PORTSMOUTH — You’re encouraged to come down to the Melville Grille and taste his award-winning Portuguese Fish Chowder, which once again took top honors in the “best seafood” category at the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport over the weekend.
Just don’t expect W. Scott Cowell III to reveal his secret recipe.
“I do keep it guarded,” said Mr. Cowell, the chef and owner of the waterfront restaurant along with his wife, Elaine. “I was supposed to appear on ‘The Rhode Show’ tomorrow — I’m not actually able to make it — but they were looking for the recipe. I’m reluctant. There’s a lot of people who take their success at the Great Chowder Cook-Off to future success with their product, but I think it’s a little early for me to air the recipe.”
Mr. Cowell did, however, reveal the brand of chourico he uses in the chowder. “I buy the best chourico on the market — Michael’s — and I’ve tried them all. And I use mild chourico, not spicy, so it doesn’t overpower anybody. All of those flavors just kind of meld together,” he said.
If you’ve ever wondered how much chowder one needs to make for a tasting competition, the answer is: lots.
“It’s obscene — 150 gallons for the last two years. I made every ounce myself,” said Mr. Cowell.
He wouldn’t make an ounce less, either.
“The first year, when we won second place, I made about 120 gallons and I ran out around 4 o’clock. So from 4 to 5 I had nothing, and there were still people there. It could have been the difference between second and first place,” he said.
The chowder is made at the restaurant, mainly because it’s logistically impossible to prepare at the Newport Yachting Center, where the Polar Seltzer Great Chowder Cook-Off is held. “The other thing about that is, all of those flavors should sit overnight to combine,” he said.
Contestants use different containers to lug their chowder to the contest. “There were a lot of people with five-gallon pickle buckets. I use about three-gallon fish flats,” said Mr. Cowell. “They’re pretty standard in the industry; if you buy 25 pounds of fish it comes in a rectangular bucket with a really tight lid — it’s like ‘Italian Tupperware,’ the older ladies call it. It holds three gallons of base, which I then add about a gallon and a half of cream to. I had about 40 of them.”
Mr. Cowell said the secret to his success — he’s won in the “best seafood” category two years in a row and took second in 2011 — is consistency. “We serve the same product and we serve it graciously,” he said, adding that he has no plans on tinkering with the recipe. “It really wouldn’t make any sense. It’s the old, ‘If it ain’t broke’ adage. It’s the same one I’ve been making for eons of time.”
Despite the high business turnover rate in the Melville area, Mr. Cowell and his wife, Elaine, are celebrating their seventh season as owners of the restaurant.
“It’s a great location in the summertime when it’s hopping. It’s a challenging location in what I call the ‘shoulder seasons’ — the spring and the fall,” he said, adding that the Portsmouth community has been wonderful in “taking us in.”