By Merle Exit
While it may be incontestable that chicken soup is good for you, the question of who makes the best chicken soup is one that many people in many places have asked. “Deli Man,” a 2014 documentary, told the story of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas, which ran a Chicken Soup Cook-Off for many years. There have been cook-offs in the New York City area as well, but until now the partcipants have mostly been amateur chefs and judges.
Barry Packer, a trustee of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Flushing, decided to up the ante a bit, and hold a chicken-soup competition where the cooks were from area restaurants and other food establishments. The resulting event, the 1st Annual Chicken Soup Cook-Off, was held last Saturday.
The participants all provided their own versions of chicken soup, and each was then judged by a panel that included state Sen. Tony Avella; Newsday lifestyle columnist Marge Perry; Brett Reichler, executive chef at Gallagher’s Steak House; culinary professor Tom Smyth and New York Post sportswriter Steve Serby.
“When I received a call asking to judge a food contest, I almost turned it down until I heard that it was all about chicken soup,” said Avella. “I love chicken soup, especially one that is hearty.”
Although vendors such as Ben’s at Bay Terrace, Rego Park’s Ben’s Best and Oakland Gardens’ Buddy’s Kosher Deli were among the competitors, there were some others whose offerings went beyond “traditional” chicken soup. These restaurants included Cascarino’s, Anthony’s, Seven Seas Diner, Terrace Dinner, Maria’s Mediterranean Seafood and Grill, Buddy’s, Skyline Diner, Panera Bread, Bell Diner and Bayside Milk Farm, who packed their soup with various vegetables.
With Saturday a busy evening for most restaurants, only three of the vendors—Ben’s, Terrace Diner and Chef Elvis’ Caribbean Cuisine—sent out their own chefs to ladle their soups. All of the other restaurants were being covered by volunteers.
Judges broke the competitors into traditional and international categories, awarding prizes for first, second and third place. Attendees cast their own ballots for the top three vendors as People’s Choice awards.
In the international category, Mythos Authentic Greek Restaurant took top honors for its lemony rendition of chicken soup. Judges voted a three-way tie for the traditional variety: Ben’s, Anthony’s and Terrace Diner. There was a two-way tie for second place in the international category, with Iavarone Bros. and Chef Elvis taking that honor.
Packer counted 87 votes for the People’s Choice award, with Chef Elvis coming in as the winner, Ben’s taking second place and Iavarone Bros. third. Ten-year-old Aviva Kaufman from Bayside was elected by her mother to do the voting. “My favorite was Ben’s,” she said. “I liked the soup and the big fluffy matzo ball.” It was the size of a baseball and served in a pint container. Latkes were offered as well.
The Bagel Shoppe provided mini bagels, while Maggie Moo’s took care of dessert with its non-dairy ice cream.
Packer said he was extremely pleased with the way the evening turned out. “It was mind-boggling to step back, as I did a couple of times throughout the night, and just take it all in—from the number of people, to the smooth flow of the night, to the extreme generosity of all of our vendors—either by being there with their soups or by offering gift certificates for our raffle,” he said.
He also said that this is likely just the beginning of a tradition at Beth Sholom. “Each of the five judges said to let them know the date for next year and they will be back, as did the vendors I had a chance to talk with afterwards. My team is already discussing the date and details for the 2nd Annual Chicken-Soup Cook-Off in October 2017. From what our early estimates show, I believe that we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 people. And, that is not to mention all of the raffle tickets that were sold. Now we will have a definitive goal for next year.”
Since there were leftovers at the end of the evening, attendees were welcome to get chicken soup to go. What about the rest? Barry wasn’t sure at the time but the thought of donating to a soup kitchen seemed appropriate.