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Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn wins Chowder Chow Down in Ucluelet

Inn wins over hearts and stomachs at Pacific Rim Whale Festival competition
The Wickaninnish Inn’s Chowder Chow Down team, Kareen Brown, Karlina Unyango and Katrina Hart proudly showcase their winning entry. See more photos on Page 15. (Andrew Bailey photo)

The West Coast’s best chowder belongs to The Wickaninnish Inn.

The region’s premier culinary competition played out on Saturday, March 16, with The Inn’s boldly unique entry winning over hearts and stomachs of chowder enthusiasts, securing both the People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice awards at the 2024 Chowder Chow Down.

“The Chowder Chow Down represents a true West Coast event. Of course chowder is enjoyed by people all over the world, but we have so much beautiful seafood where we live here that it becomes kind of a staple in our meal planning,” Ucluelet mayor Marilyn McEwen, one of the event’s judges, told the Westerly News after the winner was announced.

“The restaurants all pride themselves on having the best chowder and so this is an opportunity for them to actually prove it and compete with each other. May the best chowder win and so it did today.”

Event MC Laurie Gehrke said the event sold out with 300 participants sampling chowders from four local restaurants—two from Tofino and two from Ucluelet—The Wickaninnish Inn, Roar, Black Rock Oceanfront Resort and Floathouse Patio and Grill.

Gehrke added there was a “very, very, narrow difference between first and second” in the People’s Choice category.

“We had an extremely tight race yet again this year,” she told a happy and well-nourished crowd at the Ucluelet Community Centre

The Inn’s winning chowder was the creation of Kareen Brown who dipped into her Jamaican roots and took a big swing at creating unique flavour.

“I wanted to go above and beyond and have something that stands out,” Brown told the Westerly after celebrating the win with her team. “I thought that a little bit of my heritage would be an advantage, so I incorporated some jerk spice into the chowder.”

She explained she went with a lardon, pork belly, with jerk rub rather than the more traditional bacon style, marinating it for about 72 hours and adding some caviar for flair.

“I wanted to elevate it a bit for the competition,” she said. “I just came with confidence knowing that I love what I do and I want to showcase what I do. That confidence pushed me to the max and I had a good team behind me that executed my idea properly and how I wanted it. It was a great experience.”

While participants voting in the People’s Choice category meet the makers of their chowders before sampling, official judges are kept behind a black curtain at the centre’s main stage and do not know which restaurant’s chowder they are voting for.

“We didn’t know whose chowder we were eating, but we had to grade each one on presentation, creativity, flavour, aroma and several other criteria,” McEwen explained.

She spoke to the secrecy of the judges’ tasting, noting she did not know she had voted for The Wickaninnish Inn’s chowder until after it was announced as the winner.

“It was unique. It was different. There was some pork belly in it which is very unusual. The texture was lovely. The flavour was fantastic. Presentation was great. It just ticked all the boxes,” she said of The Inn’s winning entry. “My second favourite was a very close second for me and I would have been happy to have a bowl of either one of them.”

She added the Pacific Rim Rotary Club did a phenomenal job hosting the event for the second year in a row after it had been cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Chowder Chow Down is such a fun, fantastic event,” she said. “Everybody leaves the Chowder Chow Down with a really good feeling. It’s a happy event. There’s music, there’s good food and it’s a chance for locals to come and socialize too. It’s for everybody.”

The Wickaninnish Inn now has the right to display the Chowder Chow Down trophy at its restaurant for a year.

“Having it on display means that we can showcase to everybody that we’re a part of our community and we love to be a part of our community, whether it’s a competition or the full Whale Fest. We’re just excited to showcase that we’re here on the West Coast and our little side of the Island…We love everybody who is living here, is part of the community and everybody who comes to visit as well,” The Inn’s assistant manager of special events Katrina Hart told the Westerly.

“We love to be part of our local community, whether it’s Ucluelet, Tofino or Port Alberni. We’re so excited to be part of this competition and be able to talk to people in Ucluelet and get them out to Tofino to come and visit us. This is ultimately us displaying our love for cuisine and our love for the West Coast, but also individualized, personalized, showing who we truly are and giving that experience.”

She added she was confident The Inn’s palette pleasing chowder would rock the competition.

“Kareen is a mastermind in what she creates and she brought herself into this chowder. She displayed her heritage, her culture and combined it with a West Coast chowder and showed who she is,” Hart said. “It was incredible.”

Brown said she worked hard to create a lasting experience for those who tasted her chowder.

““For me, food connects us…The creativity behind what we did today was for somebody to have that memorable experience going back,” she said. “I want people that come to experience a good chowder, a good meal…The elements that go into it, the flavour profile, the love behind that chowder…I’m passionate about what I do. I don’t just come up with a chowder and present it. I create it as a masterpiece to showcase.”

She added she has been working at The Wickaninnish Inn for about a year-and-a-half and was recently promoted to line cook.

“It’s awesome. It’s wonderful,” Brown said of working at The Inn. “It stretches me and helps me to be a better chef. The way that we come up with the cuisine, the local ingredients that we use, things that I’m not that accustomed to so it gives me that diversity and creativity to want to do something with the elements and the ingredients that are out here on the West Coast,” she said.

“I came to Canada for a little expansion in my career. I wanted to see what Canada had to offer. The Wickanniniish Inn has given me that aspect where they encourage you to be yourself. What can you do to add to the experience that The Inn offers when guests come there? It’s comfortable and I like it. Tofino is soothing. It caters to a holistical being, so I’m just enjoying the West Coast.”

The Inn’s food and beverage attendant Karlina Unyango helped to make sure everyone had a chance to sample Brown’s chowder as she kept the cups of samples humming from their booth and the long lineup of excited taste-testers flowing throughout the fast paced competition.

“At the Wick we believe in teamwork,” Unyango told the Westerly. “When we work together we can achieve what the mission and the goal of the organization is. Working together gives the best result at the end.”

She added that the frequent lines forming in front of them gave her confidence in a win.

“When I saw the lineups, I said, ‘Kareen, This is ours. We are winning.’ People were coming back for their second rounds and they were saying ‘Oh my gosh, your chowder is the best’…I liked it, the people who turned out and their reaction and how happy they were about the event,” she said. “I’m so proud of Kareen…I’m just happy and excited that we made it and we won.”

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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