This year in Manchester N.H., the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff saw one of the most competitive and hard-fought competitions in recent memory. As the chili pots simmered, all the cooks had their game faces on and brought their best shot at chili glory.
Winning the Traditional Red category was John Jepson from Merced, CA.
“It was perfect,” says Jepson of his competition offering. “I’ve been working at it for 28 years! The meat was perfect. It was tender, and the sauce was creamy. Not too much garlic. Really, it’s not like anything you’ve ever tasted before.”
While a 28-year labor of love might seem like a long commitment, Jepson doesn’t question the amount of time and effort that went into the recipe that would eventually lead to a chili championship on the world’s biggest stage.
“It’s really been years of hard work,” says Jepson. “And that’s in the chilies. I’ve been going down to New Mexico to get the best chilies I can find. I get the best chili powder. It’s been hard work.”
Gary Ray, of Livonia, MI, had never placed before at the WCCC in three previous attempts. Gary can now claim he’s a World’s Champion after besting the rest of the Chili Verde field in Manchester.
“My chili is a little bit thicker,” describes Ray. “Its just a little bit more green chili. I got a little lucky on the salt, and a little lucky on the meat. “
But luck isn’t the only contributing factor to Ray’s championship chili. 21-years of competing certainly plays a role. In the end, Ray attributes a little friendly household competition with his wife, Lauren Ray, to being a major ingredient to his success.
“I’ve tasted a lot of chili,” says Ray. “A lot of my good friends have excellent chili. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the 2008 World’s Champion is my wife.”
When it comes to People’s Choice Chili, Marc Frechette knows how to please a crowd. Placing on all three days with his ‘homestyle’ chili, Marc was the People’s Choice winner on Saturday, finishing in 2nd on Friday and 3rd on Sunday.
“I went in there with the idea of doing a Hormel-type chili,” describes Frechette of his homestyle brew. “So I made everything on site. I had hot Italian sausage, bacon, some Hunt’s tomato sauce and turkey spices and topped with Kraft four-cheese blend.”
But as with the old saying for real estate, location, location, location meant everything to Frechette, who wasn’t shy about promoting his chili to passers-by.
“We were fortunate enough to get a booth across from the bar area,” said Frechette. “We did quite a bit of ‘chili hawking’ and ringing our bell. We got a bunch of people to come by and try our chili, they liked it and they voted for us!”
Taking home the big Sunday prize as the Kraft People’s Choice Challenge champion was Charles Harber and his chili-mate, Ken Hook.
“I use a good mess of beans and meat in my chili” describes Harber. “We use a beef tri-tip that creates a strong meaty taste and holds up to the 3-hour cook. Really good powders are where we get our chili flavor and then a three-bean mix.”
In addition to a good strong blend of proteins, Harber reveals his secret weapon to be Kraft Natural Cheese.
“We cooked it right into the pot,” said Harber proudly. “We used Kraft Naturals and it gave us a really good consistency and flavor. Then, of course, we sprinkle a little on top right before we hand it out.”
Tish Crawford and her husband, Steve, who work under the team name Crawford’s Crankin’ Chili, have been cooking chili competitively since 2008. At this year’s World’s Championship Chili Cookoff, it wasn’t their chili that won the day, it was their salsa that wowed the judges.
“It’s all fresh vegetables,” describes Crawford of the salsa. “It takes about four hours to make a batch. We like it hot and fresh, and plenty of cilantro in it.”
Crawford, like fellow champion Gary Ray, attributes a great deal of success they have to the in-home competition between herself and her husband, Steve.
“We both try to compete with each other,” says Crawford. “We want to see who can do the best. We just cook, cook, cook. We’ve both got the cookin’ bug, you could say.”
Crawford goes on to say that if you’re going to be successful in the world of competitive chili you need good friends.
“Really it’s my chili family, and they know who they are, that I have to thank. My husband and I are eternally grateful to all of them. We’ve had a lot of help.”
So now that they are Chili Champions, what’s next for these competitors? Well, John Jepson certainly has a great idea.
“I’m going to go get myself a nice coat,” laughs Jepson. “On the back it’ll say WORLD CHAMPION. And then I’m going to wear it… a lot.”
One thing that can certainly be said, through a field of hundreds of competitors, all of whom qualified for one of the most difficult food competitions in the entire country, across all genres, Jepson certainly has earned his champion’s coat.