July Fourth chili competition to heat up Mitchell Park | News | Palo Alto Online |


July Fourth chili competition to heat up Mitchell Park

Sixteen teams to compete in Chili Cook-off and Summer Festival, ice cream taste-off introduced

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.

Related content:

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Like this comment
Posted by jordana
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 3, 2014 at 11:42 am

YAY! Can't wait! Come visit Team Elmo tomorrow! (Psyched for some ice cream too!)

Like this comment
Posted by Christine
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 3, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Which Chili???

Rich Chili - is the best! Come out and give it a try!

Like this comment
Posted by Joel
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 3, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Palo Alto Fire Dept has the best chili!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Delightful
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Like, Totally fer sure! You all just miss Delightful's Dumb Blonde Chilie and wish we were back! LOL!! Good luck to you all tomorrow. I will drink and think of you all while I sing, Cause I'm a Blonde, ya ya ya..

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 3, 2014 at 6:02 pm

One Correction: CREAM is participating in the ice cream taste off NOT Scoop Microcreamery!

Like this comment
Posted by MR
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 3, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Goldenslate has the chili golden recipe. Stop by the Goldenslate booth and enjoy top chef prepared chili. YUUUUMMMM!!!

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 4, 2014 at 4:53 pm

And the winners were..........???

Like this comment
Posted by A
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jul 4, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Just got back. Terrible experience! By 2:30 a lot of places where already out of chili. Same for ice cream. I waited in the Tin Pot line for 20 minutes only for them to run out of ice cream. Never going back again.

Award should go to the fire department and Vineyard for making the most chili. They were the last two booths to have chili. Rich was the best tasting but also one of the first to run out.

We didn't get any ice cream because the lines were so long and slowly. Next year we will just show up with our own food and have a picnic.

Like this comment
Posted by Sad
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 4, 2014 at 5:26 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Like this comment
Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 4, 2014 at 6:06 pm

This event suffers from really poor logistics.

The chili stands opened for public tasting at 1:30pm, however the ice cream stands were open at 12 noon, so I ended up having a beer and tasting ice cream before the main course. A bit bizarre. The chili judging should start earlier, so the chili stands can open to the public at the normal lunch hour (let's say 11:30am).

My ice cream tasting kit was missing its five sample tickets so I had to head back to the ticket booth (they fixed the issue). When I got into an ice cream vendor's line, a kid in front of me had the same missing ticket problem, and I told him to go to the ticket booth.

Pretty much all of the stands could benefit from better, clearer signage. Nothing fancy, just simple options/instructions in LARGE text.

Many of the lines are ridiculously long. Many of the booths could really benefit by opening more windows in their stands. All the stands have multiple screen windows, but in most cases, only one or two were opened for business; many of these stands also have screen windows on the sides of the stands. With a little thought, the side windows can be used effectively (e.g., front windows for ordering, side windows for pickup). A couple stands used their side windows with varying levels of efficiency.

The lines are exacerbated by the event organizer's rule that the same tasting cup be used repeatedly. That's fine when it's not busy, but this stipulation does not scale well and this event has grown beyond the practical limits of reusing the same cup.

What each booth should do is to stage about 20-30 filled cups at the 1:30pm start. They should not wait for a customer to hand over an empty cup (which is what everyone has at 1:30pm), fill it and hand back the *same* cup. This is poor food event logistics. Just grab an empty cup and hand back a pre-filled cup. That would immensely help with the initial crush.

Some booths were late opening for business even though other lines had moved through quite a few customers, apparently because no one in the booth had a functioning watch or cellphone to tell them that 1:30pm had passed. Both the Vineyard and P.A. Fire Department teams are guilty of late starts. I got in the Vineyard line at 1:15 (eating ice cream).

The P.A. Fire Department line was so long that I punted on tasting their chili; their line was far longer than any other, even at 1:15 when many of the lines were still quite short. The P.A. Fire Department had plenty of staff/volunteers on hand, but apparently only one window taking orders.

A couple of the chili stands had really short lines, and the reason was clear: their chili wasn't very good and people knew it. Most of the time, I got my chili, then got in another line and tasted the previous stand's chili while waiting.

Of the five stands I tasted, Vineyard was the best, Golden Slate was okay, and the other three were forgettable. I did not try the P.A. Fire nor Rich Chili stands.

I liked the fact that they had water stations, rather than selling bottled water (which is insane when Hetch Hetchy is flowing out of the tap).

The TV for the World Cup match was a nice touch, there was quite a throng enjoying the game under the shade when I left.

I wish there were more seated areas to eat and drink, but then again, when one spends the entire time standing in line, that's admittedly of little concern.

Unless this event's logistics are renovated to address its current size, it is unlikely that I will attend again.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jul 4, 2014 at 6:25 pm

WOW! I always love this July 4 event, but wasn't able to go this year. That's why I asked about the cook-off winners (A friend always enters the contest).

The chili sample lines are always long and the supplies of samples always a bit inadequate. So what. It's neighbors doing the cooking, not professional chefs. It's hard to judge demand. If you have something to add to the event's planning work on next year's event planning.

Anyhow...most people bring a picnic to this event at the park and just enjoy the community spirit and being with neighbors. So....how about a recess on complaining?

I was looking forward to fun accounts about the celebration. I really would like to see at least some resurgence of the positive community spirit that Palo Alto was known for until just a few years ago.

Like this comment
Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 4, 2014 at 6:48 pm

I thought there was good camaraderie in the World Cup viewing section, and it was fun seeing all the dogs, almost all of them very well behaved and controlled by their owners.

Clearly, there were plenty of families and groups of friends hanging out often commiserating about the long lines which really could be addressed by some minor/non-costly changes.

It is interesting to see the various community groups who run the chili stands, but this enthusiasm tends to flag when the lines are so unnecessarily slow.

Again, the poor event logistics are inexcusable since the fixes are so simple and inexpensive.

Start the public chili tasting earlier, have clearer signage, staff more stand windows, and stage pre-filled sample cups when it is busy. This isn't rocket science.

Fast chili sample service would increase attendee satisfaction and likely generate more positive feelings for the stand operators.

Personally I arrived early because I didn't want to get stiffed on chili sample availability based on comments by others about recent years' events.

Like this comment
Posted by Ron
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 4, 2014 at 7:14 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Like this comment
Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 4, 2014 at 7:37 pm

Again, the lack of chili samples toward the end of the event is something the event organizers should be able to handle.

A lot of stands running low? Well, sell the chili sampling kits for $2-3 instead of $5 and inform customers that they are being offered discounted entry because some stands are about to run out. That gives the customer full disclosure and a chance of opting out with knowledge of the situation.

The stand operators should take some ownership and send someone out to the crowd when they know they are about to run out and inform people that they may not be able to fulfill sample requests. Just look in the pot and estimate if you have x samples left.

I sound like a broken record, but this is simply poor event logistics. The event organizers should be making sure this sort of stuff happens. Yes, there are new and old participants, but a sample cup of chili hasn't changed for decades.

The event organizers should know when the "product" is in low inventory.

Like this comment
Posted by E
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 8:47 am

Well most of them are not professional chefs (Rich chili folks are mostly Google chefs)... so should go kindly with the comments. Seems odd actually to mix professionals and amateurs.
The timing problem - teams already get there at 6.30 to set up so hard to start too much earlier. The other ideas, is there any way to submit them to the city so they can consider next year?

Like this comment
Posted by jordana- Team Elmo
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 9:52 am

The other tough thing to keep in mind is the cost of making the chili and the time. Have you ever purchased enough meat to feed a small army? $$$ We made somewhere around 18 gallons. Our pot was filled to the top. We're sorry not everyone got to taste Elmo chili, but we had a great time as always. The PA Firefighters and Vineyard are huge teams and make enormous batches, I have no idea how they can cook so much and be ready on time, but they do it and I'm glad there are teams that continue far after we run out. Plus, only 4 people are allowed to touch the food at a time. It's a lot of work. As another person stated, we already get there extremely early in the AM. There were less teams competing this year which also makes for less chili. We agree that a better delineation between amateur and professional teams could be made, we are not professional chefs, but are competing against some, although we feel our chili holds it's own.

Thank you Palo Alto Parks and Recreation for continuing this event and to the staff for giving up your own July 4th celebrations each year. Our team has been a part of it for about 25 years and our families and friends have enjoyed this tradition greatly! My kids had a blast at all of the station and liked the vendor selection- shaved ice!! (And thank you judges for your votes!!)

Like this comment
Posted by Pat Markevitch
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 5, 2014 at 2:38 pm

. I am part of Good King , Wench and Lass, and I agree with Jordana. We all make about the same amount of chili. We made around 19 gallons this year so I don't know why some teams took longer to run out of chili. The city staff in charge of this event, Ali Williams and Minka van der Zwaag, and all of their helpers, did an incredible job of running this event and we thank them.

6 teams dropped out at the last minute so there was no time to find replacement teams because the health department permits have a certain lead time. It was a shame that there weren't more teams competing.

as for front loading 20-30 cups, that probably is a no no. the health department is very strict about what we can and cannot do. For safety reasons, we have to serve from the heated cooking container directly into the serving cup right away so the food does not have a chance to cool down.

Like this comment
Posted by Pat Markevitch
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 5, 2014 at 2:42 pm

One other comment, Every year, a staff person goes around to each booth about 45 minutes into the serving time to see how much chili we have left.

Like this comment
Posted by A
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Seems like the city should have sold less tasting kits since 6 teams dropped out. They also should have stopped selling ice cream tickets.

I appreciate all the chili teams. The lines moved decently fast. My frustration is with the ice cream lines. Tin Pot should have told the people in line that they were running low. I wouldn't have waited 20 minutes in line for nothing. When Tin Pot ran out, I waited in another ice cream line but the line was at least 100 people deep and barely moved after 10 minutes. I was fed up with lines at that point. Enjoy my $5 donation city of Palo Alto.

I don't think I will ever go again and will warn all my friends and neighbors against going next year. It was a total waste of my day off to stand in the hot sun for 2 hours. I didn't even get to spend time with my family because we were in different lines.

Like this comment
Posted by Ron
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 5, 2014 at 11:01 pm

I noticed that my two earlier posts were removed. I apologize for using a pseudonym in my first post, which caused the moderator to revoke both my posts. That said, nothing that I wrote was false. (And Ron is my actual name.)

I would like to thank all the chili teams for their effort. I did get to try some great-tasting chili, and it was the first time I had ever been to a chili cook off.

I would still like to offer an idea to improve the situation for next year's cook-off.

1) Each team should submit how many gallons of chili they intend to cook. For example, 8 teams x 18 gallons = 144 gallons of awesome chili = 18,432 ounces.

2) Divide the number of ounces by the cup size. For example, 18,432 / 3 oz = 6144 servings of chili.

3) Divide the number of servings by 5, and sell that many chili tasting kits. For example, 6144 / 5 = 1228.8.

In our example above, if you sell much more than 1228 kits, there will be unhappy campers. It's a celebration, so we don't want unhappy campers. :-(

If there is any chili left after all the tickets are used, that's a good problem! You can sell discounted chili tasting kits at the end and the people who show up late can run around to taste the last bits of chili!

Thank you for considering this idea in future chili cook-offs.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 6, 2014 at 7:28 am

Many of you on here have very valid points and I hope that the organizers are taking notes. The tasting needs to be more organized and consistent, and since they lost 6 teams (this is a huge number) they should have encouraged the teams to make more chili, or sold less tickets. I came in very early this year and was one of the lucky few who got to try all the chili.

I agree wit Jay, The Vineyard and the Golden slaters were my favorites. The others were fine. Too bad the Goldenslaters ran out earl. My neighbors did not get to taste theirs and they got in at 3:00

I liked the fact that the organizers included the ice cream taste off this year. I enjoyed Tin Pot the best.

The World cup soccer was a great touch.

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 6, 2014 at 10:18 pm

First time going to this event as I'm a new Palo Altan resident!

I had a great time and will definitely be going again next year! Even though the lines for chili, ice cream, and vendor food were long, the spirit of the competition and the day could be felt anywhere throughout the park!

Although the lines were long they moved quickly (with the exception of the vendor food - that took forever). I do agree that there are quicker ways to distributing the chili/ice cream, but understand that this is an amateur competition and there are certain restrictions from the health department.

All in all if the competition was exactly the same next year, I would go again 10/10!

Like this comment
Posted by MR
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 9, 2014 at 6:32 pm

We (Goldenslaters) were delighted to be part of the Palo Alto 33rd Annual Chili Cook-off, and was equally pleased to take 2nd place in the corporate division. It was an honor to be in such great company, and liked the camaraderie with our team mates, especially Team Elmo.

All in all it was a great event for us and next year we will be participating. Thanks for liking our chili. We definitely learned the hard way and will be light on the portions.

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