It’s autumn, there’s a chill in the air and the days are shortening. Your belly is craving for some hardy, homecooked, filling goodness. Enter the chili contest…
Nothing beats a hardy bowl of chili, except for an opportunity to gather your friends and family and eat even more chili crafted from different recipes in a showdown where the tastiest chili gets to claim the title of “champion.”
Let’s start with what you’ll need to host your own chili cookoff.
- Your best chili recipe
- Competitors who will bring their A-game
- Adequate space to serve the various chilis and also space for your guests to sit and enjoy (Nobody, I repeat, nobody likes to spend hours standing)
- A crock-pot station with enough slow cookers to keep all the entries warm
- Vegetable side dishes and/or vegetable snack trays
- (Optional) Hot dogs, sausages and cornbread
- (Optional) A voting box and a prize for the winner
Your Best Chili Recipe
Sadly, neither myself nor my fiancee had a secret family-crafted recipe handed down through the generations. So we opted for the next best thing: the internet. Matt stumbled upon this recipe in his search and it had great feedback, so we decided to give it a shot. In order to make a big enough batch of chili for everyone though, we had to invest in a larger slow cooker (caution: I use crock-pot and slow cooker interchangeably). We have 2 2-quart slow cookers and it would have been a chore making the recipe evenly between the two. We bought a 4.5 quart crock-pot that looks a lot like this and at ~$25, it didn’t break the bank.
We did change the recipe a tiny bit, we didn’t remove the casing on the chorizo nor did we cook it like it says in step 1. We diced it and threw it right into the crock-pot. We also skipped the mushrooms, it seemed like the one ingredient that was out of place. Place all the ingredients in the crock-pot, turn it on low and leave it overnight, stirring occasionally.
2 hours before the event was to begin, I took the lid off, turned it to high and let it reduce. It thickens up nicely and is delicious.
Competitors Who Will Bring Their A-Game
What’s a cook-off if you’re the only one competing? Depending on your circle of friends, it could take a lot of begging and cajoling to get others to participate. Fortunately, my father, brother and good friend wanted to submit their chili; we had a total of 4 different chilis, which was more than enough for the 15 people who ended up coming. To help encourage people to participate, you could offer a prize and have the guests vote (read about #9 below).
Think of the last social gathering you went to. What do you remember? Do you remember things like: how crowded it was, how uncomfortable you were from standing the whole night or how awkward it was to try and eat standing? Most people do. Providing adequate seating is not something that people generally notice, however NOT providing it does get noticed and remembered. It may seem like common sense, but I have been to more than my fair share of get-togethers where everyone ended up standing around awkwardly because the host didn’t plan beforehand.
Our house is on the smaller side, it’s a bungalow built in the early 1900’s. It’s cute and has got some serious charm, but it is not designed for entertaining. We decided to host the cook-off outside in our backyard. We have this rather large outdoor table and a ton of chairs, so it worked out perfectly for us.
A Crock-Pot Station…
This is where it can get tricky. Ideally you want each chili to have its own slow cooker to keep it warm, but that’s not always possible. There are some other alternatives. One is to heat the chili on the stove and move the entire pot to the serving area. Doable, but tricky if you’re trying to heat more chili than you have burners on the stove. You can also try using those aluminum catering trays with the burner underneath them as well. Sorry, I’m trying to find an image of one to post, but I can’t seem to find one that isn’t copyrighted. Sam’s Club has one on their website. I’ve never used them before so I have no tips for you 🙁
We borrowed a long serving table from my parents, ran an extension cord from the outside socket and used a power strip to plug them all in. We asked everyone who was participating to bring a crock-pot if they could, but we had those 2 reserve, smaller ones if needed. It worked out great!
Let’s get real, chili is tough on the stomach and the colon. It’s so hardy and filling that it will sit there in your stomach and not move for hours. You definitely need some greens to counterbalance that.
Serve a big bowl of salad with lots of different vegetables. Anything you didn’t use in the salad can be put out on a serving tray with some light dip. Broccoli, celery, baby carrots and cucumbers all look and taste great on a snack tray; and it’s quick to prepare.
Fit the entertainment to the venue and the crowd. Since our event was being hosted outdoors close to Halloween, we setup a TV and DVD player near the crock-pot station. We played nothing but horror movies! This would have worked great, but the TV was too far away from the seating area. It ended up being more like background noise than an activity. Although it did prove to be useful, every now and again we’d hear a loud, blood curdling scream; we’d look around at each other confused, realize it was the TV and laugh. In hindsight, we should have set up at least one more activity. Here are a few outdoor games that you can set up for your cook-off:
And of course there’s always…
Beer is a great way to lube a social situation. We kept a cooler full of Bud Light – inexpensive and most people will drink it. Beer will help break the ice and get your guests talking to each other. And if you want a more legitimate reason than to get people tipsy: beer will enhance the flavor of the chili.
(Optional) Hot Dogs, Sausages and Cornbread
To really kick it up a notch: throw some hot dogs and sausages on the grill. This will give your guests the opportunity to make chili dogs, which are fan-freaking-tastic. We did this (along with grilling up some green peppers and onions) and it was delicious. Cornbread is an easy side to make and goes great with chili. We used the packaged mix, it was simple and required a total of 30 minutes.
(Optional) Voting and a Winner
We didn’t do this. It was our first cook-off and we felt that making it a competition might scare off some people from participating. However, we would like to host this event again and next time offer a prize for the winner. It’s a simple add-on, just place post-it notes or tape a piece of paper to each crock-pot with a number. After everyone has finished eating their fill, give them slips of paper and a pen. Have a shoe box with a slit cut into the top and have the guests place their ballot into the box. Count up the votes and declare the winner, it’s as simple as that.
How Much it Cost and the Verdict
Hosting the cook-off was the most fun I’ve had in a while. It received a lot of positive feedback. Having said that, it was one of the more expensive social events we’ve hosted. In addition to buying all that food and a cooler full of beer, we bought a larger crock-pot and a bunch of autumn decorations for the outside and inside of the house. All-in-all it ran us around $200, but it could be done for half that with better planning.
What I Would Have Done Differently
Next time, I am going to run it as a competition and have a prize at the end. I would have liked more people to participate. I don’t think our assumption that running it as a competition would have discouraged people from entering. I understand that having your food judged by your peers can be a little off putting but offering a prize to the winner should compensate.
Also, I think we should have had more activities. A TV with horror movies sounded like a great idea, but it didn’t pan out. So, next time, we will try to have more games and maybe some music. What do you think we should have done differently?