February 19, 2007

Annual Chili Cook-off Attracts Local Talent

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What makes the best chili?

At the Chili Cook-off and WinterFest Saturday, more than 25 restaurants and teams challenged each other for titles such as the “People’s Choice Award” with chili concoctions using ingredients ranging from chilies, tomatoes, chocolate, tofu, beef, molasses, bourbon, sweet corn, hot sauce and more.

“There should be enough heat to tickle your tongue, but not enough to curl your toes,” said Michael Hayes grad.

An 11-member team judged each chili through double-blind tasting and determined the best meat and vegetarian chilies based on qualities such as consistency, color, taste and aftertaste.

In the meat chili category, the judges gave first place to Abbey’s Real Texas BBQ, located in Center Ithaca. Solaz, from the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, took second, and Max’s at the Holiday Inn placed third.

“We smoke and roast the meat and simmer it with dried ancho chilies and ground up pumpkin seeds,” said Kristof Ostlund, Solaz owner.

He said that depth of flavor is the most important part of crafting a good chili.

Moosewood continued its top place reign in the vegetarian chili category, followed by Mahogany Grill and Taste of Thai Express. The judges awarded best presentation to the Ithaca Ale House, which had a table filled with different colored dried beans and lentils.

“The tofu, the way we froze it and defrosted it, changed the texture so it stayed a little chewier,” said Jenny Wang ’87 cook and owner at Moosewood. “We put a lot of seasonings and flavor in and tried to make it saucier, not too dense with beans.”

The Taste of Thai Express chili recipe included beans, sweet corn, roasted tomato and four different types of chilies. Roasted poblano sour cream topped it off.

The nearly 15,000 people on the Commons for the cook-off collectively consumed over 600 gallons of chili and voted for the People’s Choice Award. Longview, a newcomer and a retirement home, stole the first place trophy from defending champion Falls Restaurant & Tavern in Trumansburg. The Cornell Food Science Club, with its “Chocolate Lightning” chili came in second and Falls Restaurant & Tavern followed with third place.

Teams served their chili with sides and toppings such as chips, cornbread, bread, sour cream, scallions, cheese, taro root and M&M’s. M&M’s proved to be the surprising part of Longview’s victory.

“It was supposed to be little chocolate chunks, but that’s what came, and it’s worked,” said Kevin Allison, director of dining at Longview. “A lot of people like them.”

Allison worked with head chefs Kevin Grant and Dave Cook, trying out and developing the recipes a few months beforehand. They gave samples to Longview residents to get their feedback and make changes. Their meat chili featured chorizo — spicy Mexican sausage — and seasoned flank steak, while the vegetarian chili was packed with cashews.

“Make it hot, but don’t mess with the flavor,” Allison with regards to what makes the best chili.

The Cornell Food Science Club used the same Chocolate Lightning recipe from last year featuring mole, about 15 different types of chilies from a Mennonite farmer in Pennsylvania and masa flour. According to team member Mike Nestrud ’08, Cornell let them use their kitchen and hot box to keep the chili warm at the cook-off.

“We have sour cream, scallions and cheese customers can put on their chili and games and sheets so customers interact and remember us,” Nestrud said.

“It’s our consistency with the ingredients, the wonderful chuck roast, the love and the hot sauce,” said Fred Vanderzee, chef at Falls Restaurant & Tavern in Trumansburg, when asked what makes his chili great.

Hope’s Way, another newcomer to the Ithaca food scene, made their chili with bourbon and molasses. “I call it “bourbass,” said Joe Marnell, chef for Hope’s Way.

In addition to all of the chili, people attending also tasted wine and beer, competed in the mechanical bull-riding contest, watched local street performers including Crossroads the Clown and sang karaoke in the Bernie Milton Pavilion.