Robert Pendergast’s Chowder

By Kristine Kowalchuk.

My love of food is partly thanks to my P.E.I. chef friend Robert Pendergast’s cooking.

Both because his meals are thoughtful and creative and delicious, and because they always include stories and music.

Robert’s family has deep roots on Prince Edward Island, and as far as I can tell they’re all storytellers and musicians. His grandparents and father have written books on P.E.I. folklore, and his brother Michael is a pro accordion player. Sometimes Robert leaves Irish or Acadian songs on my answering machine, just as he sometimes sends me sketched postcards of mackerel or oysters or lobsters. And yet, though we’ve been friends for nearly 15 years, I had never been out east, to see him in his element. Late last summer, however, my mom and I traveled to the Maritimes, and the dinner we had with Robert and his wife Ellen couldn’t have been more P.E.I.

“Drive north from Charlottetown to Stanley Bridge,” were his directions, “and we’ll meet you where the kids jump off the bridge.” Thankfully, Stanley Bridge is tiny and the road goes right over the bridge — where a group of teenage boys were indeed jumping. When Robert and Ellen arrived, Robert picked up a few lobsters and we were off. We drove past L.M. Montgomery’s childhood home, then turned toward “Penderosa Beach,” named after the campground Robert’s family used to run. His family’s cottage was covered in weathered wood, with a red-tin roof. It was just this side of the grass-covered dunes, with a path leading to the beach. We all threw on flip flops and headed for the water, passing Robert’s 90-year-old aunt, who drives to P.E.I. from Vancouver, alone, every summer. The beach was wide and empty, the water clear and surprisingly warm. We spent the afternoon here, swimming, relaxing, and working up an appetite.

Back at the cottage, we poured white wine and Robert prepared our post-beach dinner: colourful tomatoes from the Charlottetown farmers’ market; scallops sautéed in butter; lobster chowder; bread he’d baked in a clay, wood-fire oven; fresh blueberries for dessert. Everything was divine, and the chowder the best I’d ever had. It wasn’t thick; Robert said P.E.I. chowders don’t have a flour roux, just a touch of cream at the end. The lobster was sweet and was perfectly complemented by potatoes and a few leaves of a wild, bay-like herb growing everywhere in the dunes.

Back home, I called Robert for the chowder recipe. Instead, he told me about the chowder he’d made for this fall’s P.E.I. Potato Seafood Chowder Championship, which had won him second place. The basic recipe was the same as the one we’d eaten, he said, but for this one he had puréed oysters and apple for the base. Meanwhile, he had slow-cooked bacon, then removed the bacon and added vegetables and paprika to make the broth; to this he added cod and mussels. Then he had mixed the bacon with bread crumbs, and in a separate bowl blended lobster and butter until it was smooth. He put the lobster butter in the bowl, poured the chowder over, and garnished it with the bacon crumble.

“I’m surprised it finished second!” he said. “But, second place is really the prize on P.E.I. First prize is too political.” Then, instead of giving me this recipe, he sent me one for “chaudrée de poisson et fruits de mer” he had prepared for Radio-Canada. But I realized this was another variation on that same basic chowder — which is also the made-to-order recipe he now makes at Young Folk and the Kettle Black in Charlottetown; customers choose the seafood and the garnish.

As we licked our bowls clean that late-August night on Penderosa Beach, Robert’s nephew Shane stopped by and pulled out a guitar. Robert found a fiddle (he has since gotten good), and they began to play. After Four Strong Winds for my mom and me, they did a dozen local folk songs. One they didn’t play, but which Robert sent me with the chowder recipe, was the best of all: his father singing Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder Pot? There’s a link to it on — so you can make Robert’s chowder after reading this story, and listen to the music. It doesn’t get more P.E.I. than that, even if we’re still in Alberta.

Robert Pendergast’s chowder

Puréed vegetable base

  • butter, olive oil or sunflower oil
  • 2-3 large onions, chopped
  • 2 large carrots, chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 c white mushrooms, chopped
  • 2-6 cloves garlic, minced
  • large pinch of sea salt
  • 4 large potatoes, chopped
  • 3 Cortland apples, peeled and chopped

Cook onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms and garlic on a low fire in butter or oil. Add salt. When vegetables are glistening, add potatoes and apples.

Cover and bring to a gentle boil, then simmer until the vegetables are cooked through. Cool slightly, then purée. Set aside.


  • butter, olive oil or sunflower oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • “enough” potatoes, peeled and diced
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 t smoked paprika
  • any fish (e.g. haddock, halibut or salmon) and shellfish combination
  • 500 ml whipping cream

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot and melt butter/heat oil. Add the onion. Then add the potatoes. Add seasonings. Cover with water and bring to a boil. When the potatoes are cooked, stir in the vegetable purée.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400ºF. Season the fish with salt, pepper and butter, then bake until just barely cooked. Then carefully break it up with a spoon or fork and add it to the chowder, along with any shellfish, and heat through.

To finish, add whipping cream and correct the seasoning.

Luxurious variation

Lobster Butter: Take 250g of fresh or frozen cooked lobster meat, and blend 1-2 minutes. Add 250g of room-temperature butter, a pinch of paprika and pepper, and maybe some chopped chives or parsley, and continue to blend until the mixture is smooth. Put a tablespoon or two of lobster butter in each bowl and pour the hot chowder over top. You could also use crab, shrimp, smoked salmon, cooked mussels, smoked mussels, Malpeque oysters, smoked eel, etc. to flavour your butter.

Kristine Kowalchuk is slightly better at shucking an oyster than playing the fiddle.