Professional and amateur chefs are gearing up for the fifth annual Chili Challenge hosted by the Water Street Market on Jan. 26 from noon to 3 p.m. According to event coordinator Theresa Fall, there are close to a dozen and a half entries, and the chili is expected to be “fabulous! We have some return chefs and restaurants that have been with us from the beginning, like P&Gs, and we have some new home chefs and restaurants that have joined the competition this year.” Some of these include the Global Palate, located in West Park, and Rock and Rye, located off Huguenot Street near the golf course.
The event has grown so much that contestants are required, among other things, to prepare at least three gallons of chili. “There were years when it was frigid, and we still had a huge turnout and ran out of chili!” recalls Fall. “During milder days, we’ve had well over 1,000 people attend, so we make sure we have enough chili to go around.”
The cost of a two-ounce chili taste is $1. But to get more chili-bang for the buck, people can purchase 12 tickets for $10 or 25 tickets for $20 to get a full sampling of the gourmet chili, as well as some of the side dishes that accompany them, like cornbread and salads. All proceeds go to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in New Paltz, which has a non-denominational food pantry that helps to feed hundreds of local families throughout the year.
“Most of our fundraising events go towards raising funds for Family of New Paltz,” said Fall, “but this one we’ve always dedicated to St. Joseph’s, who has an amazing food pantry that often goes under the radar. We’ve raised approximately $2,000 a year or more, and that can help stock their shelves for months.”
Another component of the Chili Challenge is that the chefs use at least five local ingredients, whether they be herbs or vegetables from their own gardens, locally grown produce, dairy, meat or cheese. “It helps build awareness that you can make fantastic gourmet chili, or just about any dish, using the wealth of our local growers,” said Fall.
There are three contest categories in which participants vie: Best Professional Chili, Best Home Chef Chili and People’s Choice. “We have a panel of judges that determines the Best Professional and Home Chef chili,” explained Fall. “But everyone who buys a ticket gets to place a poker chip inside a jar for their personal favorite.”
One multiple winner of the Home Chef category over the years, Paul Schembri, will work alongside his daughter this year to prepare his as-of-yet unveiled Home Chef Chili batch for the contest. “She asked if she could help me, because she wants to learn how to make chili and to get her name in the paper if we win!” he said with a laugh. “My chili tends to center around pork. One year we had four different kinds of pork; the next year, my partner added two home-cured types of local bacon that were out of this world.”
To balance the saltiness of the pork, Schembri likes to sweeten his chili up with local apples, cider and syrup. “It’s that salty/sweet mix that makes it so popular, I think. Plus, I add some spice to it with jalapeño peppers and various kinds of peppers…but each year the recipe changes.”
More than enjoying the creative culinary process of making the chili, Schembri is just happy to be part of what he believes is a great community event. “I was there in the beginning, and when Theresa asked me if I would participate again, I was like, ‘Of course!’ It’s for a great cause, the St. Joseph’s food pantry; it brings out the community; and no matter how much chili I make, I’m always running out! I’m preparing more than the three gallons of chili required; I’m going for five gallons, because I can’t stand personally when you go to something and the food runs out!”
The Chili Challenge will take place in the courtyard of the Water Street Market, with live music by the popular local band Yard Sale.
Asked why she thinks that the Chili Challenge has been such a success over the years, Fall said, “You know, it’s one of my favorite events we do. It’s the dead of winter, the downtime; and yet it brings the community out, gets the culinary genius going, a fun-loving competitive spirit — and we all just have a great time together!”