Chili cook-off

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The Durango Herald reporter Jim Haug prepares his Napa Valley Vegetarian Chili during the 2013 Snowdown Chili Cook-Off on Saturday morning at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

On the morning of the big competition, my kidney beans had the crunch and consistency of pebbles.

Somehow I never can get the combination of soaking and cooking the beans just right. I thought I would give it a shot for this year’s Snowdown Chili Cook-Off, but I lost it on the legumes again.

So I fell back on Plan B, which was to go to north City Market for the canned variety, a humbling concession for a foodie snob like me.

I am more than a little obsessed with food. I read cookbooks before I fall asleep. I am a sucker for cooking competition shows like “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef” and “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.”

I entered the chili cook-off on a lark, thinking the La Plata County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall would be my version of Iron Chef’s kitchen stadium.

When I arrived around 8:30 a.m. Saturday, most of the chefs had already set up and were in full cooking mode. You never want to bother a busy cook, which I was reminded when I asked around for the location of the power outlet. Chefs seemed so put off, especially when they thought I wanted to use their outlets. Grrr.

Then a chef noticed I brought a cookbook – Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson. I was outed as a non-serious artist.

“I don’t use a book. I’m a chef,” is what another contestant told me.

Feeling flustered, I consoled myself by getting busy, slicing and dicing onions and red and yellow bell peppers. The smell of onion and garlic cooking in olive oil soon calmed my nerves.

Chefs were supposed to make 3 to 5 gallons of chili to feed the masses who would be streaming into the exhibit hall with Styrofoam cups in hand, asking for samples that are sold for 50 cents apiece.

Except for Thanksgiving, I don’t think I have ever prepared so much food at once.

I could have tripled the measurements from my recipe, but I thought it would be too easy to mess up. So I prepared three separate batches and combined them in a master pot.

I was glad I had chosen the West Coast Chili, which is a homage to Napa Valley as it is cooked with red wine and garnished with black olives and avocado.

Other recipes were much cheaper, but Snowdown is all about letting loose, or so I told myself.

I wanted to stand out in a cooking competition.

The contrasting colors of the green avocado, black olive and red chili drew people to my table.

I sold 77 samples of chili, selling out in just over an hour.

One lady asked me if my chili was any good because she had disliked everything else. She then named me best in show and gave me a green poker chip as my reward.

I collected seven chips to indicate people’s personal preference. It was not a lot of chips considering the size of the crowd, but it was gratifying to a guy who can’t cook a pot of beans.

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