Chili Week Sets a Hot Stage

Maureen Barrett, last year’s champion with check, with Carol Hancock (left), CEO of the International Chili Society. Courtesy photo.

On the weekend of Oct. 1-Oct. 3, the world will descend upon Manchester, fork in hand, bib around neck, waiting to discover the best chili in the land. And for those who can’t wait or want to have a say in all the excitement, New Hampshire Chili Week will be spicing up many local restaurants ahead of time.

In preparation for the 44th Annual World’s Championship Chili Cookoff, which takes place the first weekend of October in Veterans Park in Manchester — the first time the event has ever been held in New England — local restaurants will put their chili to the test. At stake is the coveted title of Best Restaurant Chili in New Hampshire.

Diners at a slew of restaurants during the week of Saturday, Sept. 4, through Saturday, Sept. 11, will find free samples or discounted bowls of chili, according to Chris Wellington, marketing and retention specialist at the Manchester Economic Development Office. When a diner tries a bowl of chili he will be given a card indicating a website where the diner can vote. The top 20 restaurants, as voted by diners, will compete in the 2010 World’s Championship Chili Cookoff and will be judged by the sanctioning body, the International Chili Society. The winner will earn the title of best chili in the state.

“This is great exposure for a restaurant,” Wellington said. “We anticipate 40,000 to 50,000 people to attend the Cookoff.”

That’s a lot of people, and with those people come economic benefits for the city. Wellington estimated a $1.5 to $2 million boost to the city’s economy over the weekend. But besides money, there is also city pride.

“We’re very excited this cookoff is coming,” said Nicole Barreira, corporate chef of T-Bones and Cactus Jack’s, which have several locations competing in Chili Week.

“The final two cities were Las Vegas and Manchester. And we won,” said Heather Asang, co-owner of Two Friends Café with Stacey Wood. “It makes the city more interesting. People might expect an international maple syrup competition but not chili. It will bring people down to Manchester.”

It will also bring the Food Channel, according to Billy LaBerge, owner of Billy’s Sports Bar and co-owner with Mike Lanoie of the Derryfield Restaurant, both of which will be participating.

“Everyone likes chili,” LaBerge said. “And unlike regional dishes like clam chowder, chili is well known around the country.”

It is also something found on the menus of most restaurants, according to LaBerge, which is why about 30 are participating in Chili Week. Yet each bowl is a little different. Competing in a local chili cookoff years ago inspired LaBerge to put steak tips in his chili. Barreira said the chili at T-Bones and Cactus Jack’s, although different, is homemade from scratch and the beef is hand ground by their butcher every day. Jay Delmonte, who co-owns Shorty’s Mexican Restaurant, said Shorty’s chili has a little heat and is an original recipe, and as the first southwestern restaurant in Manchester, Shorty’s takes great pride in its chili.

It is this pride that makes chili different than so many other foods. Fifty thousand people wouldn’t traverse the United States in search of the best tomato soup. So what is it about chili?

“Chili is a comfort food,” Barreira said. “It’s a great recipe with such a simple base but it can be changed drastically by the style.”

Asang agreed, saying chili is one of the best foods for experimentation. Chefs, professional and amateur, can play around with it by adding spices or meats or changing beans.

“The diversity makes people want to try it,” Asang said, and “look for just that right one. Plus it can be served in so many different ways. Sometimes we serve it in a bread bowl. Other times with a baked potato.”

And once that perfect recipe is found, it is a treasure worth holding on to.

“It is something rooted down through the generation,” Barreira said. “For some reason, your mom’s chili is always the best.”

Asang is rooting for her co-owner Woods’ chili: “People are always saying her chili is the best,” Asang said. “So I told her to enter. It is a good way to get involved.”

And what would taking home the title of Best Chili in New Hampshire mean?

“A great sense of pride and hard work,” Delmonte said. “You get out of life what you put into it and it would mean a lot to all of us.”

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