It’s about time I fessed up. Back in 2006, my friend Matt and I entered the Urbana Beer and Chili Festival (Urbana, IL – my old stompin’ grounds) in an attempt to unseat the hitherto unbeaten Champaign County Democrats. Otherwise known as the Central Illinois International Chili Championship, this competition invites amateur and restaurant competitors to duke it out in the greatest of drinking and chili eating venues – the downtown Urbana, IL parking garage. Set on a windy, mid-fall Saturday, this environment adds the perfect garnishes to the classic, fall football weekend: Chili and lot and lots of beer.
For those of you poor souls who haven’t attended a Chili cookoff, they typically begin with competitors checking in, setting up their booths, passing health inspection, and finally – making their chili in a set period of time. We had 4 hours to prep and cook, in which we were to make 4 gallons of chili for attendees to sample along with several hundred types of beer bought with donations from local business. A portion of the gate went to charity (it’s good to give back! – name that movie quote).
Although I’m not bitter…*whatsoever*, the competition functions in the following manner, year after year after year: 1) Competitors make their chili. 2) Around 1000 people sample the chili. The chilis that run out quickly are clearly the crowd favorites, since everyone makes roughly the same amount. 3) The judges then go and pick the best chilis. 4) At this point, the judges write the names of the best chilis on a piece of paper. 5) That piece of paper is then set on fire, after which the judges piss on the will of the people, and again give the victory to the Champaign County Democrats (the two party system? “The after party is the one you really want to attend”). Year after year, people! For Godsake, their chili tastes like its been blended! BLENDED!! Who does that?! We ran out of our chili in like 2 hours, and they were still trying to unload their mush practically until dawn! Anyway, we came in Second. Booo! Now that I got that out of my system…
Making good chili, especially 4 gallons of chili, is a long process. First, you’ve got to practice – you must refine your recipe. In the case of chili, this can be expensive, depending on the type of meat you want to use. We got ours from the University of Illinois meat lab. That’s right – for those of you who live in the U.S. near land grant schools (state colleges that have agriculture programs), many animal science programs have meat labs where they train students to butcher. This is an awesome place to get a rediculous amount of meat for cheap.
Sometimes, the word “ridiculous” can be relative. For the competition, we got around 16 pounds of bottom round steak. 16 pounds – that’s 256 oz of delicious steak. Even Joey Chestnut couldn’t put that down. Only problem – it came somewhat frozen.
- Todd’s Chili Lesson #1: DO NOT try to cut 16 pounds of slightly frozen steak into 1 inch cubes with a dull knife. Or any kind of knife. Just throw your hand in front of a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick – it will happen faster and feel the same.
My recipe [which I will reveal for the first time to the world in a future post – so stay tuned!], also calls for a lot of diced vegetables. During a Chili competition, when many groups quadruple (or more) their normal recipe sizes, this means a LOT of diced vegetables. When you’re in an outdoor booth with crapola, dull Ikea knives…surrounded by shit talking competitors…with a huge cooler of beer waiting for you after prep – dicing is no longer fun. At all.
- Todd’s Chili Lesson #2: Find a restaurant supply store and purchase bagged, pre-diced vegetables. This is usually still legit to use in the competition – you can’t pre-cut any veggies on your own and bring them in your own bag, but you can bring pre-cut veggies in a package from a store…damn health inspectors. Hatred is crying into the blisters you got from dicing veggies, while watching (out of your one, remaining good eye) the guy next door slowly pour a giant sack of perfectly diced onion into his Chili, as he enjoys a tall, cool Budweiser.
Now that we’ve prepped the Chili – it’s time to get cookin’. At our competition, we had to bring our own cooking devices. As we were both poor college students at the time, we bought 3 portable electric burners off of Amazon.com (3 massive pots=about 4 gallons). Many of the characters we were competing against simply brought turkey fryers and a few propane tanks. We later realized that those people were very, very, very smart. That’s right: Competitors = Smart. Todd = Dumb.
- Todd’s Chili Lesson #3: Test your cooking devices. Having an electric burner is actually a fairly smart idea. You can leave it on for several hours without having propane problems. It’s also a really really cheap alternative. HOWEVER – be sure to understand the electrical network on which your burners will rely. We found out about 15 minutes into cooking that two of our burners were not heating up enough. We were basically maxing out the system. That’s right – the Chili competition was reliant on TWO circuits for our entire section. Whoops! Got it figured out, but it killed our momentum, our confidence, and our buzz. Would have helped to know more ahead of time.
In the end, the competition went incredibly well. After our few preparation hiccups, we got things cooking and our well devised recipe and practice preparations served us well. Have confidence in your burners. Chili has to be a certain temperature to be served to the public. We spent the first hour worrying if we could even get it hot enough to serve – the electrical problem didn’t help! After things heated up, we were almost worried that our chili would get TOO hot. Things might have been worse if we hadn’t been cooling off with a steady stream of liquid anxiety treatments…
- Todd’s Chili Lesson #4: Bring ample libations. You’re cooking chili, not curing polio. If you don’t have enough confidence in your chili that you can’t cook it slightly fuzzy faced, then you just haven’t done your homework. You let down yourself, your competitors, and most of all…your Chili.
The final lesson in all of this – it’s all in the marketing. Give your chili a personality. Give it a brand! Make it unique and people will want to come to your booth to try it. If they like it, they will make their friends come and try it too. And, as we all know – after everyone has 2 or 3 or 8 beers in them, they will certainly want to try a lot more. This gives us our final lesson:
- Todd’s Chili Lesson #5: Decorate! Decorate your booth, decorate yourself. We did not do this. After quickly following lesson #4, we might have THOUGHT we decorated (liquid confidence). In reality, however, we certainly did not.
This sore sight contrasts heavily with the third place team (also people’s choice winners) who really justified their decorations by making one of the spiciest chilis that I’ve ever tasted. They were also right next to us, which is why there is all that caution tape in the background of our photo. Brilliant!