For one Saturday, a Worthington parking lot was the scene of a kind of “family” reunion that attracted guests from all over the country and raised money for charity in the process.
On Aug. 25, the lot in front of Rush Creek Burgers & Brews, 480 E. Wilson Bridge Road, for the second year served as the home of the International Chili Society-sanctioned Ohio State Chili Cook-Off Championship.
Forty cooks competed in four categories.
Though they might be competitive with one another and come from a variety of locations, the cooks are no strangers.
Chairman Henry Stephens, a former Ohio resident now living in Mississippi, said everyone knows each other on the chili circuit.
“It’s more than just a competition for us,” he said. “It’s a family. I’ve got friends from Maine to California.”
The competition determines qualifiers for the year’s ICS World Championship Chili Cook-Off, scheduled Sept. 29 and 30 at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
Competitors came to Worthington from 14 states, including Texas and Mississippi.
At each state’s competition, winners in of the four categories – red, green, homestyle and salsa – qualify for the main event.
But participants aren’t just interested in qualifying. Many cook based on a combination of pride and enthusiasm for the tour.
“I said, ‘When I retire, I just want to travel, cook chili and sightsee,’ ” said Mike Goodman, a 25-year regular on the circuit.
Goodman, a Madison, Wisconsin, resident, had already qualified in the red- and green-chili and salsa categories before the event, and he added a first-place prize in homestyle to complete qualification for each category.
He said cooking good chili isn’t so much about a secret recipe but rather proper technique and dedication.
“Cooking chili is as much about technique as a recipe,” he said. “There’s an old saying: You can cook my recipe, but you can’t cook my pot.”
Not everyone at the event was a chili specialist.
Mark Hensley of Memphis, Tennessee, is a certified barbecue and steak judge who regularly competed in meat-oriented events. He recently switched over to chili and is working his way into contention.
For the moment, he’s sticking to red chili until he can master the daunting green chili, a favorite of many competitors that also is known for its difficulty.
“I’m just not good enough for green,” he said with a laugh.
In addition to sending competitors to St. Louis, the event raised money for charity.
Stephens said the ICS requires that proceeds of each cook-off benefit a local cause. When putting the event together, Stephens said he immediately thought of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Ohio, where his daughter, Laci Daniels, once received help.
“It was an easy choice for me,” he said.
Between entry fees and tickets, the cook-off raised around $2,000 for the cause, an outcome that Stephens said gave him just as much pride as putting on the event itself.
“That’s what this is all about,” he said.
For more information on the ICS, go to chilicookoff.com.