Chili Cook Off Poster for April 30th RVO

Jersey City Cooks Throw Oven Mitts in the Ring at 4th Street Arts Super Chili Cook-off

To Bean or Not to Bean

  By Sally Deering

To the chili-lover, there’s nothing tastier than a bowl of kidney beans, onions, and peppers simmering in a bath of spicy tomato sauce. Add in beef, pork or other meats and they may soon wax poetic on the art of a good bowl of chili.

Last year, more than 1,000 chili-lovers descended on Grove Street Plaza in Jersey City to taste a bounty of varieties of the hearty concoction created by local chefs and home-cooks vying for chili titles like Spiciest and Best Vegetarian. On Saturday, May 3rd, the plaza will once again be a hub of hungry chili-lovers salivating for some super chili samplings at the 5th annual 4th Street Arts Chili Cook-off and Fiesta Fundraiser. And while cook-off attendees chow down on some tasty chili, a panel of judges will taste-test and award Golden Spoons (wooden spoons painted gold) Golden Skillets and other prizes in several best chili categories.

This year’s judges include Jersey City Mayor Steven M. Fulop, The Star-Ledger’s “Eat with Pete” columnist Peter Genovese, Chef Will Lustberg, a contestant on Season 9 of TVs HELL’S KITCHEN with Chef Gordon Ramsey, Catherine Hecht, publisher of the Jersey City Independent; and Jersey City Ward “E” Councilwoman Candice Osborne. They will be awarding the Judges’ Choice Award for Best Restaurant and Best Individual and Golden Spoons to Spiciest, Most Creative and Best Vegetarian. Peoples’ Choice Awards will also go to Best Restaurant and Best Individual. The Golden Skillet will be given to Best Student and Teacher Team. Lincoln High School in Jersey City has a culinary arts program and will be sending two teams to compete.

“The real allure of the Chili Cook-off is that people love to eat chili,” Mike McNamara, producer of the fundraising fiesta says. “It’s cheap and family-friendly. You can bring your family of five out for $25 and have all you can eat. There are bands and its fun. The first chili cook off was in 2010 and we had four or five hundred people attend and we were blown away. The year after that it rained and people still showed up in droves.”

Big Wake and the Jeremy Wallace Trio will be performing live and Bambino Chef, a company that holds kids’ cooking classes on Newark Avenue in Jersey City will host kids’ activities like face-painting, too.

For the adults, Kendall Alvarez-Eskew of The Thirsty Quaker in Jersey City, the only home-brew supply store in Hudson will be hosting a home brew sampling with members of the Jersey City Brew Club. For a $20 ticket – chili-lovers can sample about 15 varieties of home brew.

“The last two years they did a home-brew competition,” McNamara says. “For this event we’re calling it a sampling. Nobody’s competing. It’s just a bunch of artists trying to make the most beautiful thing together.”

Tickets for the home-brew tasting go fast and McNamara suggests purchasing them in advance and online at

For the Chili Cook-off, more than 20 home-cooks and professional chefs will be competing and that includes home-cook and Jersey City resident Russell Simon, a web copywriter for an educational testing service who started making chili when he was in college because “it was a great way to make a lot of food if you had friends over”.

“One of the wonderful things about chili is that it’s such a classic recipe but open to so much interpretation,” Simon says. “Any meat can be substituted for beef like lamb, pork. To bean or not to bean, that is the chili question.”

Chili purists do not believe in the bean. Simon, who once lived in Dallas, says: “Chili, like football, is one of those small ‘religions’ in Texas. One of the things you will not see are beans in a true Texas chili.”

For this year’s competition, Simon is cooking up a Texas Red chili and the only pepper he’s using is jalapeno. He’s also cut down on sauce from last year when he used 32-36 ounces per batch. This year, he’s only using 8 ounces. He’s also substituting chuck roast for ground beef and along with a special Texas chili powder, he’s adding a hint of mystery.

“I have a secret weapon that will kick up the heat a notch,” Simon says.

Simon takes chili very seriously and his chili philosophy is simple: “Be honest. Present a good honest food that people enjoy eating. Don’t throw all your leftovers into a pot and call it chili. It’s chili, not gumbo.”

Professional chef Alana Fuentes of Jersey City owns her own catering company Most Wanted

Chef, LLC, and last year she won Best Vegetarian for her Yucca and Plantain Chili and the Peoples’ Choice award for her Café Patron Beef Chili, made with coffee-flavored tequila – a whole bottle.

“I like to cook with liquor,” Fuentes says.

At the chili cook-off in 2012, Fuentes won Most Creative with her Cuban Style Short Rib Chili. Unlike, other contestants, Fuentes waits until she’s walking through the aisles of the supermarket to decide what type of chili she’s going to make.

“Last year, I made 14 gallons of chili and I went through every last drop,” Fuentes says. “It cost me $900 but it was worth it knowing people loved my chili. Last year, I didn’t use anything from a jar and it took me three days, too, in my tiny kitchen.”

Fuentes’ chili philosophy is “low and slow”.

“You can’t rush,” Fuentes says. “I cook it for hours and hours. I start with stock and let that simmer down and then cook meat and beans separately. Then I combine them and then I let it sit for 24 hours.”

The three day cook-fest also means three days of using all her pots and pans and a very messy kitchen.

“Last year I put on Facebook ‘50 bucks for anyone who wants to help me clean my kitchen’,” Fuentes says. “That’s definitely going to happen again this year.”

Catherine Hecht, publisher of the Jersey City Independent returns for another year to judge the best vegetarian chili. Last year’s cook-off was a lot of fun, she says, and as a judge, Hecht says she looks for texture, spice, creativity and that certain something special.

“I look for the mystery, a spice or ingredient you can’t put your finger on,” Hecht says. “You want to have layers. As you’re eating and chewing there should be other things, a spice, a vegetable, something that shines through. The most important thing to me is the taste. It should be a little explosion in your mouth.”

If you go:

Sat, May 3rd, Chili Sampling: 12 noon; Home Brew Sampling, 1 pm

The 5th annual 4th Street Arts Chili Cook-off and Fiesta Fundraiser

Grove Street Plaza (outside Grove Street PATH Station)

Jersey City

Tickets for sale online:

Tickets for sale at the event

$5 per person for chili sampling

$20 for the combined chili and home brew sampling

For more info,

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