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Chili Cookoff Benefits Late Chef’s Foundation

September 22, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ What do James Beard and Simmerin’ Cy have in common?

A love of American food.

And there’s probably no more quintessentially American food than chili - hence the first ever James Beard Invitational Chili Cookoff to benefit the late chef’s foundation.

Strewn about the garden behind Beard’s Greenwich Village townhouse were cooks using names such as Big Jim, Simmerin’ Cy and Austin Red.

In all, seven of the country’s finest prepared their versions of chili for about 80 guests Sunday night. Guests paid $50 apiece for the privilege of sampling Simmerin’ Cy’s ″City Slicker Chili,″ Charlie and Barbara Ward’s ″Hodgepodge Chili″ and ″Pauper’s Chili,″ Jim Heyward’s ″Big Jim’s Hog Breath Chili″ and the winner, ″Big Jim Eis’s Mystery Meat Chili.″

It was a unique event for the Beard House, which became a showcase for culinary excellence after the 1985 death of the man credited with awakening a serious interest in American food.

″We wanted to do something a little different for our group,″ said organizer Shirley Alpert. ″We received nothing but compliments afterward.″

Eis, 40, an auto mechanic from suburban Rye, has been cooking chili competitively since 1989.

He won his first cookoff in 1990 after he altered his recipe drastically to conform to the standard set by the International Chili Society, the California-based sanctioning body that oversees about 400 cookoffs a year.

″The important thing is to keep it simple - New Mexican powder, cumin, limited vegetables, things you can control,″ Eis said. ″You have to limit your variables. It’s important to cook to the standard.″

The basic rules are simple: Cook to please the judges, who look for TACA - taste, aroma, consistency and appearance. There was a People’s Choice award, too, and it went to advertising executive Norman Tanen’s ″Norman’s Chili.″

″I was astounded at how close the chilis were,″ said one judge, Bobby Flay, a chef at The Mesa Grill in New York. ″I was very impressed. I looked for chili that was not too dark, not too light and with the right consistency.″

Other judges were Jack McDavid of Jack’s Firehouse in Philadelphia; ″Chili Madness″ author Jane Butel; Bruce Sterman, owner of The Manhattan Chili Co.; and former baseball star Rusty Staub of Rusty’s on Fifth.

To hear chili cooks tell it, as little as an eighth of a teaspoon of a single ingredient can throw off an entire batch and spell the difference between advancing to the World Championships or going home convinced the judges were inept.

Chili cooks routinely get together to swap lies and sometimes glean tips from each other.

Charlie and Barbara Ward of Lake Havasu, Ariz., often spend their summers going from state championship to state championship, alternately as sought- after judges or cooks.

″The best chili we ever made was at the Massachusetts championship this year,″ said Charlie Ward, a former Los Angeles city official. ″It was blended and balanced to the point of perfection.″

It won, too.

Which means the Wards are off to the Worlds, set for Nov. 8 at Rawhide, Ariz., where 84 state and regional winners will compete for a grand prize of $25,000.

The event has come a long way since the original cookoff between Wick Fowler and H. Allen Smith in 1967 at the Chisos Oasis Saloon in Terlingua, Calif.

That cookoff was declared a tie after one judge voted for Fowler, the other voted for Smith and the third, according to International Chili Society board member Jonathan Levine, got drunk and forgot to vote.

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