It may be chilly outside, but you can warm up with some chili this weekend. The third annual NYChiliFest will take place Sunday from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at Chelsea Market, where participants will feast their stomachs and eyes as they meander around a 500-foot concourse of chili. The NYChiliFest is equal parts original and absurd—and it turns out that this combination yields delicious chili.
Although an unusual festival theme, the competition appears to follow a standard food competition trajectory. A panel of four judges will determine the winner, who receives the coveted 2013 Golden Chili Mug. The runner-up will receive a prize and an honorable mention.
Each vendor receives the same meat from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats with which to prepare their chili. The benefits of designating this ingredient are twofold: both to level the playing field and to promote the use of environmentally friendly meat with responsibly raised animals.
NYChiliFest is “a way to highlight organic meat, local and sustainable meat, wonderful quality produce and meats,” last year’s NYChiliFest winner Barbara Sibley said. “It’s a great way of bringing a message in a really fun way.”
One of the most impressive aspects of the ChiliFest is the variety of participating restaurants. This year, 23 restaurants are expected to participate. These restaurants range from highbrow establishments, such as the renowned Gramercy Tavern, to casual bars that usually serve pub food.
In a counterintuitive twist, most of the participating restaurants do not specialize in chili. Instead, many use the NYChiliFest as an opportunity to go out of their comfort zone.
“I typically don’t have chili on the menu at all,” said two-time competitor Justin Philips, owner and co-founder of Beer Table in Park Slope. “It’s just a fun thing to do.”
Another participant, Christian Pineda of Los Tacos No. 1 in the Meatpacking District specializes instead in authentic Mexican street tacos, tostadas, and quesadillas.
Although Mike Barbera of ’wichcraft specializes in sandwiches, he said, “We love the chance to showcase our chef’s ingenuity.” ’wichcraft intends to feature that chili recipe as a catering special for the upcoming Super Bowl.
“’wichcraft is always a huge supporter of local farms and NYChiliFest is a really fun event, so it’s a perfect fit,” Barbera said.
Four varieties of Samuel Adams beer will be dispersed throughout the concourse, and a country band, the Dixons, will provide the accompanying music for the duration of the festival. And just as the chilifest is no ordinary festival, the Dixons are no ordinary country band. Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, the Dixons infuse urban beats into country music.
The assortment of chili at NYChiliFest 2013 is mind-boggling. Each competing restaurant has its signature chili, drawing from a plethora of inspirations to form a complex take on the theme. For example, Ducks Eatery’s chili will feature smoked lamb pastrami with lots of cumin hatch peppers, pickled onions, and fermented garlic, while ’wichcraft’s chili will be slow-cooked beef with pinto beans and spices cooked with nut brown ale, cheddar, and cream.
The restaurants have their own reasons for entering NYChiliFest 2013, but respect for all aspects of the competition—especially the food and the atmosphere—is a unifying factor.
But is the chilifest a friendly festival or a cutthroat competition? Like chili, the answer is not cut-and-dry. The restaurants notably take different perspectives on the competition.
“Being our first time participating, we are taking this very seriously,” Pineda said.
However, some view the competition in a more light-hearted way. “We don’t take the competition all too seriously, but we try to make the best chili that we can. It’s fun,” Philips said. “Mostly it’s a good night, hanging out with other restaurant folks and seeing friends,” he added.
Although some restaurants are more focused on the competitive aspect of the festival than others, all the competitors intend to have a good time—especially since the NYChiliFest seems to have a strong social component built into it.
“Of course we take it seriously,” Barbera said. “But we also believe eating is about enjoying where you are and having a good time, so it will be all smiles winning or not.”
Indeed, even last year’s chili champion is more focused on having a good time than taking home the Golden Chili Mug.
“I wasn’t expecting to win last year,” Sibley said. “Everything is delicious, I really just was enjoying myself. I’m glad that I won. I really do it just to be there.”
NYChiliFest offers a classic New York tradition—sharing a love of food—but with the unique common denominator of chili.
“It’s amazing to see what people do with amazing meat," Sibley said. "It’s very fast, serving chili in the entire time. You’re making 1,000 people happy—how do I get to do that in one afternoon? When else do I get to do that?”
Tickets start at $50 and can be purchased at NYChiliFest.com. Ticket proceeds will go to Food Systems Network NYC, which promotes regional food environmental health and prevents hunger.
Charlotte Murtishaw contributed reporting.