Below-freezing temperatures once again threatened to tame the Great Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-Off and WinterFest, but the eighth annual event stayed hot. Thousands gathered on the Ithaca Commons Saturday to taste 25 varieties of chili, ride a mechanical bull and test their taste buds with hot pepper-eating contests.
Old favorites like Mahogany Grill, Ralph’s Ribs and Cornell’s Statler Hotel served up their chili recipes, but the winners’ circle included less obvious choices as well.
Falls Restaurant and Tavern, of Trumansburg, won the meat category. Abby Barbeque and Mahogany Grill came in second and third places, respectively. Vegetarian winners were, in order, Moosewood Restaurant, Taste of Thai and Mahogany Grill. The presentation award went to Ralph’s Ribs.
The Statler Hotel did not participate in the cook-off last year because it was “a transitional year for the hotel,” according to Nick Menillo ’09, a member of the Statler team.
But the hotel was back in action this year with its “3-B” chili, standing for “three different kinds of beef, three different kinds of booze, and three difference kinds of beans,” according to Brooks Tanner, a student in the hotel school and a chef’s assistant at the Statler.
Cornell had another entry in the cook-off this year, with the Cornell Food Science Department entering its “Chocolate Lightning” chili.
Mike Nestrud ’08, the creator of the recipe, which included Mexican chocolate, braved the cold on Aurora Street, serving his chili with classmates.
“It starts out sweet, and it has a zing at the end,” said Kristie Niehus ’06, another member of the Food Science team.
Next to the chefs-in-training was multiple winner Mahogany Grill.
Patrick Johnston, the chili chef, said he paid extra attention to his vegetarian offering. That chili included smoked tofu and sweet potatoes “to give it a sweet, earthy taste,” Johnston said.
Johnston said he was surprised to see so many people excited about chili because he often offers it as a daily soup special at the restaurant, without much success.
Perhaps most surprising on the Commons was Subway’s chili table. The branch’s owner, Scott Hamilton, said he entered the cook-off “to publicize the fact that we do serve chili in our restaurant. The franchise operation is not associated with homemade quality chili, but this is very good.”
Hamilton said the restaurant’s chili was milder than most of the others “because we cater to a worldwide audience.”
Although Chili’s did not participate last year because it was brand new to Ithaca, the chain restaurant entered its namesake contest this year.
Kilpatrick’s Publick House, a new restaurant attached to the Hilton Garden Inn, made its Ithaca culinary debut at the cook-off with two chili varieties. In addition to a vegetarian three bean and cashew chili, the restaurant offered a flank steak-based chili. Owner Matt Emery said the 50-gallon batch contained 40 pounds of steak and eight pounds of bittersweet chocolate. The restaurant will open in late March.
Ralph Moss, owner of Ralph’s Ribs, said that he “thinks we’re going to win every year,” because “we cook it with love.”
Moss, who had been a chef at Robert Purcell Marketplace for 21 years, said that the chili he served at the cook-off was the same as what he serves in his restaurant.
“If you need love, try Ralph’s Ribs,” Moss said.
In addition to tasting chili, attendees could listen to music ranging from Celtic and bluegrass to hip hop and soul. Cornell’s Absolute Zero break-dance troupe and the Vespertilian Jugglers performed as well.
The winners of two hot pepper-eating contests, sponsored by I-100 Classic Rock, were treated to two-night trips to either Montreal or Toronto. Whoever stayed on the mechanical bull the longest won a night stay at La Tourelle Resort and a guided adventure in the area.
The Grand Prize giveaway was also from La Tourelle Resort; the winner got an overnight stay, breakfast and a Waterfall Massage at the August Moon Spa.
Twelve judges, representing the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, Q Country radio, the Cayuga Radio Group, Wegman’s, and Cornell and Ithaca College, rated the chili. They considered aroma, consistency, presentation, taste and aftertaste in blind testing.
Jared Halpern, a Cayuga Radio Group employee, said his Texan roots sharpened his palate. “That puts me at some sort of qualified level,” he said.
Doug Levine, a member of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, said he was most impressed by last year’s vegetarian chilis. They were “even better than the meat options