CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The sniffling in the judges' room at the Green Chili Shoot-Out on Saturday wasn't caused by allergies or colds. Some of the spicier concoctions prompted the judges to blow their noses, wipe their brows, clear their throats and take a palette-cleansing swig of cold beer as they sampled. They worked their way around a table topped with 13 tubs of green chili that made it to the final round.
There were 35 entries from both local green chili chefs and those who traveled from Ontario, Michigan, Columbus and New Jersey to compete in the International Chili Society-sanctioned event at the Capitol Market.
When the judges emerged from the toasty room into the cold, wet day, a local man was declared the winner. Don VanLehn of Cross Lanes beat out the competitors and qualifies to compete in the world competition in October.
When Van Lehn, 45, turned his chili in to the judges, he wasn't optimistic. As a previous winner of the Green Chili Shoot-Out at Capitol Market and four-time world competitor, VanLehn said it was his worst batch ever.
"I honestly believed it was a bad pot," he said. "I didn't do anything different today. I try to follow the same recipe every time."
Good luck trying to pin down any recipes from these competitors. Most everyone uses some combination of simmered pork, green chilies, tomatillos, onion and garlic with absolutely no beans allowed.
"That's an automatic disqualifier," said Richard Chauvin of Ontario. He already qualified for the world competition with an earlier win in Rhode Island. His wife, Wendy, cooked for Saturday's competition.
The chefs are passionate about their chili, and many of them compete in both red and green cook-offs. Some couples cook together, while others compete against each other. To make it to the world competition, they must win a sanctioned contest during the season, which typically runs from November through September.
Bob and Gail Kyle from Dearborn, Mich., are old hands at chili cook-offs. Bob's been at it for about 14 years, and Gail has competed for four. They are both retired, and enjoy traveling to competitions. Her green chili already qualified at a Michigan competition, so Bob cooked this weekend, hoping for a win. He made it to the final round.
"We never eat chili at home," he said. "We both like to cook. If we have leftover chili from a competition, we freeze it and serve it to friends who ask to taste our chili."
Gail competed in the People's Choice competition. Most cooks make one small competition batch of green chili, and a larger pot, usually with filling beans, to sell to visitors. At Saturday's competition, the visitors wandered around the festive tables and purchased tastes. They voted for their favorite. The people chose chili verde made by Jim Zimnox of Charleston as their winner.