30th annual ChiliFest gets fired up Saturday morning
HUNTINGTON — Bob Hall and his Chef-Boy-R-Bob Chili have come in second place four times this season.
And you could say it’s left a bit of a bad taste in his mouth.
So much so that come Saturday, Hall, of Taylorville, Ill., will have driven about eight hours down to try and win his way to a first-place finish in red chili and a ticket to cook red at the International Chili Society’s World Chili Championship set for Oct. 11-13 in Palm Springs, Calif.
Sanctioned by the International Chili Society, sponsored by Chilihead Ron Smith (of Chili Willi’s) and WSAZ, the 30th annual ChiliFest, the West Virginia State Chili Championship, will feature more than 60 chili cooking teams from as far away as Michigan, Cleveland and Virginia, firing up their stoves in the heart of downtown Huntington.
Set to kickoff at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at Pullman Square and up and down 3rd Avenue, ChiliFest looks to draw more than 20,000 people to come and check out the colorful, local booths including Hillbilly Chili, G-Lovers Chili and to try and snag a taste from the die-hard Chiliheads and ICS world champs like Hall, who won the ICS World’s in Green Chili (or Chili Verde) in 2009 and 2012.
In addition to the chili samples ($1 a piece), the fest also will have a kids korner, live music from blues-rocker Chris Sutton and C&S Railroad, classic rockers, One Foot and City Heat.
There will also be wacky contests such as the shot ‘n’ holler, the beer drinking contest through a baby bottle and hot pepper eating contest. All money raised goes to the Huntington Ronald McDonald House, except for the WSAZ booth whose proceeds go to the WSAZ Childrens’ Charities.
Hall, who is already competing in California in green chili and salsa, said he’s excited to come back to Huntington, where he helped long-time friend Ron Smith for years as a judge and scorekeeper.
“I have four second places, I guess I am not holding my mouth right,” Hall said with a laugh. “I am close but not there so I will give it another try. Probably the number one reason I am coming though is more about Ron Smith than just the chili. He is a friend and a great guy.”
Hall, who regularly attends chili cookoffs around the country said that ChiliFest does it right.
“It is not about a car show and bands — it’s about the chili and that is what brings the people down there,” Hall said. “I told Ron about six years ago, and I was the chief judge and we were looking out at the crowd, that we should get a photographer up on one of these buildings because you could not see pavement. You could see only people.”
Smith, the ChiliFest founder who remembers those early days of the International Chili Society World’s Championship in the Mojave Desert, hanging with legendary chiliheads like C.V. Wood Jr. (who built Disneyland), race car driver Carroll Shelby and actor Peter Marshall, said it is all the people that make the Huntington’s cook-off special.
While most ICS cookoffs are filled with chiliheads like veteran ChiliFest attendees Gail and Bill Donovan (from Cincinnati), and Diane Lentz of Lexington, ChiliFest is also filled with wild and wonderfully-spirited local People’s Choice chili booths that range from the G-Lovers (who’ve raised as much as $6,000 in a year) to American Health Centers, and back on the block after a couple years out, Franklin Furnace, Ohio’s Hillbilly Chili, the Chris Kimbler and Les Davisson-led team that hopes to reclaim the People’s Choice Award they won in 2008.
“This cookoff is so much different than any other cookoff because of the people’s choice,” Smith said. “People have really embraced this as a time to get together whether you’re a business or just a group of friends who want to raise money for the House and the bragging rights of whoever wins the prize as the hardest working chili cooks. I don’t see that anywhere else in the country. That doesn’t happen on this level at Smoke on the Water or the Wheeling Feeling and certainly it’s not that way at Snowshoe. I think the community has really taken to this. “
Smith said it is the spirit of these cooks (like Kimbler, a direct line descendent of the famous Pikeville, Ky., clan of McCoys) that literally and figuratively put the flavor into the fest.
“The ICS competitions chilis are so vertical and they have to stay in a very narrow range of ICS Red and ICS Chili Verde with the People’s Choice you get all kinds of tailgate chilis that are all over the place and can be everything but the kitchen sink with the chili spices,” Smith said with a laugh. “Look at Cabell Huntington Hospital, they’ll bring in a buffalo chili, a white chicken chili and a vegetarian chili so just at one booth you have a really good variety, which is good because we were always having trouble trying to feed that size of crowd.”
To help the People’s Choice booths, that can go through more than a hundred gallons of chili, Forth Food has donated 400 pounds of ground beef and kidney beans to help the teams defray costs.
Charles Shumaker, media and community relations manager at Cabell Huntington Hospital, said it takes dozens of volunteers for ChiliFest. Last year, they went through more than 300 gallons of chili and raised $3,700 (winning second place People’s Choice) with several crowd favorite recipes.
“Under the tent we will have the buffalo and black bean chili, and the white chicken chili and this year we are adding a spicy red to add a little heat to it,” Shumaker said.
The hospital’s fourth chili, a vegetarian chili, will be tucked inside the Huntington’s Kitchen, 911 3rd Ave., which will be having a grand re-opening (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) during ChiliFest that will be filled with demonstrations, giveaways and info about upcoming classes and events.
Originally started in 2009 as part of Jamie Oliver’s ABC-TV show, “Food Revolution,” the Kitchen is re-opening under the hospital’s management with a new slate of cooking classes, demos and fun, food-related events. The Kitchen’s new manager is Joy Dalton who was an award-winning culinary arts and restaurant management teacher with Putnam County Schools at the Putnam Career & Technical Center.
“It really does take a herd, and we plan for months in advance and we go through dozens of volunteers but it’s not difficult to get the volunteers because they believe in what it is for, and we all have a lot of fun doing this,” Shumaker said. “I think when this was created 30 years ago it was about having an event that celebrates our people and celebrates this great food that everyone can put their own stamp on. I don’t think I personally look forward to any other event more than ChiliFest and getting to see so many people come out and work for the Ronald McDonald House. You never know in an instant when you could need the service of the hospital or the children’s hospital or the Ronald McDonald House.”
As ChiliFest turns 30, Smith said one thing they look at in pride is being able to raise more than $500,000 for the Huntington Ronald McDonald House, which has housed (for free) for more than 10,000 families at the house on 17th Street behind Cabell Huntington Hospital while their children received medical care, services and treatment from local hospitals and programs. Since it opened in 1987, folks from 31 other states (besides the Tri-State) and five foreign countries have stayed at the house.
Smith said they are also proud of the fact that they’ve helped establish West Virginia on the ICS chili map, as Charleston has now twice (2009 and 2012) hosted the World’s and that West Virginia now has eight contests, which includes the season-starting Capitol Market Green Chili Shootout, one of the world’s largest Chili Verde contests.
“I think it was something that really surprised the ICS that West Virginia being such a small state had produced so many great cookoffs,” Smith said. “It’s something that I am proud of to set and retain a high bar for people to meet as far as putting on great cookoff events.”
Celebrating the 30th anniversary, Smith said he’s looked back a little more than normal, laughing at early mistakes at Ritter Park (like having people eat regular and not pickled jalapeno peppers which did not turn out well), and all the great memories of teaming up with Bob Brunner and WSAZ to bring ChiliFest downtown.
“It really has been a lot of fun. When we moved it downtown it was really because Bob Brunner who fancied himself as a chilihead and said we should bring this thing into downtown and have it on Fourth right in front of the restaurant and I said ‘we’ll give it a try,’” Smith said. “As far as this year, I wanted to stay really local with the music and the event too. It has been embraced so much by the community that I don’t know that we needed to reinvent it we just need to do it right.”