15,000 hungry people, over 25 restaurants, a mechanical bull and a man in a giant dragon costume converged on the Ithaca Commons on Saturday for the seventh annual Great Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-off and Winterfest.
The event, sponsored every year by the Ithaca Downtown Partnership, attracted people from all over Central New York.
Katie Wadsworth, event coordinator, said that she worked with “six interns for four months” to plan the festival, which had new sponsors Harley Davidson of Ithaca and I100 this year. Participants were required to bring 15 gallons of chili to the Commons. Some restaurants, however, made much more.
Ralph’s Ribs brought 35 gallons of chili and Viva Taqueria made 55. Ralph Moss, owner of Ralph’s Ribs, said that the event was “fantastic” and that in order to win he would have to “really dig into [his] bag of tricks.” Moss, who had been a chef at Robert Purcell Marketplace for 21 years, was a first-time entrant in the competition after judging for many years.
Many area restaurants entered the competition hoping to dethrone last year’s winner Mahogany Grill. “It would be nice to win again,” said Marc Salamano, a chef at Mahogany Grill. Ithaca College’s Tower Club placed second last year, but made some secret changes to their recipe.
“The competition is always fun. This year we smoked the beef, but I can’t tell you what we smoked it with,” said Gene Wescott, general manager of dining services at Ithaca College. Last year’s vegetarian division winner, Greenstar Cooperative Market, expected to win the category again. “We’ve won every year since they had a vegetarian category. We want to stay on top,” said Julie Jacobs, chef at Greenstar.
The cook-off was broken down into traditional meat and vegetarian divisions. In addition, chefs had the option of entering the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) competition. The CASI competition has much more stringent rules than the Ithaca contest. Ingredients such as beans and pasta could not be used, and the chili has to made on-site. The chili was judged on five criteria: smell, color, consistency, taste and aftertaste. Only 15 restaurants participated in this category.
The second place CASI prize went to Vince Capozzi of Binghamton University dining services with the first prize going to Bob Griffin’s “Cheesehead Chili.” Both are eligible to compete in the state competition in June.
Capozzi has been entering the contest for three years, and was eligible for the state competition last year. The judges for each contest consisted of community leaders, business owners, Cornell faculty and Ithaca residents. Each judge was furnished with a supply of water, crackers, carrot sticks, antacid and beer.
In the vegetarian division, the third place prize went to the Tower Club, the second place prize went to Taste of Thai and first place went to Mahogany Grill. In the traditional chili division, the third prize went to Ziffy’s Diner, the second prize went to Maxie’s Supper Club, and the first prize went to the State Diner, which entered for the first time this year.
Donna McGuire, cook at the State Diner, said that she had been wanting to enter the contest for three years. Stavros Stavropoulos, manager of the diner, said that their chili won because “it’s homemade. Me and my mother make it with Donna. It’s made with love.” The presentation award went to Ralph’s Ribs.
Volunteers, organized by On-Site Volunteer Services, helped with selling tickets, running the mechanical bull ride, putting up signs and doing other odd jobs. Jerry and Jane Drumheller, Ithaca residents, enjoyed the chili and the music at the festival. “It reminds me of the Ithaca festival, except it’s in the winter,” said Jane. “It’s really fun to have something down here this time of year.”
The hot chili wasn’t enough to keep everyone warm in the cold weather, however. “It’s a really good time, but I hope they have it inside next year,” said Ed Sabia ’06.
Archived article by Eric Finkelstein
Sun News Editor