On a whim, I recently entered the vegan chili cook-off at the Natural Gourmet Institute. Never having entered a cooking contest before, I had a ‘nothing to lose’ mindset. Besides, Chef Barb was running the gig. So, even if I didn’t have an award-winning chili, the event was bound to have decent entertainment value.
Did I Use a Tried and True Chili Recipe?
Not exactly. While many people have a favorite chili recipe, I’ve always used the (clean out the fridge and) kitchen sink approach. But, I always start with the same foundation, then adapt with what I have on hand.
How Did it Go?
I had low expectations. I considered it my first victory that I arrived at the school without spilling my gallon of chili on the subway. Once I arrived, I was nostalgic returning to an NGI kitchen, especially with other NGI grads. Of course, it helped that each of the contestants had our own personal assistant, students from the chef training program. The environment was supportive, the competition was friendly and all the contestants freely exchanged tips and lessons learned.
My Biggest Take-Aways?
First, thought: I must have a smoker! (Santa, can you hear me?) The winning chili featured hickory smoked cashews, white beans, poblano chilis as well as portobello and shiitake mushrooms. The ingredient mix was unique enough to stand out from the crowd. It was hands-down the winning entry.
My second take-away was the value of complexity. The second place entry, a winter squash with poblano chili, was very similar to mine. However, the chef added brown sugar, which I had considered, but avoided on principle. Yet, she nicely balanced out the sweetness with a smoky bourbon and lime juice, creating a more complex chili than my own. My New Mexico Mixed Bean Chili took third place and I was awarded a collection of cookbooks by NGI alum, Chloe Coscarelli. Yeah!
In summary, it was wonderful to be back at NGI. The cook-off was a well-run event, with the contestants having as much fun as the attendees. And, if you want to know how I made my New Mexico Mixed Bean Chili, stay tuned —post coming soon!