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Chili, Judging, and Creativity

December 10, 2018

In Schenectady on Saturday, the chili game was strong. It was a pleasure to be out on the streets, representing Yelp, and serving as one of the official judges with a couple other members of the Yelp Elite Squad.

Shoutouts to Peter H and Michelle P for spending the afternoon with me talking chili. Actually, Michelle documented the experience as an IG story and saved it as a highlight. While I have no idea how long that will stay up, for now you can catch it here.

In the end, we tasted sixteen chilis. I had made some predictions last week about which ones I thought were going to come out on top. And as it so happens, all of the winners came from that list. Except for one.

So what did it take to be the judges favorite chili? And how did we come to our conclusions? Well, I’m more than happy to spend some time clearing up the answers to those burning questions. Especially in regards to the chili which won the prize for being the most creative.

This was a very challenging deliberation, because in the end the three of us all agreed on our top three chilis:

– Hell’s Fire Chili from Hell’s Grill
– Gram’s Spicy Chili from Backstage Pub
– Three Meat Chili with Creamy Polenta from Mad Jack Brew Pub

Hell’s Grill did something amazing. They combined the heat of habaneros with carolina reapers and ghost peppers to create something remarkably edible, and incredibly delicious. Yes, it was spicy, but it wasn’t boil your eyeballs and destroy your sinuses spicy. Sure, you had to eat it slowly, and respect the heat in the cup. The chili definitely made the top of my head sweat despite the freezing temperature. But the heat and flavors were round, complex, and layered. The end result was a positively addictive chili, that was unabashedly chili, with a rich meaty texture, that left an indelible impression.

The Backstage Pub did something amazing too. They took a classic recipe and kicked it up a notch. This too had the heat of habaneros. Apparently, that was part of the original recipe. Gram was a real firestarter. But it also included bacon for a bit of smoke, steak chunks for a satisfying chew, and shredded gouda to deepen the flavors. We were fortunate enough to start off with this chili, and it set a high bar for the rest of the day. With big bold flavors, and an assertive spice, it’s no wonder this was both a judges and a crowd favorite.

The Mad Jack Brew Pub also had a fire in its belly, although this chili was meant to be more of a crowd pleaser. Fiery chilis can be divisive, but loading up a porter infused chili with tender veal, beef, and pork and then topping it with a creamy polenta offers tasters a cup full of comfort. Personally, as a polenta lover I would have liked to see more of it, and I had hoped it would be creamier. But executing this was never going to be easy. Big props for the ambitious effort.

By unanimous consensus, the judges agreed Hell’s Fire was our top pick. Mad Jack’s was remarkably good, and they took the prize for best texture. And we were compelled to give The Backstage Pub a special honorary mention, because damn, that was great chili too.

Personally, I really enjoyed the Slidin’ Dirty chili as well, but the other judges weren’t feeling it.

The best non-traditional chili came from Maria’s Cafe and Catering. It was a vegetarian habanero chili, which wasn’t afraid to bring the spice. Plus, it had a remarkable richness which isn’t often seen in vegetarian chilis. Even better were the deeply fried and beautifully salted corn chips included in each sample. Brava to Maria and her crew.

As judges, we were also tasked to award the most creative chili from the bunch. And there were a few contenders. But I do question who really wants a creative chili?

Pinhead Susan’s tried with a Christmas Ale infused chili. But that tasted heavily of cinnamon and sweet spice. I could imagine that this was a love it or hate it kind of chili. I know it had its fans, but nobody on the judging panel cared for it.

More Perreca’s could have been a contender for this award as they had entered an Eggs in Purgatory Chili. This spoke to one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, and had they been able to pull it off, it could have been magical. But instead of a poached egg at the bottom of three ounces of assertively spiced chili, they served hard scrambled eggs atop a mildly spiced ground beef stew.

Instead, Dilly Chili from The Dilly Bean was awarded the most creative of the day. It spoke to the core identity of this Jay Street shop, being both vegan and gluten free. Plus it was topped with their own diced dill pickles.

Is that creative? Well, I’ve never heard of anyone putting pickles on top of chili before. Who does that? Nobody. And you may argue that’s for good reason. But I was surprised at how well this worked. Besides just providing a contrast in color, temperature, and texture, the brightness of the pickles cut through the richness of the bean based stew. Kind of like how you might use raw diced onions, a squeeze of lime, or a sprinkling of cilantro to brighten up a dish.

So, there you have it.

Once again it was a great honor and a pleasure to get to serve as an official judge for the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. I’m looking forward to more delightful walks around the city, tasting the work from some of its best restaurants.

And if for any reason you have a burning question about these or other chilis from Sunday, fire away.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2018 12:04 pm

    It makes me very happy, as a Texan, that the word “beans” does not appear in this post. Because beans have no place in chili.

    Cinnamon does, though, used in moderation. It was the secret ingredient in a delicious chili made by a former in-law.

    • December 10, 2018 12:06 pm

      I know all about the wonders of the subtle use of cinnamon in meat and tomato based stews. This was not that.

  2. December 10, 2018 4:36 pm

    I was so happy to judge this chili competition. Thank you for bringing me along – no headaches from the tiny little glutens, so that’s great! I’m thankful that my celiac disease isn’t SO bad. I really hope Hell’s Grill serves this chili on the daily because I really want to have it again. My Schenectady-based friend is also a huge spice/chili lover and after I visited with her post-chowdown, she’s very, very interested in trying it as well. I should have invited her to come along with us, but I didn’t think of it at all.

  3. simone permalink
    December 10, 2018 8:34 pm

    I thought nicos was the best. bombers was second. hells grill was too hot. I couldn’t even eat it. nice people but chilli was too hot. spicy.

  4. December 11, 2018 9:56 am

    Great post 😁

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