On a summer afternoon calling for lemonade and Popsicles, Palo Alto's avid chili chefs will fire up their stoves, hover over giant stockpots and contend for the title of this year's best bowl of chili. With 12 returning teams, four new competitors and three ice cream booths to temper the heat, the event is expected to draw thousands -- food-lovers and children alike -- to Mitchell Park Friday afternoon.
The festival, now in its 33rd year, celebrates all things summer, using chili only as a starting point. Additional food will be available from vendors, while live music by San Francisco-based band La Gente will energize the park with its own fusion of reggae, salsa and rock. Kids' activities will include arts and crafts, bounce houses, classic party games, airbrush tattoos and a screening of the World Cup game at 1 p.m., according to organizers.
The festivities begin at noon, and chili tasting opens to the public at 1:30 p.m. with tasting kits available for purchase.
Both professional and hobbyist chefs have been preparing carefully for July 4 -- cooking practice batches, making tough ingredient decisions and designing booth decorations.
For the cook-off, teams are split into two divisions, Open and Corporate, in which they compete for first, second and third places. The Corporate Division encompasses teams entering as a company or organization, while Open Division includes all other teams. Five overall titles are awarded: Best Overall, Best Spirit, Best Booth, People's Choice and Youth Choice.
Team Vineyard -- which took Best Overall and first place in Corporate Division last year -- is returning this year with confidence. After the 2013 competition, the judges sent a wrap-up email to all teams summarizing what chili characteristics they had looked for.
"And they pretty much described everything in our chili," Team Vineyard leader Marius Milner said.
Milner is "the keeper of the recipe" and adjusts it slightly each year, he said. "I'm of the unpopular school that likes beans in chili. ... It gives it nice texture."
He refers to the International Chili Society (ICS) rule that "true" chili does not contain beans.
Altogether, Team Vineyard cooked up 19 gallons of chili for last year's competition -- and there were no leftovers.
"Half of (the cook-off) is being able to cook; the other half is being able to manhandle such enormous quantities," Milner said.
Team Vineyard was formed by a group of friends at Vineyard Christian Fellowship of the Peninsula, and Milner had non-competitive chili cooking experience. The team gains additional experience each year cooking an 8-gallon batch of chili for a church fundraiser.
"Three years ago we decided, 'Hey, let's try a chili cook-off,'" Milner said. "I'm not a chef. I just really enjoy cooking."
This year, the team plans to add a vegan chili to its arsenal and, at the same time, keep a lookout for Rich Chili, a team largely comprised of professional chefs for Google. Milner said he is also interested in trying some of Rich Chili's famed creation.
Rich Chili took three titles last year: People's Choice, Youth Choice and First Place in the Open Division, a title previously held by longtime competitor Elmo & the Old Quackers.
Elmo, which came in second place in the Open Division last year, had a 10-year win streak in its division before Rich Chili entered the competition three years ago. In addition, the team has taken home the Best Overall title four times in its 22 years of competition.
Formed in 1992 by a group of lifeguards at a local pool, Elmo & the Old Quackers begins preparing for each year's competition months in advance, focusing on both chili and the team's other forte -- booth decorations, with a different theme each year. Elmo took first place last year in Best Booth category, a title the team wins consistently.
"Half my garage is dedicated to the Chili Cook-off," team Elmo leader Jodi Scherer said of her team's commitment.
The "Elmo" in the team's name comes from an alcoholic drink, while the "Quackers" harkens back to sweatshirts that Scherer and her fellow lifeguards had to wear one year when their manager imposed a short-lived duck motif at the pool.
As for the award-winning chili, Elmo's team leader Jodi Scherer describes it as "just the right combination of everything. It's not so spicy it burns your mouth ... and (you) don't just taste the heat."
Scherer, sticking to ICS guidelines, agrees that beans have no place in chili. The team's 20-gallon batch last year contained 60 pounds of meat, she said, noting the recipe's signature thickness. Scherer created the recipe herself more than 20 years ago, and this year she plans to add one more ingredient: bacon. The team is unsure how the addition will affect their chances.
"It really depends on the judges," Scherer said. "We don't know what they like. ... You never know."
Scherer looks forward to seeing other veteran competitors at this year's cook-off, including the Lounge Lizards, the Palo Alto Fire Department and Margarita Meeta Chili.
"It's like a family. ... We see these people once a year," she said.
Also returning to the cook-off are Good King Wench & Lass, The Triumphant Toques, Bierhaus and corporate teams Whole Foods Palo Alto, EPA Can Do and the Palo Alto Family Y & The Ace of Sandwiches. Entering the competition for the first time this year are Downtown Streets Team, Golden Slaters, Glenn's Hawaiian Style Chili and the Hope Center of Palo Alto.
New to the event this year is the Stanford Federal Credit Union Ice Cream Taste Off, which will provide a sweet accompaniment to the cook-off -- and a handy dessert for chili tasters. Local purveyors Tin Pot Creamery, Scoop Microcreamery and Green Girl Bake Shop (featuring vegan ice cream) will compete for two titles, People's Choice and Best Overall.
"It's just a little starting place to see what people think," City of Palo Alto events coordinator Ali Williams said of the inaugural ice cream competition.
Community members can take part in the competitions by voting for their favorite chili and ice cream. They can also help choose a Palo Alto-based community organization to which Team Vineyard will give a $1,000 donation.