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How to Organize A Chili Cook-Off

Updated on March 28, 2013

Chili Cook-off 2011

What is a cook-off?

A cook-off is a cooking competition in which a number of contestants prepare a specified dish for judging by either pre-selected judges, the general public or both. Cook-offs are popular between cooks from different restaurants and lay people with similar interests to see who can create the best tasting or most unique dish. Many cook-offs are social events with the cook-off the focus of the gathering and the reason to gather family and friends for a day of festivities and socializing. Some cook-offs are held as a way to recruit future and upcoming chefs and also a way for these people to showcase their talents both to the public and potential employers. Fundraisers are also a popular reason to hold a cook-off, generating donations, sponsors and ticket sales to earn monies for charities.

Chili Prep

A Chili Cook-off

A chili cook-off is a specialized cook-off in which those cooking vie for prizes and awards for the best chili as defined by the contest rules. There are numerous options in the judging of chili - the best color - the best aroma - the best taste - the hottest - most creative - with beans - without beans - most meat - least meat - types of meat used and so on. The list is endless and depends on the area and region of the country that you live in.

Team JellyBean

Recruiting Cooks

In order to hold any kind of cook-off the most important ingredient is cooks. Without cooks there will be no cook-off. When planning your cook-off, you need to determine how many cooks you need for a successful event - then you need to effectively recruit those cooks.

Competitions that offer cash prizes seem the most obvious and easiest to recruit. Those that offer trophies and/or public recognition are the second easiest to recruit. Private competitions are typically the hardest unless your family and friends all have a competitive streak and are willing to lay out the money that it takes for the equipment and food supplies. Knowing the obstacles that you face in recruiting makes it easier to target those in your recruiting campaign to hold a successful cook-off.

The Rules

It is very important in the early planning stages to know what the rules will be for those you recruit to cook. Most people will not commit unless they know how their dish is to be judged and if they feel they can meet those requirements. Likewise the participants in the spectator group will want to know what is expected of them. Will they be only observers or will they have an opportunity to actively taste and judge the dishes? If you are charging entry fees as a competitor or a spectator each group will want to know what their fee is buying them. This needs to be spelled out clearly for everyone.

Once you have your group of competitors you need to give each one a list of the cooking rules and what the dish will be judged upon. Same goes for the other participants - explain clearly and completely what is expected of them and what they will and will not be allowed to do at your cook-off.

Team Setup

The Set Up


It is important that you provide suitable space for your cooks to cook. That means an area in which they will have plenty of room for heating and cooling equipment as well as a preparation area and final staging for the judging. Spectators will need to be considered when arranging your setup so that they may easily observe the action as well as mingle with other guests. The key word is safety for both cook and spectators, while providing for their comfort. A well planned setup will go far in making your cook-off a hit with everyone involved.

Who To Invite

We all have friends who have special likes and dislikes. Those with a gourmet appetite may not enjoy outdoor cooking - those who enjoy intimate small gatherings may be uncomfortable at large group events. The wine and cocktail crowd may not enjoy mingling with the beer and soda pop group. In order to hold a successful event - you need to plan your guest list with as much concern as those you ask to cook. The goal, as with any social gathering, is a successful event at which your friends are not only entertained but excited to spend time with you.

Event Day

Once all the pieces of this puzzle have been put in place, you need to set the schedule for the day. Time of setup is very important - will you do yourself or recruit the cooks or guests to help? When do the cooks arrive and setup their equipment? When do the guests arrive? What time will the official tasting begin and when is the judging done? Finally when does your event end - and who helps with the clean up? Spelling this out for everyone shows them that you are not only organized but gives them the information they need to actively participate.

Upon arrival everyone knows what is expected and your cook-off can proceed on schedule for everyone's enjoyment. The competitors and guests will all leave at the end of the day having thoroughly enjoyed a very special day in which you - the host - shines supreme.

Getting Ready

The Competition

The Competition

The Competition

The Competition

The Judging

The Presentation

Putting It All Together

My wife and I have been holding a chili cook-off at our home for the past 10 years. Because our primary focus is on the comfort of our guests - we have a reputation for being excellent hosts. Nobody ever leaves our home hungry or thirsty. If anything we tend to go to the extreme when we host gatherings. My older brother used to joke about sending his RSVP - "it is not necessary - she always cooks for two people - my brother and the Polish army!" Yes - this is true - my beautiful wife always serves more than most - to their delight.

The day of our cook-off I clean the deck and setup tables for those cooking. We can accommodate about 12 cooks on our decks. We also set up canopy tents for those who wish to cook on the lawn and for those who use turkey cookers. We also make arrangements for those who cook in electric roasting pans - that way everyone can cook using their favorite heating source. Cooking stations are set so that the other guests may mingle and walk around as they observe the various cooking techniques and addition of the secret spice recipes.

We have about a quarter of an acre that we use for parking, so early in the morning, I outline the "parking lot" with American flags and a ground sign announcing the annual cook-off and parking space. The next step is setting up a volleyball net, bean bags court and making sure the bocce court is ready for play. Meanwhile, my wife is putting the final touches on our 4 car garage where tables are arranged for the final tasting in the late afternoon. Care is taken to provide space both for the 12 chilies that will be judged as well as space for our newest competition - the corn bread contest.

Our guests are invited to arrive a the same time as the cooks. We have found most people really enjoy watching the setup of each work space - the browning of meats - the dicing of vegetables - the mixing of ingredients - the addition of the final spices. At our cook-off all preparation and cooking is done onsite - we do not allow home preparation - except for dicing vegetables in advance. All actual cooking is done onsite. The corn bread is allowed to be made at home as second day corn bread does not hold the advantage that chili does.

Guests and cooks start arriving around noon with cooking starting exactly at 1:00pm - no later. Late arrivals are not allowed as we expect each cook to have the exact same time allowed them before the judging. At 5:00pm we call all the chilies inside and each is placed in an identical holding pan and given a number - that way only a select few know which chili belongs to each cook. Guests are given a pencil and notepad and instructed to taste one or two teaspoons of each chili - eating oyster crackers and sipping a drink before tasting the next chili. A similar procedure is done for the cornbread. In the past we then asked each guest -including the cooks themselves - to write the number of their favorite chili on a slip of paper and turn in their vote for best chili and corn bread which was then tabulated. This year we are changing the voting procedure. First besides the "People's Choice" we are adding a panel of guest judges who will select the "Judges' Award" for best in each category. In addition - we have acquired colored poker chips which will be used to vote. For the chili contest each participant will be given two red chips so they may vote twice - either casting both chips for one chili or spreading their vote among two chilies. They will also each be given one yellow chip which they will cast for the best cornbread. Numbered opaque cups with lids will be secured to each holding pan of each chili and corn bread - thereby affording as secret a voting process as possible.

After the official tasting is completed - the winners are announced and trophies awarded. We end the evening by serving bowls of the chilies along with side dishes and desserts until the final guest leaves.

It is always a fun event and every year people who hear about our cook-off ask to be invited to the next year's event. Because of space limitations we do keep attendance down to less than one hundred people.

Last Things

After the cook-off is over, my wife and I sit down and evaluate the event. We ask hard questions about what could have been done better or what we might add to the next year to make it even more memorable. At each of our cook-offs we present each person with a commemorative scarf, and a take home gift. The scarf has become an annual gift with the name of our cook-off and year written on the scarf. Last year we presented each person who attended a western themed trophy with our name & designation of our 9th year. For our 10th cook-off we are presenting even better gifts to mark this special year.

This is an event we love to hold for family and friends. For our 10th year we wanted to make it an event for a charity but realized early on that we did not have enough space on our 5 acres to do justice for it - so we partnered with our local Knights of Columbus and helped them sponsor an event that raised nearly $10,000 for charity. Although we were not able to hold at our own place we are proud that the Knights took our idea and began what promises to be a very successful annual event - through their hard work our intent will continue for years to come.

Knights of Columbus

For more information on the Knights of Columbus chili cook-off click this link ->

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