By Bob Griffin, 3-Time New York State Chili Champion
A simple starter…you won’t find all the answers here…just some of the big ones.
I remember the first time I ever competed in a cookoff. I had my own vision of what competition chili was like.
The first hurdle I had to get over was reconciling with everyone I knew what competition chili really was all about. Adding beans and vegetables to the recipe is fine for casual company or over a hot dog, but competition chili is the cook, meat, and spices. Competition chili is the true expression of what a real bowl of “Texas Red” is supposed to be.
Early Chili cooks on the cattle drive never took along beans, a difficult item on the old days to store and prepare. They found chili peppers, and used blends of powder and salt to cure the meat. So when the chuckwagon was open for business, all the cook needed to do was to cut the meat and boil water. It was simple and efficient.
In my first cookoff, a fellow cook jovially enjoyed a bowl of my “spaghetti sauce”. I placed 11th in a field of 28 cooks. So I took to seeking out great competition recipes to help build a winner. There are plenty of posted recipes all over the internet that can help guide you in building your own winning combination.
I have learned that a little patience and sticking to a recipe yields results. Also, seek the guidance of other cooks. They are always willing to help provide advice and counsel on helping you refine the taste, texture, and consistency of your creation.
The judges will be asked to evaluate each chili on its own merits – each chili is assigned a score based on 5 criteria:
Color: Does it have a pleasing red color?
Consistency: Does it offer a nice consistency?
Taste: Does it taste like chili should taste?
Aftertaste: Does it have a pleasing aftertaste?
Aroma: Does it have a pleasing smell?
Of course, it’s subjective, but that’s the idea. You never know exactly what tastes will make the judges happy.
What to Expect
You’ll need to prepare about 24-30 ounces of competition chili for the judges. No beans, no veggies, no pasta – no nothin’ except some great meat and a good blend of spices to make a nice red gravy. I use a chuck shoulder as my preferred cut, diced small without being a ground meat.
In addition, you’ll need to make about 6 gallons or more for the general public. This is what helps CHOW. This is what the people come to sample. Here is where you can have a lot more flexibility. The public enjoys a greater variety in their chili, including beans, veggies, even rice. Feel free to provide a completely vegetarian chili or some other meat, provided you are following proper preparation standards.
Your competition chili must be prepared on site. You can mix your spices in advance, but you can’t cook before you get set up.
The Set Up
I would advise a 10×10 or 12×12 tent but see what the organizers have available. Bring a couple of chairs, a stove (or two), cooking utensils, a fire extinguisher, bottled water, towels, and a cooking thermometer. Don’t forget some decorations to let the folks coming to sample your chili be able to more easily identify yours. Some folks have even done things like demonstrations, music or other entertainment to help get attention.
Make a checklist of what you’ll need, and ask other cooks for help. They have a lot of experience, and can really provide some useful guidance.
A guide for health department information is available. It will help provide some tips on proper cooking techniques, etc. You will need a 3-station wash area, with a bin for washing, rinsing, and disinfecting. You should also provide some bottled water to help with creating a separate hand washing station. When you arrive on site, try to identify the area for running water.
You’ll have a cook’s meeting in the morning, usually around 10am. This is a big deal. It’s important to be there to get your competition chili cup, as well as any last-minute instructions from the cookoff organizers. They’ll tell you where the bathrooms are, what the judging schedule is, and (very important!) where the chili samples should be turned in.
It would be a good idea to show up to the grounds no later than 8 or 8:30am to get your tent and cooking area all set before the cook’s meeting. You never know if you need to make a quick run to get more ice or water or some other needed item.
Why we are here…
It’s all about helping our community. It’s a lot of work, organizing or cooking in a competition like this. But in the end, the chili you make for the general public will help raise money for CHOW, who’s mission here is to help feed the hungry of the Southern Tier.
A Final word or two…
This is by no means a complete how-to for getting started in a chili cookoff. It is, however, a simple “start-up” guide. The key thing to do is to ask questions. Cooking competition chili can be a great deal of fun, especially when you have a team of friends and family members around to help. Having done it before, cooking competition chili is great sport for one, but great fun for many.