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Quadrupled attendance expected at chili cook-off

By Laura Reston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thousands of chili aficionados are expected to gather on Kanawha Boulevard to brew tasty chili concoctions and wander among tents Saturday at the 15th annual Smoke on the Water Chili Cook-Off.

Event organizers expect about 4,000 attendees and more than 70 chefs to participate -- a dramatic increase from previous years.

According to Darlene Smoke on the Water Chairwoman Carnochan 1,000 people usually attend Smoke on the Water and about 30 chefs register early.

Carnochan attributes the growth to the West Virginia Sesquicentennial celebration concluding Saturday on the Capitol grounds.

Although the number of participants has grown over the last few years, organizers agreed the event consistently attracts the same eclectic crowd.

Participants range from judges to lawyers to plumbers to firefighters to previous World Championship Chili Cook-Off winners, said Susan LeFew, a member of the Smoke on the Water planning committee.

"Chili cooks are a friendly bunch," LeFew said. "They love to have folks come up and ask them about their chili and where they come from."

According to LeFew, many competitors will come from outside West Virginia. Some participants come back to Charleston year after year while traveling the chili championship circuit.

"Many of these cooks have known each other for 10 or 15 years," LeFew said. "They're like a family."

Chefs must be members of the International Chili Society and must prepare chili that adheres to strict ICS guidelines. The ICS differentiates four categories of chili: red, green, salsa and home-style.

About 70 judges taste the entries and vote to choose a winner based on flavor, meat texture, consistency, spice blend, aroma and color.

"The caliber of chili is very high," LeFew said.

The public can also taste chili during the People's Choice Competition. Every attendee who buys three tickets receives several Mardi Gras beads to give a favorite chef. The chef who gets the most beads wins the People's Choice Award.

Charleston law firms also compete with each other every year for a plaque and bragging rights, Carnochan said.

Competitors in booths often compose skits or songs to perform for passers-by, Carnochan said. For example, one law firm had a country-themed booth last year. Other creative entries have included a booth decked out as a pirate ship and one decorated like a firehouse, LeFew said.

Other events include a frozen T-shirt contest where participants race to unfurl and put on a frozen shirt fastest.

The hot pepper competition appeals to a bolder crowd. According to Carnochan, that event generally draws only about 10 participants. Participants must devour a bowl of hot peppers fastest to win the trophy.

Event proceeds go to benefit HospiceCare, a Charleston nonprofit that provides support and comfort for terminal patients and their families.

"There are not many events where you get to eat world-class chili and raise money for such a great charity," LeFew said. "It's a feel-good situation all around."

The festivities kick off at 11 a.m., when the public can begin sampling chili. Booths will be situated on Kanawha Boulevard near the Capitol Complex. For a full schedule, visit www.smokeonthewaterwv.com.

Reach Laura Reston at laura.reston@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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