With rain coming down in buckets last Saturday, the organizers of the Local Ingredient Chili Challenge made a tough call: to postpone the annual event until its Sunday, January 26 rain date. Turns out that they didn’t need to worry much about turnout. Now in its 12th year, the highly anticipated cook-off at the Water Street Market is by now so solidly established as a festive midwinter gathering that hundreds of attendees will still reliably find their way there. (Finding a legal parking space within a short walk might be another matter.)
The date change “didn’t make a difference. I’d say that it’s about the same as a normal Chili Challenge,” said lead organizer Theresa Fall. “Everyone seems to be in a great mood.” Sunday afternoon’s weather was cloudy, with temperatures in the 40s: not too cold to hang out outdoors for a few hours, but definitely chilly enough to spur appetites for warming samples of the spicy concoctions. The ten contestants this year came prepared for an onslaught of hungry visitors, most bringing more than the required minimum of five gallons of chili, and only one or two ran out before the end of the three-hour tasting party.
Eight of the entries were by home chefs, the rest by restaurants or professional chefs. Two of the entrants — Clemson Brothers Brewery and Village Pizza — were first-timers at the event. Three out of the ten chili batches were vegan. Every entry was required to use at least five locally sourced ingredients, and many displayed much longer lists. All were remarkably distinctive in taste, texture and combination of ingredients, leaving this reporter making mental notes to try adding this or that counterintuitive foodstuff next time I make chili at home.
Two of the vegan entries, from Parish and Ray Bradley Farm, made good use of chunks of squash to supply a hearty, “meaty” texture. Yard Owl’s Chorizo Chili incorporated coffee as well as the brewery’s Saison Noir beer. Using no tomatoes at all, Schatzi’s Green Chili was redolent with the slightly citrusy tang of tomatillos. Upstairs on 9’s longtime favorite entry, the Hermannator, got a creative finish with a dollop of chipotle maple goat cheese, and a surprising garnish of pickled onions took the Mohonk Mountain House’s otherwise fairly traditional chili recipe to new heights. Competing for their eighth year in the Home Chef division, Seth and Ana Van Gaasbeek “decided we wanted to do something different this year — something like a chicken enchilada,” in Ana’s words.
Probably the most unusual entry came from the new owners of Village Pizza, a beanless, tomatoey stew that they called Carnivore’s Delight Cup-o-Pizza. It ended up taking first prize in the Most Creative category, with Schatzi’s the runner-up. The Van Gaasbeeks’ Cheesy Chicken Chili with Salsa Verde took Best Home Chef honors, followed by Bradley’s Vegan Chili. Parish’s Smokey Winter Vegetable Chili aced the Best Vegetarian category, with the Mudd Puddle coming in second. Yard Owl came in first and Upstairs on 9 second under Best Professional; the two swapped slots in the People’s Choice competition.
Theresa Fall noted that many of the votes among the three judges — Joan Fall, John Cordo and Paul Schembri — had been very close. First-place winners in each category were awarded a brightly painted cutting board and a gift basket from Winter Sun, runners-up a Water Street Market gift certificate. But the biggest winner, not counting the happy crowd, was St. Joseph’s Food Pantry, beneficiary of the funds raised each year by the Local Ingredient Chili Challenge. Though the final tally wasn’t yet in by the end of Sunday’s festivities, at least $2,100 had been raised to help end hunger among needy local residents.
In the works for Chili Challenge 2021: greater environmental sustainability, in the form of an end to plastic consumption. “Next year, we want to use all metal cups and metal or bamboo spoons,” said Theresa Fall. ++