder House pride ourselves in taking our time in preparing a consistent, high-quality chowder. Our chowders are prepared daily in our small kitchen. Our patrons expect the best chowder because it is our major focus. The third and last component is a secret ingredient. I cannot share that ingredient, but stop by and see if you can guess it. We use native clams.

Berube: I believe a great chowder has to have a few great things. Texture and creaminess are important, not too thick but still be able to hold the seafood and potatoes. Having all the ingredients the same size, being able to take a bite and get everything in every taste. Quality local ingredients and lots of butter. I use Maine chopped clams, white gulf shrimp (little ones), sea scallops and Maine lobster. At Buck’s we smoke the scallops and shrimp, making sure to save all the juice, chop the scallops and lobster and add the seafood just before serving so it doesn’t become over cooked and rubbery.

Q: Do you prefer Manhattan clam chowder, or the New England version, and why?

Brown: I have tasted good Manhattan chowder; however, I prefer our New England-style chowders. The hardy, rich flavor of our chowders symbolize our Maine history and lifestyle. Mainers are a hardy bunch with a rich history. They demand the same from their food.

Q: Does the stock vary from region to region, like it does with clam chowder?

Berube: In my opinion; there is only one clam/seafood chowder, one that is cream- and broth-based. “Manhattan chowder” is some weird tomato seafood stew that should be kept in New York.

Q: How much satisfaction to you take out of doing something like the Chowdah Challenge for such a good cause?

Brown: We get significant satisfaction in participating in the Freeport Community Services Chowdah Challenge. Our owner, Russ Oakes, was a Freeport High School graduate and past treasurer of FCS. He personally knew many of the local families that benefit directly from this worthy cause.

Berube: Being part of the Chowdah Challenge is always rewarding win or lose. Being able to give back to the community and the town I grew up in, and making people happy is what it’s all about. We at Buck’s host fundraisers and try to support the community as much as possible.

Q: What’s your favorite thing to cook?

Brown: Although I enjoy making chowder, I honestly prepare Italian food at home. I often cook dinner in a much more relaxed environment.

Berube: At work, I like working with familiar products differently, and anything in season at its peak of flavor is what I would gravitate toward. We are doing lamb ribs for Harvest On the Harbor (in Portland) and that will be a good time in the kitchen. Like a lot of workers in the restaurant business, however, it’s late nights and eating on the go. Give me a Pho noodle bowl any day and I’m happy, sushi, or anything cooked in one pot, like curry or chicken pot pie.

Q: What is your culinary background?

Brown: I have worked in the seafood business for over 47 years. I started in the Beach Club Hotel in Naples, Fla. I moved to Maine and worked for Newick’s Lobster House in South Portland for over 23 years. I can fry a clam with the best of them. I was with Morrison’s Chowder before Freeport Chowder House.

Berube: My first cooking job was at the ripe age of 15, batter dipping onion rings at Harrasseeket Lunch & Lobster. The Coffins are great people and I am thankful that they gave a young kid a job. I graduated from Johnson & Wales in 1995 and worked in mostly fine dining restaurants and hotels in Boston, the Berkshires, (where I met Alex and Wendyll), and seacoast New Hampshire before moving back home and joined Buck’s. Working at Buck’s and living in Maine is all about great people and a beautiful state. It’s good to be home.

Q: What do you like about Yankee cooking?

Brown: Yankee cooking to me means simple and fresh. If I have learned nothing else over the last 47 years in cooking is that often simple can provide a better result than complex.

Berube: New England, Nova Scotia and southeastern Canada cooking have been transformed by new cultures for centuries. Northern climate cooking is usually heavy in root vegetables, broth and seafood and or meat, and I’m happy with all that but it’s OK to improve. It’s OK to cook with fresh ingredients. It’s comfort food for those of us who grew up here. What I like best about Yankee cooking, (if there even is such a thing) is it’s a great place to start.

Chef Tom Brown proudly stands outside the Freeport Chowder House with the plaques he won for best clam chowder in the Chowdah Challenge, held during the Freeport Fall Festival on Oct. 4.  Nathan Berube, chef at Buck’s Naked BBQ and Steakhouse in Freeport, won the award for best seafood chowder in the  Chowdah Challenge, a benefit for Freeport Community Services.  

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