Godly Flavor and Stunning Results at Carmel Valley Chili Cook-off
September 21, 2011
Butch wanted to go pro.
The cowboy, you see, wanted to be king—not just of last night's 18th Annual Great Bowls of Fire Carmel Valley Chili Cook-off amateur division, but of the professional restaurant slot.
"I want to beat [defending champ] Bernardus," he grinned as teams scrambled to assemble their booths.
It's hard to blame him for thinking he could. Butch Francis has been hand-crafting mouthwatering mild, hot, XXX and "g spot" sausage for decades, as we described with a February piece called "Divine Swine: Butch Francis rides Cowboy Sausage to powerhouse farmers market popularity."
His Adirondack chili is as decorated as his storytelling. At last year's highly competitive Chili Cook-off at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, he took the People's Choice title and Most Tasted.
He's such a veteran that he showed up at breathtaking Holman Ranch at 2pm to start prepping his stew. When he saw other teams toting in their cauldrons, he winced—at the cook-offs he's accustomed to, he announced, the recipe must come together on site.
I tried his and did a little baby swoon. Just the right highlight of sweet on his flavor roller coaster mellows into rich pork pleasure on the palate. The cowboy can cook.
Only he doesn't own a restaurant, even though he supplies some of the area's best. The Sardine Factory's chef, he says, even buys it just to try to figure out the 16 ingredients in it. (He hasn't gotten that close.)
So the cook-off brass told him he'd have to compete in the amateur division.
Which is where his divine swine had a date with destiny like nun other.
Because also appearing in the amateur showdown throwdown arena was the brave Monterey County Weekly entry, Oh My Goat: Chili From God, the Second Coming, distributed by sisters Hanif Panni, an occasional design contributor, and myself.
Weekly contributor Daniel V. DeCamp was our chef. While he didn't wear a nun outfit this year, his chili was even more habit-forming than 2010, when we first introduced the heavenly possibilities of goat, newly buttressed by recipe tweaks, a little more heat and...
...white cheddar-jalapeño cornbread muffins and jalapeño jam made by Weekly editor Mary Duan and her husband Chuck Messenger.
DeCamp slow-simmered goat shoulder for four hours with a blend of a half dozen peppers and a litany of carefully assembled spices and then let the flavors marry in the fridge for another 14. (You can get last year's recipe here, with a 2010 recap, along with Bernardus' recipe from a year ago.)
The result was a subtle and layered satisfaction that toured through tender meat textures, a harmonious interplay of chile pepper and tomato flavors before a triumphant final piquant goat kick.
I saw one attendee/judge—the crowd decides the winner—stop dead in his tracks once it hit his lips and do a double take in our direction. Multiple parties asked where our restaurant was. I had to stop one man from putting his professional vote in our amateur box. The muffins, meanwhile, were a sacrament—light, with a nice kick of their own chased by a smoky cheddar note. I had four, and it's not like there was a lot of free stomach real estate available.
Elsewhere on the grounds, elk and buffalo were among the featured meats. Nicole Petitt of Property Restoration is the one who packed the elk—and venison—in her amateur entry "Wild Game Chili," one of about 10 competitors in the group.
"We deal with kitchen fires and their aftermath enough," she said. "We need to show we can use a kitchen."
Condiments also had quite a presence. The Running Iron's offerings included sliced black olives, diced peppers, chopped onions, shredded cheese, sour cream and Hot Tamale candies "to balance the heat."
One nice thing about that approach, one also deployed by the defending amateur champs from the Carmel Valley Art Association (who even had artichoke hearts among six toppings for their salty "Artsy No Fartsy Chili"), is that if the chili sucks, it's probably the eater's fault for f-ing up the accompaniment.
Fellow amateur entrant Waste Management provided roasted almond slivers and caramelized onions to crown their chili, a zesty, blended entry that had me most worried about our ascendancy even before I tried Butch's goods. That "Compressed Natural Gas" was damn good.
The pro division was similarly stacked. Earthbound Farm deployed a nuanced (and vegetarian) white bean-winter squash chili worth emulating. Carmel Valley Ranch dropped old school and rustic riches with "Papa Woody's Chili."
The Carmel Valley Preserve unleashed a profound seduction with its chipotle-poblano-pork-shoulder chili—and then topped their own awesomeness with a corn souffle, a crazy-moist takeoff on corn bread that was eaten up by half-way through the event. Bernadus' Wickets topped a braised organic short rib chili blended with their own heirlooms and King City Pink Beans with poblano creme fraiche, lime and cilantro.
The margarita showdown, meanwhile, was equally competitive, with perennial Best of Monterey County readers poll winners Baja Cantina, super enthusiastic Plaza Linda...
...and the prescription-strength potent Los Laureles Lodge entry, shaken and served by licensed nurses among the five entries.
In other words, by the time the award presentation rolled around, everyone had already won.
Nevertheless, we had set our expectations in a lofty place. We were on a mission from God.
So our team gathered for word, and hoped for a respectable showing somewhere near the pro-caliber cowboy.
The joyful Plaza Linda squad won for best table (the nurses were robbed) and placed for both its chili and margarita...
Wickets Chef Mike Fisher (left) deservedly won for professional.
With an elevating "vista cielo" margarita made with Hornitos, fresh orange, lime and lemon juice, and blue caracao, The Preserve took top cocktail honors.
And in the amateur chili division...
Third place: Butch Francis, Cowboy Sausage.
Which meant we either were going to place fourth (or worse)—or even better than the pro, a chili force lifted to great places by prayer and perfect pepper blending. I looked skyward.
Second place: Monterey County Weekly, Oh My Goat: Chili From God, The Second Coming.
And first place: Carmel Valley Community Youth Center.
Say what? I hadn't tried them. DeCamp said he couldn't remember anything about theirs if he had. But Weekly Assistant Editor Kera Abraham did manage a taste along with her little 9-month-old pinto bean Kahlil, who tried chili for the first time in his life.
"I used to feed this to my son in a baby bottle when he was 3 months old," Kimberley Belleci told them about their "Underdog Chili." "Now…he's a Marine."