Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tales of Judging a Chili Cook Off

For you regular readers, you'll remember that after I wrote my chili blog, I was super paranoid that an International Chili Society official would snatch me away after reading it and finding any false chili tips... those guys are really serious about chili! Fortunately, they read my blog, loved it, and invited me down to San Antonio (where I must remind you, that there is NO basement in the Alamo) to judge the regional cook off. And we all know I'm really good at judging people.

What I learned about judging chili was a lot more serious than I was prepared for. We were first given very specific definitions of what each chili (red and green) and salsa was classically supposed to taste, smell, and look like. When tasting chili, you were not allowed to make any remarks, noises, or facial expressions regarding the chili. If it tasted like a rotten Chinese buffet, then no... you were not allowed to say that and influence your fellow judge's opinion.

On every judging sheet, you had to write comments for each chili entry. Specifically positive comments. Only. Yup... no rotten Chinese buffet comments there. And if it sucked... make a comment on the nice color of the chili. The reason behind this is that the competitors spend a lot of their own, hard-earned money to buy the ingredients, enter the cook off, and travel around to compete. So I had to be respectful of that, especially because if I had the extra money, I wouldn't want to spend it on cooking food for strangers in a parking lot. I met one couple of had a map of all the places they've competed in chili cook offs:

That's right, my little pets: 41 US states with a couple of trips to Canada and Mexico thrown in there. No hammocks, no fancy resorts, no umbrella drinks... just competitive chili cook offs in random parking lots. Now that's passion. I think that bringing a stuffed goat along with you makes the trip a little more enjoyable too.

After tasting almost 40 different chilis and salsas, I learned a few things:
1. You are allowed to mingle with the competitors, but cannot taste their chili before they turn it in to be judged. This is specifically to help keep your palate as neutral as possible before tasting.
2. The most interesting, unique-tasting chili will not necessarily win. For instance, I tasted a very exotic red chili that definitely had some curry in it, but it didn't come close to winning. By adhering to the textbook definition of what a red or green chili tastes, looks, smells, and feels like: that is what will make you a winner. Originality is not key at a cook off.
3. Beer helps. I didn't get to drink any because I had an hour drive back to Austin afterwards (and cops on I-35 during Labor Day weekend are not people I am interested in socializing with), but if I had been able to drink some, I would have had more fun in between the scheduled 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 tastings and I think my tongue would have had more time to cool off. The rest of the time was spent waiting around. (In air conditioning, thankfully.)
4. I had a lot of other judges ask me during the day, "What advice do you have for judging? I've never done this before." Just like wine or steak, there is no better or best when tasting something: you like what you like and you don't like what you don't like. Vote for what you like. Don't vote for the other stuff. Simple as that. You are the Simon. The chili is the American Idol competitor.

Advice for future chili cook off competitors:
1. Buy your judges a beer because people like bribes and people like beer.
2. Bring your friends. The more, the merrier. And the gassier.
3. If your green chili smells like a rotten Chinese buffet, don't send it in to the judges. They'll probably think it smells the same way, and no one likes chili that smells like a rotten Chinese buffet.
4. If the only comments you're getting back on your chili are about the color of it, then it probably smells (or tastes) like said rotten Chinese buffet.

Special thanks to Michael Freedman who invited me down to judge, and his lovely wife for all of her help setting everything up. I had a great time and its always great to be a part of something that benefits charity ( For more information about the next cook off in West Virginia, go visit

1 comment:

Kristine said...

I agree with you Trish, it's not as easy as it all sounds. I have been a chili judge 5 times now, (in Cripple Creek, CO) and it is tough. Some of the chili's you are thinking to yourself wtf? Seriously, watermelon? In Chili? But you have to keep a straight face. Then you get to the heat factor and wowza! It's hard to not make any physical movements or facial expressions when you feel like you have just injested lava. All in all, it is really fun, and I am glad that these lucky chili makers had you as their judge. You know when something is good.