A fiery focus for chili competition

Couple aim for victory at annual cook-off with spicier version of their first-place recipe

October 21, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Beth Velisek and her fiance, Robert McDonald, make a howling hot bowl of chili.

They use onions, red, green, yellow and orange peppers, and a lot of spices. They cook the chili all day to give it the best possible flavor.

"We use all sorts of ingredients, and we change the spices often," said Velisek, 42, of Westminster. "We try to make it as hot as we can."

Last year, the couple received a first-place nod from judges in a chili cook-off held in Westminster to benefit Access Carroll, a nonprofit that provides medical care for uninsured residents of Carroll County.

Sponsored by the General Federation of Women's Clubs, this year's chili cook-off is being held today at the Agriculture Center in Westminster, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

To participate, about 20 chili chefs arrive at the arena at 8 a.m. Each cook must provide his or her own ingredients and make five gallons of chili on site - from scratch. They have until 1 p.m. to get a sample ready for the judges.

After the chili is cooked, judges from the community sample the chili. They judge the chili in two groups, beef and non-beef. Then the judges rate it in five categories: aroma or smell; bite or spiciness; color or appearance; taste and consistency; and how well-cooked it is, Velisek said.

The winners receive cash prizes that range from $50 to $200.

The chefs also have to decorate their booths and name their chili, said Tricia Wagman, the co-chairperson of the event.

But there is a lot more to winning than cooking a red-hot chili, Velisek said. In her third year in the competition, she said, she has learned a lot about the cook-off through trial and error.

"You really have to work hard to make a good chili when you get there," she said. "You have to figure out what works and what doesn't work before you get there. Or you don't have a chance to win."

In their first year, she and McDonald didn't place, she said. They practiced a lot to figure out who would take the lead, and McDonald won. He likes chili and is creative, she said. But they fell short in the organization area.

"We had made chili before, but we learned that when you have such a short time to cook chili, you have to be very organized," said Velisek, a manager for a heating and air conditioning company.

Last year was a whole new experience, she said.

The couple went all out using a Texas Hold 'Em theme to decorate their booth, she said.

McDonald, 39, the manager of a security company, dressed in a poker dealer's costume, wearing black slacks, a white dress shirt and a dealer's cap, she said. Velisek wore a cocktail-server-style dress that had hearts and spades on it, she said. They named their dish "All in Chili."

Before the competition, they tried about 20 chili recipes. They also looked up recipes online and mixed several of the recipes to create their red-hot concoction, Velisek said.

When the chili was completed, the couple had their five children test it, she said.

"The kids were tired of chili by the chili cook-off," Velisek said. "They didn't want to eat it for like six months."

Although they were well-prepared, they faced several challenges once they arrived at the arena, she said.

"When you have to make chili at the arena, you don't have the conveniences of your own home," she said. "You have to use a hot plate, which is like a crock pot. And you have to keep your area clean as you go, which takes up some of your time. You have to coordinate and be ready."

Last year, even though they won, they were told that they needed to make their chili even spicier, she said.

To prepare for this year's event, they used the critique from last year's judges. They worked on spices and cut their practice sessions down to a handful. One of the biggest obstacles is making the chili spicy enough, she said.

"The longer chili cooks, the spicier it gets," she said. "You want it to be the right consistency, so you have to get everything done and cooking as quickly as you can. But we're still experimenting with the spices to use this year."

Although the judges had a few criticisms, the patrons had only good things to say about their chili, she said.

They ran out of chili at the event last year, and one person asked them whether they would come to his house and make it for a planned party, she said.

Confidence and creativity are the secrets to their success, she said.

"You have to be able to make chili fast," she said. "You have to do your homework and research recipes. Then you have to rehearse who is going to do what, until you have it memorized. Then you have to go and implement the plan. And of course, you have to have fun."

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