Updated 3 pm on March 29
Close to 1,600 hungry, thirsty souls gathered at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs on Saturday for the 31st annual Big Chili Contest. Hosted by MVY Radio, Big Chili Fest celebrates the art of good chili making in support of the Red Stocking Fund, which provides food, clothing, and toys to Island children during the holiday season.
This year, more than a dozen amateur and professional competitors vied for the title of best chili. Ultimately the Harbor View Hotel took top honors in the professional category, and Wild Willy’s won first place in the amateur category.
Participating in the Big Chili Fest is no small feat, and can be quite an investment. All entrants must prepare their chili in a commercial kitchen, and competitors must supply at least 15 gallons of chili for distribution to the hungry crowds. Showmanship is also stressed; creative presentation and unique ingredients are the expectation.
Veteran competitor Bobby Costello of Official Chili from Carver beefed up his display with a sombrero-wearing, poncho-clad photo prop for attendees to pose with. Folks bold enough to step up for a photo were likely to meet Mr. Costello, who’s been competing in the event since the ’90s. “I’ve missed two years, so I think this is my 25th time. I tweak my recipe each time. It’s just fun to be here, and it’s for a good cause,” said Mr. Costello. His “Official Chili” was perhaps the meatiest chili, chock-full of pulled pork and pork loin, with added spices and onion and celery for texture.
Representatives from the Santoro Hospitality Group, which includes Lookout Tavern, Fishbones, and Ocean View, donned pirate costumes to serve the two varieties of chili they offered, aptly named “There She Blows” and “Fire in the Hole.” The latter was a jalapeño bacon chili with black beans, green pepper, and tomato, sprinkled with shredded cheese and served with a jalapeño bacon cornbread. The milder variety was a smoked chipotle and beef recipe, served with chips and sour cream. Look out for chili on the specials menu at Ocean View.
Offshore Ale showcased an innovative twist with their “Irish chili,” complete with corned beef and their housemade Steep Rock stout. Offshore server Hannah Marlin explained that the recipe was inspired by their Irish chef, Paul Donnelly, and the recent St. Patrick’s Day holiday. Plus it’s “sticking to the Irish roots of the brew pub,” said Ms. Marlin.
Cranberries also made an appearance at the competition, for the second year in a row, with Cape Cod Select’s “Ground Turkey and Cranberry Chili.” The cranberry-growing company out of Carver first entered the chili-making arena after a suggestion from MVY radio. “We were doing some advertising with WMVY, and they suggested we enter the chili festival. We’re always encouraging people to add cranberries to different foods, and when we heard the festival was on Martha’s Vineyard and it was a local event, we wanted in. We wanted to help support local businesses and share our cranberries in a new way,” said Shannon McCrillis of Cape Cod Selects.
Perhaps one of the most unusual ingredients used this year was cinnamon whiskey, which was showcased in the Barn, Bowl and Bistro’s “Fireball Whiskey Chilli.” The recipe also featured chocolate stout, braised veal shanks, buffalo, ground bison, pork, and beef. No meats left behind there, and the addition of the Fireball gave it a sweet cinnamon flavor. “It’s like a meaty shot of Fireball. We made it special for this event, and it came out really damn good,” Barn Chef Jon Johnson said.
Superfoods were the main ingredients in chilis prepared by Not Your Sugar Mamas and first-timer Naked Baking Ladies from Connecticut. Owned by Marci Moreau, Naked Baking Ladies’ concoction included ginger and turmeric root. “I’ve been coming to the Island for 25 years, and have a lot of connections here, and a lot of friends. I started an organic food company to promote foods I believe in, and my chili is packed with superfoods. It’s all organic, and non-GMO, and features ingredients that really ramp up the nutritional profile. Plus it’s cooked with cinnamon sticks, which are better for you than ground cinnamon,” Ms. Moreau said.
Another new competitor was “Not Your Average Dad’s Chili,” prepared by Samantha Souza and Brittany Berg of Taunton. Ms. Souza’s participation was in honor of her late father’s love for chili. As a first-time attendee last year, Ms. Souza was inspired to showcase her father’s recipe. “My dad kept a chili book of recipes, and there was one that was his favorite, that he took and adapted and made his own,” Ms. Souza said.
Bill Donovan of Wild Willy’s returned with the same chili recipe he’s brought three years in a row, but this year was about reclaiming the title he landed in 2015: “It’s the same chili, but I didn’t burn it this year. It’s my redemption year.” His hard work paid off, with a first-place win in the amateur category.
And of course, no Big Chili Contest is complete without the active participation of the attendees, many from off-Island, whose patronage at local businesses provides an economic lift in the off-season. Local and visiting attendees alike show up in ponchos, sombreros, and fake mustaches to pose with giant inflatable Corona bottles, turning the event into a costume party as well as a food festival. This year the outfitted crowds danced and partied to the music of the Mariachi Mexico Lindo Band, Taunton-based Jimmy Buffett cover band the BaHa Brothers, Cape Cod party band Syndicate, and DJ Alvzie.
While the event is known to provide great entertainment and a lively good time, the real reward is the significant donation the festival provides for the Red Stocking Fund. At the award ceremony, representatives from the Island-based nonprofit thanked attendees for their continued support, which helped to provide 360 children with a memorable holiday last year.
In a conversation with The Times, contest organizer and general manager of MVY Radio Greg Orcutt noted that while numbers and ticket sales were still being tallied, he expects that this year’s event generated somewhere under $20,000 for the Red Stocking Fund of Martha’s Vineyard.
The event, which historically has taken place in January, was moved to March for the first time this year. The reasons were twofold: to help increase chances for better weather, and accessibility to Island businesses that may be closed in January. “The weather is always questionable, and we haven’t had to cancel an event in the past, but we’ve gotten close. And with our seasonal economy, many local businesses are going through overhauls in January, so we were trying to be accommodating to as many as possible. Given it was the first year with a new date, we were happy with the attendance, and made out very well,” Mr. Orcutt said. He also noted his gratitude to the P.A. Club, especially Gina DeBettencourt and Tricia Bergeron, and Mike Santoro of Santoro Hospitality Group, who helped organize the event: “I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Full list of winners:
Best professional chili, third place: The Barn Bowl & Bistro
Best professional chili, second place: Ocean View
Best professional chili, first place: Harbor View Hotel
Most traveled chili: Naked Baking Ladies of West Hartford, CT
Best veggie chili: Not Your Sugar Mamas
Best Presentation: Wild Willy’s
Is that really chili?: New Moon Magick Enchanted Chocolates with their chili chocolate bark
Hottest chili: Edgartown Fire Association
Best amateur chili, third place: Bob Costello’s Official Chili
Best amateur chili, second place: Dr. Jack’s Love Chili
Best amateur chili, first place: Wild Willy’s
Jenny Johnson of NESN’s Dining Playbook also announced her People’s Choice winners, which were awarded with cash prizes.
Third place, $200: Bob Costello’s Official Chili
Second place, $300: Harbor View Hotel
First place, $500: Lookout Tavern’s “There She Blows” chili