This Clam Chowder Was a Family-Meal Favorite at Charlie Trotter’s Iconic Eatery

Chef Giuseppe Tentori brought it with him to his River North steakhouse

June 16, 2023 6:27 am
bowl of clam chowder
Who could turn down this steaming bowl of goodness?
Giuseppe Tentor

There’s no clam chowder in Italy, says Giuseppe Tentori, so it wasn’t until the Milanese chef was employed in the kitchens of Charlie Trotter that he crossed paths with the New England staple. Thanks to chef de cuisine Matthias Merges, it became a staff meal staple, featuring not just clams but all sorts of fresh seafood from oysters to turbot to crab. “We used to work like a 12- to 14-hour day, and we would have just one meal,” Tentori says. “It was kind of cozy.”

The smells and flavors of clam chowder reminded him of his days at Trotter’s long after departing the legendary restaurant, and when Tentori was getting ready to open his own GT Fish & Oyster 13 years ago, he knew chowder would be a feature. He tested all manner of iterations of the soup, from Rhode Island-style to Manhattan, only to realize that the original, cream-based chowder was the one for him.

And he wasn’t the only one. His chowder soon became so beloved that regulars wouldn’t abide modifications or changes. To wit, when three months after opening, Tentori dared to swap out bacon for smoked duck breast and added roasted corn — and he was met with scorn. “I had a table of six people walk in,” he says. “They ordered six clam chowders, and as soon as their clam chowders came, they just left.”

In hindsight, it makes him laugh. “I decided to go back to my roots and to be a little bit more consistent about what people want,” he says.

His chowder may be consistent, but it’s not quite traditional. It begins with a base thickened not with a roux but rather with cornstarch, a technique gleaned from Trotter that renders the soup less stodgy or “gluey.” “With the cornstarch, it’s a little bit more light and brothy,” he says. “You can really taste the different flavors.”

These include an aromatic base of garlic, celery and onion, as well as bacon from Bob Nueske, an early patron of GT Fish & Oyster. In the restaurant, the bacon is added at the last minute along with the clams and cooked potatoes so that all of the elements retain their individual characters. “We wanted to make sure that clam chowder we were making had texture,” Tentori says. “It wasn’t just something you scoop and put in a bowl.”

When GT Fish & Oyster shuttered, it seemed the soup would disappear for good. But Tentori has recently revived it on the menu at his steakhouse GT Prime — a move that, he says, has “delighted” his patrons, much to his surprise. “You work in fine dining for like 18 years, and clam chowder, it’s just a soup,” he says. “But people love the consistency and memory of food.” 

To be fair, with a soup that manages to be both this creamy and this light, it’s no surprise fans are eager for its curtain call.

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GT’s New England-Style Clam Chowder

Servings: 4-6

  • 60 fresh littleneck or manilla clams
  • ½ cup lardons or Nueske’s thick-cut bacon, chopped
  • 1½ cups diced celery
  • 1½ cups diced Spanish onion
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • 2 cups peeled and large-diced Yukon Gold potatoes
  • ¾ cup white wine
  • 3 10-ounce cans chopped clams, including liquid
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • ¾ cup cornstarch
  • 1¾ cups water, divided
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
  • Chives, for garnish
  • Hot sauce (optional)
    1. Purge the clams under running ice cold water for 20 minutes before steaming so they release any sand from inside. Pre-steam the clams over water until they just start to open, about 5-8 minutes. Reserve the meat and cooking liquid.

    2. In a large pot, render the bacon over medium heat until it’s three-quarters rendered with light color. Add the garlic, onion and celery and sweat, stirring to make sure the vegetables get no color. When the onion is slightly translucent, add the white wine, turn the heat to medium-high, and reduce until almost dry.

    3. Add the chopped clams and bring to a boil. When it just starts to boil, add the heavy cream and potatoes and bring up to a simmer. Simmer until the potatoes are almost fully cooked, 8-15 minutes depending on size and temperature.

    4. Make a slurry with the cornstarch and ¾ cups of water by whisking together in a small bowl, then whisk the slurry into the chowder and simmer for 3-4 minutes to cook out the starch. Keep whisking to ensure there is no scorching on the bottom of the pan.

    5. Add the steamed fresh clams with their liquid, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

    6. Serve in a soup bowl or crock and garnish with freshly chopped chives and a little splash of hot sauce, if desired.


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