Just like the next Food Network or Bravo addict, I enjoy a good food fight.
But more than anything in this entire world (except for an all-expense paid trip to Aruba for the winter), the cockles of my heart are warmed when people gather for their sheer, unadulterated Love of Food — and have fun with it.
Especially in the name of chili.
Last Thursday evening I met a group of chili fanatics — a ragtag bunch of down-and-dirty competitors who chop-chopped vegetables, browned meats of all varieties, meticulously (or not) measured out spices (some so secret their identity couldn’t be revealed) and revved up crock pots for a chance to be crowned the KC Chili Champeen at the second annualCHILLYs
fundraiser for the American Advertising Federation of Kansas City.
The air outside celebrated photographer David Morris’s2131 Studio
Crossroads event space was bone chilling —perfect weather for the big Western-style showdown.
It was one of those nights when breath freezes instantly into thousands of tiny ice droplets that Lindsay Laricks could spike with herLittle Freshie
So cold you craved anything to make your innards sweat.
Inside, the festively lighted space was on fire with the comingled scent wafting from small electric appliances brimming with home-cooked chili. The aroma of cumin, garlic, chili powder and cinnamon at the CHILLYs was to food aromatherapy what Emily Voth’sIndigo Wild
store on the edge of downtown is to natural beauty products.
Eleven teams with names such as Baby Spice, Magic Mike’s Musical Fruit Chili and Chili Chili Bang Bang comprised this year’s CHILLYs. Good-natured jabs floated between tables as teams dispensed samples and vied for votes that would decide the four finalists.
The mood was a tad irreverent, but the cooks were serious about their special concoctions.
Michael LaMonica, a well-known KC creative director and designer, presided over the ceremonies as emcee, dressed in a cowboy hat and fake mustache (pasted over his real facial hair), cajoling the crowd as the clock ticked down to the moment of judgment.
Forget Power to the People, this group of chili outlaws, including copywriters, art directors, designers and other creative types in the Kansas City advertising community, endorses Chili to the People.
One nation under chili.
Chili for everyone.
Mildly hot chili for the faint of heart.
Spicy chili that coaxes beads of sweat to pop out, even on Botoxed foreheads.
Bodacious chili packing a one-two knockout punch, softened by a seductive velvet hammer of cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate.
Chili so goshdarn thick it could support one of chef Michael Smith’s monster kitchen knives stuck in the middle of a bowl, or when spread on a piece ofFevere
Cheese Slipper ciabatta, would make a mighty good, rib-sticking sandwich.
I was a member of the five-judge panel cobbled together for the difficult task of choosing the first, second, third and fourth place chili kings who would go home victorious with large red porcelain jalapeno trophies tucked under their arms.
Chef Michael Smith ofMichael Smith and Extra Virgin; blogger and The Test Kitchen founder Jenny Vergara; chef Alex Pope of The Local Pig and Pigwich; chef Brett Atkinson of Wilma’s Real Good Food
; and yours truly were bribed by overzealous contenders, plied with cold beer and top-drawer tequila (myself, I preferred the Jarritos Tamarind soda) and sold a bill of goods by some of the rowdy chili chefs who had tippled a bit too much from the makeshift saloon set up in the venue’s back room.
The raucous crowd finished scooping tortilla chips through homemade salsas at the salsa bar, downed untold cold ones and cast their votes to whittle the field to four chilis for the judges’ consideration.
My fellow chili connoisseurs and I were ready to get down to business.
No lighthearted attitudes and no searing, Gordon Ramsay-like, soul-dashing tongue-lashings among the judging cadre.
Just common sense judging. What you like, why you like it.
Four cups of chili from each of the final four were placed in front of each judge.
dudes, Robert Bishop and Matt Shaw, write copy by day and at lunchtime don barbecue- and taco sauce-stained trenchcoats, combing the city in search of lowbrow food. As the smack-talking chefs of Kneecap Chili, they claimed to be competing against “the tyranny of big corporate chili with a revolutionary recipe.”
I liked their chili. It flushed my cheeks and made me long for a sugar-glazed doughnut to offset its wallop. I feared its potency might begin to eat away the flimsy Styrofoam cups from which the judges and I sampled each chili.
Sarah Dyerson, director of the AAFKC, who looked like a grownup, goody-two-shoes Girl Scout sporting a trendy cut and color, peddled her secret weapon, Chili to Dyerson For. Dyerson had the aplomb and confidence of a seasoned chili slinger — which she is, having entered (and won) some bigger-time competitions than the CHILLYs.
Pope, who presumably knows his way around a bowl of good chili, gave Dyerson’s entry a thumbs-up, calling it “honest-to-goodness chili.”
Next up was Paul Weber, owner of EAG Marketing and Advertising, who prepared an entire ad campaign to earnestly pitch his chili to the judges. He stood before us, in a logoed apron, with a framed ode to his Get a Little Tail chili. He coyly left the propaganda on the counter within eyeshot of Smith, Vergara, Pope, Atkinson and me.
I almost licked my cup clean. Weber had managed to perfect my personal chili trifecta: spicy, meaty (oxtail, mind you), sweet finish.
But that was just my opinion.
Paula Morris, David’s wife, decked out like the Kansas version of the Pioneer Woman with a red bandana tied around her neck, practically sang her Fiery After Burn chili’s virtues. She added a plug for the chili’s locavore ingredients — peppers from her garden that she roasted and cubed beef chuck from The Local Pig.
Smith paused from scribbling indecipherable notes with a jumbo black Sharpie on a paper napkin.
“This is really good stuff,” he shared with the crowd in his most James Beard chef voice-of-authority.
He then threw his hands skyward, gave a shoulder shrug and humbly said, “But what do I know?”
Atkinson went with the flow, quietly assessing each chili, periodically leaning over to me and saying, “So what do you think about this one?” before retreating back into his own chili reverie.
After conferring with one another, quaffing more beer, tequila and Mexican soft drinks, a semi-fierce debate over flavor and hot versus mild ensued between the judges.
At last we concluded: Fiery After Burn was awarded top prize, followed by Kneecap Chili, Chili to Dyerson For and Get a Little Tail.
The winners squealed, the losers did, too, and Vergara, always the cheerleader for food lovers, thanked the chili chefs for displaying passion and creativity.
As the crowd dispersed, two blonde chili chefs, Cara McDonald and Sarah Norden of “the ara(h)s,” bearing cups of their vegan creation, wandered over. The duo didn’t make it into the final four but were determined to spread the gospel of their chili.
“Would you like to try our vegan chili?” They chirped in unison. I swear a halo of light surrounded these two bright and shiny CHILLYs champ wannabes.
I accepted a cup and made my way to the door, congratulating Paula on her KC Chili Champeen title, spooning the unusual and divine vegan chili into my mouth.
Outside my breath puffed into clouds laced with onion and garlic and guacamole.
I was deeply satisfied on a cold winter’s night.
Kneecap Chili creators and second place CHILLYs conquerors Bishop and Shaw were in the parking lot, stashing slow cookers and supplies into a car trunk.
They raised their fists high, shouting to no one in particular.
“Chili to the People!”
Their proclamation shattered the night’s frosty silence.
Yeah, I thought as my car engine reluctantly turned over. Why not?Extra Virgin chili
Thank the chili gods that chef Michael Smith, owner of Michael Smith and Extra Virgin, was willing to share his recipe for this heavenly winter warmer-upper. He suggests opening good Mexican beer to swig while savoring every spoonful of this dish in front of a roaring fire with chili-loving friends.Ingredients 4 lb. marbled beef chuck — cubed 2 tablespoons cooking oil 1 pork neck bone 1 medium whole carrot – unpeeled 8 oz. can diced tomatoes 8 oz. can chopped green chilis 1 tablespoon chipotle chili in adobo - chopped 5 cloves garlic – rough chopped 2 yellow onions – small dice 2 cups pork or beef broth 1 tablespoon tomato paste 12 ounces canned black beans 1 bottle Tecate Mexican beer 1 tablespoon New Mexican chile powder 1 teaspoon cumin 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano 1 tablespoon fresh epazote 2 tablespoons masa GARNISHES Cilantro Lime wedges Slivered radishes Diced avocado Queso fresco Chicharones Fried tortilla strips
Preheat the oven to 335 degrees. Heat a large heavy bottomed soup pot with the cooking oil and brown the meat in batches so the skillet remains hot enough to caramelize the meat. Add more oil as needed. Add onions and garlic and cook for another 3 minutes. Add epazote, cumin, oregano and chili powder. Stir well for about a minute. Add tomato paste, canned tomatoes, chipotle, black beans and canned green chilies. Stir to mix well. Let mixture cook for about two to three minutes. Add masa, carrot, pork bone, beer and meat broth. Bring to a boil while stirring often. Cook chili in the oven for about 2 hours or until meat falls apart.
When chili is cooked through remove the neck bone and carrot. Serve without delay.Fiery After Burn chili
Paula Morris is the reigning 2013 KC Chili Champeen of the American Advertising Federation of Kansas City. She plucked a recipe from the family cookbook of a good friend, chef Cort Anderson. Morris has used the recipes from the book from more than 20 years.
“The recipe follows his original except for a few additions; cubed beef chuck from the Local Pig, and roasted peppers from my garden,” says Morris.Ingredients 2 packages Carroll Shelby's chili seasoning 2 lbs. lean ground pork 2 lbs. ground beef 2 lbs. beef chuck, cubed 3 14.5 oz. cans tomato wedges 1 ½ cups roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped Anaheim and Poblano peppers 6-ounce can tomato paste 12-ounce bottle of beer 2 large white onions 3 tablespoons chili powder (mild or extra hot, to your taste) Salt to taste 2 15 oz. cans ranch style beans (optional) GARNISHES 1 red onion Fritos corn chips Mild cheddar, grated
Brown and drain beef and pork separately. While the meat is browning chop the two large onions. In a large pot combine meat, tomatoes, and large spice packet from the Carroll Shelby’s, stir over medium heat until well mixed. Next stir in beer and tomato paste and simmer (stirring occasionally) covered for 20-30 minutes. After the chili has simmered, taste and add small packets of cayenne pepper, salt (from Shelby’s box) and additional chili powder. For milder chili reduce the amount of cayenne and chili powder. Add the finely chopped roasted peppers that have been peeled and seeded. Add beans if wanted. Simmer another 30 minutes covered. Before serving chop the red onion and grate cheese.
To serve place a small handful of Fritos in the bottom of each bowl, then cover with chili and sprinkle onion and cheese on top to taste. The flavor improves if the chili is made a day ahead and refrigerated overnight. This recipe makes 10-12 servings. Any leftovers can be frozen and reheated.