On Sunday, Sept. 1, many of the world’s best chili cooks gathered at the Queen Mary’s Events Park for the inaugural Delicious Chili and Brew Fest. The teams, including ones with several International Chili Society World Chili champions, put their best chili forward as they vied for the awards for Red Chili, Green Chili, Homestyle Chili, People’s Choice Chili and Salsa. Many of the chefs took time for an interview exclusive to the Examiner about their chili, the contest and their competition.
Bob and Ellen Dyer, of Gear Jammers Chili, have been doing chili cook offs for the past 30 years. As Bob said, “It’s more than just a hobby with the people you meet and the camaraderie, We do it for fun and the people we meet. We used to travel to a lot of states. These days, we are lucky and good enough to qualify early for the world Championships”. ‘Good enough’ is a modest way of saying that the Gear Jammers were the 2003 International Chili Society’s Green Chili World Champions in 2003. The green chili, or Chili Verde, is a real test of the cooks. Most green chili consists of pork with spices and has a very different taste then the “bowl of red” that is the chili that most people think of, which consists only of beef, a red sauce and spices. Bob first started cooking red chili in 1969 and has been doing green chili since 2000. He thought that the Queen Mary was a great venue and was already looking forward to having another cook off at the Queen Mary in 2014.
Traveling to the Queen Mary from Littleton, Colorado were the reigning champs from Pool’s Brew Chili, Bob and Kathy Plager. Bob is currently the 2012 ICS Grand World Champion, “We drove 1260 miles to get here”, Bob said. “Last year we drove from the East Coast to the West Coast twice, out promoting cook offs”. Bob started young, going as a friend to one of the cooks at the Texas Chilimpyad when he was 22 and ultimately developing a passion for cooking great chili. In 1996, 1998 and 2006 he won the Original Tolbert Chili Group’s Championship in Terlingua, Texas. This award, named after one of the early chili cook off cooks and author of the seminal chili book “A Bowl of Red”, is one of the major chili championships held in Terlingua, site of several of the chili world’s original cook off championships. “I’m known as ‘Prune Man’”, Bob revealed. “Sunsweet is one of my sponsors. One of my secrets is to put two prunes into each pot of chili. They add a touch of sweetness and also give the sauce great gloss”. As did many of the chili cooks, he said that “once we get past the preliminary cook offs, the luck factor helps. With so many good cooks at the events. there is no margin for error”. In the west, his meat of choice is beef tri tip roast for his chili, while in Texas, he likes to use beef chuck tenders.
Bob and Kathy met at the chili cook off in 1984 in Denton, Texas. Kathy is also a champion, having won the World ICS Championship in 1998, as well as taking third in red chili last year at the World Championships. They each use different recipes so they wind up competing against each other often. They agree on one important thing, “You have to cook good chili to begin winning”. These days, they also spend a lot of time running chili cook offs, putting their passion for chili into running the events.
Dick Swenberger also came a distance to cook his chili, arriving from Mesa, Arizona the night before. Dick lives and breathes chili, having begun to create his own chili in cook offs starting in 1991. That year, in their first cook off in Minnesota, Dick and his late wife were told they needed a name with a movie theme. His wife thought for only a moment and came up with “Gone with the Wind Chili”, the name that has been used ever since for the team. In 1994, Dick moved west and continued to cook chili. For four years, he took a truck and a fifth wheel trailer and cooked at chili cook offs in thirty-eight states. At the Queen Mary, a family friend, Melissa, was helping Dick while her father was competing in a chili cook off further up the coast in Camarillo. Melissa is a Southern California resident and has spent many years learning the ins and outs of championship chili. “Chili cooks are the best people in the world”, Dick said. “They’ll share anything, except their recipes of course. They are very good to each other. Everyone is close to each other, sometimes even closer then their own families. I wind up seeing them 20 to 30 weekends per year, every year”.
Dick’s passion doesn’t end with just cooking chili, however. A man who began a successful career in Computer Information Technology, he started “working with them before they even called them computers”. He runs “Dick’s Chili World”, a blog devoted to chili, cook offs and the winners of each competition. Through that, “I’m in contact with people all over the United States. I post results from the road about the different cook offs. With the internet, I can provide instant information on chili for anyone who needs to know the results or news of upcoming events”.
Over at the judging tent, Carol Hancock, the Chief Executive Officer of the International Chili Society, was going over last minute details before the next category of chili came in for judging. Carol, the 1985 World Chili Champion, said that “all the champions love to compete every year. The cooks compete because they love it”. A big part of the chili cook offs are also their charitable aspect, According to Carol, “Since 1967 the ICS has raised over $91 million for charities. That’s the type of people these cooks are, though. If wind knocked over a tent and spilled someone’s chili, several would come over immediately, bringing garlic and even meat, while others would help put the tent up again so they could continue competing. We’re just a big family”. One thing she emphasized is that people love chili so much that “there’s never enough chili!”.
One of the things the chili cooks like to see are new young cooks. Over at the Scoville Chili booth, they could find just that. Chef Ryan Wesley had just finished bringing his final container, containing his red chili, to the judge’s tent. Ryan has been cooking chili for 2 years now, getting into it “when a friend brought me to a chili cook off. He entered us and I won the Grand Prize. This is my fourth competition and I haven’t lost yet!”. Ryan, from Woodland Hills, has been a professional chef longer than he has been cooking chili. He cooks anything and enjoys learning new things. “I don’t limit myself to what I can learn, keep my mind open and strive to see how I can better myself and make myself a better chef.” Ryan agrees with the older chili cooks that “people are where the thing is. I love the reaction of people’s faces when they taste my chili. it’s my ‘drug of choice’”. Ryan, who was in the Top 15 for one of the seasons for TV’s Master Chef, is trying to take his chili to a different level. “I like putting a different twist on it, adding new flavor and reinventing it. Food is something I’m passionate about and I am making it my life”, Ryan said.
At 3pm, the judges received the final entries for the red chili category. Clark McGee, along with Ken and Chuck, his teammates in On the Road Chili, waited, talking to his son who was checking votes for People’s Choice. I think we did really well”, said Clark. We had a long line for our chili and a lot of people came back to tell us how much they loved it”. A few booths away, Bob Dyer and Dick Swenberger were trying out each other’s chili verde. One of the secrets to winning, they said practically in unison, is “Playing games with salt”. They added that it is a tricky area, with the cooks needing to have enough salt to catch the judges attention but not so much that it overpowers the other elements. With each judge having only one taste of each entry, the key is to make that one taste count.
At 5pm, the judges were ready to begin announcing the results and awarding the prizes. Dick Swenberger had already left just after the turn-in to drive back to his home in Arizona. Melissa was on the phone to him shortly, excitedly saying, “Dick, you won 1st Place in Chili Verde!”. She jostled the phone, the winning prize and the placing medal as she gave him the good news. Clark McGee and his On the Road Chili team were called up not once, but three times for awards, winning 3rd in Homestyle Chili and 2nd Place in Chili Verde while teammate Chuck won 3rd Place for his red chili. Ryan’s teammate Amir went up to grab a prize for 2nd Place, Homestyle and several others made the walk to the awards table. Kathy Plager, from Pool’s Brew Chili, took 2nd Place in red, while Zack Anderson, with the Z-Boys, made the crowd happy when he took the People’s Choice Award. Finally, the final announcement came of the Grand Prize winner, Charlie Blosfield. As an ICS Traditional Red Master Cook who has qualified and cooked in over six World Championships, he certainly brought the taste the judges liked to his chili. As day turned into evening, several of the team members went to congratulate each other and visit before they packed up to leave. They had all cooked great pots of chili, and enjoyed the crowds at the Queen Mary’s Delicious Chili and Brew Fest.