Early last week one of my best friends reached out to me and asked if I’d like to help him in a chili cook off competition. Even though I’m not terribly passionate about chili, I thought it would be a fun time. Plus, the event was a fundraiser for the local Ronald McDonald House.
Considering that neither of us had a battled tested recipe at our disposal, it also provided us with an opportunity to do some research into the various styles of chili one could make. My friend took the lead in developing the recipe, while I offered up my opinion on things as the competition approached.
As my wife got home from work that Friday, I grabbed my overnight bag, said goodbye to my family, and headed out the door. Making the five-ish hour trek to Charlottesville, I arrived at my friend’s house just in time to taste the test batch he had been working on in advance of the cook off.
My buddy had chosen to keep the chili old school, sticking to the mantra that “if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans”. He decided to bring the heat by toasting and grinding his own mix of chili peppers to be used in the spice mix and forgo the addition of any freshly diced chile peppers during the cooking process. We also decided to run with a mix of three different cuts of beef for our chili meat, a even blend between chuck, brisket and short rib. And, just for good measure, we added the tiniest bit of bacon to the grind to round things out.
Saturday morning we packed up his car and made our way to the competition. I’ve never participated in anything like this before, and we were very diligent about complying with the various Board of Health rules and regulations to enable us to participate. We finished setting up, got inspected, and a few minutes later were the proud owners of a temporary food establishment permit.
It was the first year that this competition was being held and there were only five other competitors in the cook off. We had dubbed ourselves “The Rookies”, however, roughly half the field had never competed before, so we felt both relieved by that fact and emboldened by our chances.
Due to the simplicity of our recipe we were sitting back enjoying a few brews about 45 minutes into the allotted three hours of prep and cooking time. Other than stirring, constantly adjusting the fickle gas burner, tasting and occasionally re-seasoning, we didn’t have a whole lot to do until it was time to prepare our garnish and serve our chili.
As the taste test portion of the competition started we eagerly awaited feedback on our creation. We felt it was a rather complex concoction with a moderate amount of heat and a nice texture from the meat blend we had chosen. In serving our chili, we offered those tasting it the options of adding freshly grated monterrey jack cheese and thinly sliced scallions as a garnish.
The people that came to the cook off received a spoon, dixie cups and a gold coin, which they were to use to vote for their favorite chili after sampling everyone’s wares. In surveying our competition we were the only entry that did not have beans, which gave us a little bit of pause, but soon the gold coins started to roll in.
When it was all over we finished third, one gold coin away from a three way tie for first place and the ability to participate in a final “taste off” that determined the winner. We felt it was a respectable finish given that our chili recipe was barely a week old and the only batch ever made was done the night before the contest with no real time or ability to make any major changes to the game plan.
We had a lot of fun doing it, met some great people, and, of course, helped to support a great cause. My buddy and I are already thinking about next year and what we might do different. I even managed to catch the “chili bug”, as I brought the leftovers home with me for further analysis.
Are you passionate about chili? What do you think makes a perfect batch? Is it a secret ingredient or just perfect execution of a time honored recipe?