Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 1, 2011

Some like it hot

Chili can also be smoky, smooth and sweet at Palo Alto's annual July Fourth cook-off

by Rebecca Wallace

Pat Markevitch plans to wear a new Renaissance costume for the event. John Barton has been hunting down just the right chili pepper. And Justin Vavuris won't let his newly broken leg stop him from attending, saying: "That is life or death."

For crowds of Palo Alto residents and visitors, the City of Palo Alto's Summer Festival & Chili Cook-off is worth far more than a hill of beans. It's a social shindig, a chance to reconnect with neighbors, an opportunity to scorch the roof of one's mouth.

This year marks the 30th annual event. As in summers past, 20-some teams of chefs and helpers are set to cook and compete in festively decorated booths — with some teams in costume — at Mitchell Park. People give up many hours on the Fourth of July to stir pots over propane burners, judge the offerings, do some country line dancing or just eat and imbibe.

"How often in Palo Alto do you get to be that silly?" Barton says.

Barton should know. Despite having a serious record of Palo Alto community involvement that includes stints on the City Council and school board, he has plenty of experience taking part in the frivolity that is the chili cook-off.

He was a judge for several years and last year crossed the firewall to become a sous-chef with the Rotary Club of Palo Alto's team. This year he's sitting in the big chair as head cook. He and teammate Steve Emslie, the city's deputy city manager, just may wear their white chef's jackets, with many other team members decorating, serving and doing other tasks.

After a request from the Weekly, Barton makes a sample batch of chili in his Palo Alto kitchen on a recent afternoon. It's not quite the 15 minimum gallons mandated for the cook-off, but a conservative 1-gallon test pot.

White bowls of meat, spices and other ingredients cover his counter. Barton eyes the ground beef, ground pork and chorizo. He's also pondering using venison and pork shoulder during the contest, to add fat and "depth of flavor." For now, he likes this combination; the chorizo will add a robust orange hue to the chili.

Sporting a baseball cap and shorts, Barton cooks up some onions and peppers with salt and olive oil. All the while, he's thinking about chiles. He has pasilla and New Mexico chiles, but he's still searching for the right ancho chiles, ones that will add a fruitiness without too much heat.

After a few minutes, Barton moves the onions and peppers to a bowl and puts the meat in the pot to brown. Next come cans of tomatoes and sauce, then the chiles, and then the spices: garlic powder, chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, thyme, chipotle powder and salt.

"If we have time, we will toast the spices a bit," he says.

Later, Barton will add black beans — he's not a pinto-bean guy — and perhaps some cheese or sour cream. When he was a cook-off judge, he usually noticed the "initial spice" and the "mouthfeel" most. So, he's planning to add "something to give it a kind of mouthfeel that's kind of creamy, that people would like."

He spoons out a taste from the pot.

"Oh, it's kind of hot," he says.

But the chili has about three hours for its spiciness to mellow out on the stove.

"Some of that will reduce as the tomatoes pop and give their juices," he explains.

A Weekly photographer tastes the chili and praises its smoothness. Barton is modest.

"It sort of feels kind of pointy in your mouth now. Over time it'll smooth out."

His ultimate goal? A medium-spicy chili with a "dark, rich feel to it."

Achieving the perfect chili could be a challenge to any chef. The cook-off adds extra obstacles with a few rules.

For instance, ingredients can't be pre-cooked or treated before the preparation period, which starts at 8:15 a.m. on July 4. Cooks have to get their chili to the judges by 1:45 p.m. A few exceptions to the pre-treating rule include some canned and bottled ingredients. Cooks can also soak dried beans overnight, cook fresh peppers in advance, and grind, bone and dice meats beforehand. Teams can have at most four cooks and 20 assistants.

At the cook-off, chili is judged in two categories: corporate (formal groups such as restaurants and offices) and open (anyone else). The best-decorated booth, the people's-choice chili and the team with the best spirit also get awards.

Unlike in years past, there will not be a separate category for vegetarian chili; veggie options will be judged with the others because there haven't been enough entries, says Minka van der Zwaag, supervisor of recreation programs.

If there were awards given for Best Corsets, Pat Markevitch's team just might be a shoo-in. Her group, called Good King Wench & Lass, features her husband, Jamie; sister Suanne Starner; and friend Cynthia. She and Cynthia, a Renaissance Faire veteran, wear period costumes just for fun.

Markevitch, a member of Palo Alto's Parks and Recreation Commission, figures her team has competed in the cook-off for about eight years. Except for last year, when she was a judge.

Markevitch started making chili from a long-forgotten recipe, making her own additions and subtractions over the years, she says in an interview at the Weekly. Her cook-off chili is a blend of beef and pork and secret spices, but no beans. "I just think real chili shouldn't have 'em."

Markevitch says her team has won a few awards including best spirit and first and second place in the people's-choice category.

"It's a really friendly rivalry, which is what I like," she says.

But the event is sometimes one of endurance. Her team gets to the park as early as 7:30 a.m. to decorate and set up, and later in the day it's all about dishing out the chili. One year, Markevitch spent so much time serving that her friend had to pry her hand off the ladle.

Markevitch's tip to newer cooks is to bring potatoes. If you oversalt your chili, she says, you can put a cut-up potato in a cheesecloth bag and leave it in the pot for a few minutes to draw the salt out.

She especially enjoyed judging last year because she got to taste so many different kinds of chili.

"Some are sweet, or all spice, or smoky," she says. "You'd be amazed at the range."

Last year, Justin Vavuris was undoubtedly happy with the judges. His team, Big Kid Sports, made the first-prize chili. Even though he recently broke his leg in a softball game, the 27-year-old Palo Alto native says he wouldn't miss competing for the third year in a row.

"It's mostly local people and a lot of familiar faces, and everyone's there to have a really good time," he says in a phone interview.

The team name came from a company that Justin and a buddy started three years ago, he says. It no longer exists, but they had a lot of leftover T-shirts.

Vavuris says his team made a lot of mistakes its first year before becoming champions.

"There's a lot that can go wrong when you're cooking outside. You can overcook or undercook the beans; it's very difficult controlling temperatures with outdoor burners," he says.

Now the team seems to have found success with "a southern flavor," with a lot of cilantro and paprika and other flavors found in Mexican cuisine, Vavuris says. The cooks aim for a variety of tastes throughout the chili, with a medium level of heat.

In the booth, he adds with a chuckle, there will also be plenty of "adult beverages."

"You've got to be able to throw a good party," he says. "That's a key element."

What: The City of Palo Alto's 30th Annual Summer Festival and Chili Cook-off

Where: Mitchell Park, 600 E. Meadow Drive, Palo Alto. Attendees are asked to park at Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road; a free shuttle will take people to the park.

When: July 4, noon to 5 p.m.

Cost:Admission is free; chili-tasting tickets cost $5 for five tastes.

Info: Go to cityofpaloalto.org/recreation or call 650-463-4921.

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