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A Cook’s Perspective at the Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff

There’s a core set of three friends and I who have been judges at the Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff and attended as regular foodies walking around trying chili. Through all those years, we’ve dreamed about what it would be like to participate as cooks.

The dream became a reality when we entered a chili in the 2017 Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff.  We didn’t know what to expect going in. There’s really no handbook out there or guide on how to create a team for a cookoff. Sounds like a blogging opportunity!

An experience like no other

Through the past couple months we’ve been working on perfecting our recipe and getting all the logistics of what each person would do. Just like life, our plans didn’t turn out originally how we expected it to. If you are like us and have always wanted to enter as a cook, here’s what our experiences were during the nine hours of madness everybody knows as the Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff.

A majority of our team arrived between 6:30am – 7am to their designed booth spot downtown. Douglas was closed off unless you were dropping supplies off for your team. Then you were allowed in and could park at your designated booth area until a couple hours later when all cars were told to leave. Knowing we may not have time to eat until the end of the cookoff, I brought some QuikTrip breakfast pizza for my team. (Quick review: the pizza is rather dry and satisfying but the best you can do at 6:30am).

During setup time, our team realized we forgot certain things, purchased the wrong sized items so we had to make multiple trips to get things going. This time is all for set up. If you wanted to participate competitively in ICS (International Chili Society) categories you couldn’t start cooking until 9am. So this time was used strictly for getting prepared.

It took us a while to get everything up and going and finally did around the 8am hour. By then it was time for the captains meeting. This was our time to pick up our growlers for the people’s choice beads, find out drop off times for our chili, everything. Or in our case, scope out the competition.

After that we waited until 9am to begin cooking.

 

From 6:30am – 10am, everything was moving at a good relaxing pace. We figured this was all going to be pretty easy. Once the chili was done cooking, we could then crack open a beer and watch all the event attendees eat away. We jinxed ourselves.

Also during this time, we started determining our game plan for the afternoon. Two of the guys who finalized our recipe over the previous two days were going to handle the cooking and making sure the chili was the right temperature throughout the day. A third guy who also worked on the recipe would back them up on whatever they needed. A couple others on hand would just fill in where ever needed. Two people who hadn’t arrived were going to serve chili. Then another friend and I were our “Hype Men”. It was our job to get people over to our booth and vote for us.

Sound easy? We thought so.

Around 11am, people started coming in slowly. Seriously folks, this looked like it was going to be nothing.

At this time, it was when we were supposed to turn in our ICS Salsa we made for the judging. Our next deadline was Noon. This was when we would turn in our chili for the “Anything Goes” and “No Beans” Category. The final deadline was 1pm which was for our chili entry into the ICS Red Chili category which is considered the holy grail of chili categories.

We had no problems with the deadline and were ready for all of that.

Before the noon hour, there was an awesome rendition of the Star Spangled Banner (sidenote: not a single person kneeled down). Then at noon a cannon went off signaling the start of the cookoff. Teams were then allowed to start serving chili to the attendees.

It was at this time, three hours felt like five minutes.

Salsa submission

 

Captains Table to submit entries

After the noon hour, I didn’t even get to take a single picture. It was non-stop madness. My cooks were making sure the chili was the right temperature. We were given one ounce cups to serve the chili in and were out of our stock within 30 minutes. Fortunately the Wagonmasters were on top of things and kept filling up our stock. The teammates handing out the chili and filling the one ounce cups were in a mad dash for almost three hours trying to keep up. They would fill the cups up and take them to our front table where attendees would take them off almost immediately. Some extra friends were on hand and fortunately helped out. Then I was out there just trying to hype up our chili over and over.

The worst part about being out there was having the sun beat down on me. I felt as if I would lose my voice throughout the day. Staying hydrated was also key for not just myself but the entire team.

For the attendees when they purchased a tasting kit, they were given a little blue bead. At each booth was a growler. Attendees could then place the bead in the growler they felt had the best chili. The team with the most blue beads won the People’s Choice Awards. All of the other judging was done in a closed room by random judges who would try all the chilis.

Earning a blue bead was tough. With around 90 teams there, some people may not have even made it to our booth. Then there’s people who wanted to go around and try all the other chilis before deciding.

To get a bead, you needed to really be on top of your game at three things:
1.) Quality chili which we felt we offered
2.) Have chili on hand. If you ran out of chili, people couldn’t vote for you so we made 27 gallons of chili which we ran out 2 hours and 40 minutes into the event. We were one of the last teams with chili left in our area.
3.) Showmanship. You needed to get people over to your booth and do anything you could to get their bead. Some teams gave away koozies, pens, whatever. We opted for bottled waters and corny jokes. You have to be able to take a lot of rejection if you’re going to be a hype man asking for beads. Fortunately, taking rejection has been a great skill of mine…..not by choice but experience.

We kind of figured this going into the event and at least were prepared for that.

I was told the Wagonmasters were expecting 10,000-12,000 people but initial estimates said there were 15,000-18,000 people. It was insane amount of people and honestly, I don’t remember hearing anybody complain about waiting in line for chili. And trust me I would have because being a hypeman, I think I spoke to over a thousand people. I asked so many times how the event was going. The only thing people told me was they ran out of voting beads about two hours into the event.

At 2:30 pm, we had to turn in our growlers with beads. The judging of the chilis were done also by then. It was perfect timing because we were just about out of our 27 gallons of chili.

When 2:40 pm hit, we were done and wiped out physically and mentally. Our feet hurt, our voices were shot and our bodies were exhausted. We just stood there at our tent and took everything in and how the day went. The moment Noon passed by, it was as if we didn’t even have time to blink. We thought we had fun but didn’t know for sure since we didn’t even have time to register it all in yet.

At 3 pm, the awards presentation was beginning. My entire team made our way down to the east entrance. Some newscasters from KSN started reading off the results. They announced the top five placers in each category.

They gave out awards for Best Booth and Best Team Spirit. Our booth was simply a table with tablecloths and then a cool banner. It was nothing as extravagant as many of the other booths around. Needless to say we were shutout of those categories. Wichita Public Schools won Best Team Spirit and Big Momma’s Chili Town won Best Booth.

No Beans category was announced and it went to “Kansas Two-Step Chili”. We didn’t finish in the top five there. In Anything Goes, the same team also won that category. Once again, we didn’t place in there either.

First major award was then ICS Salsa competition. We didn’t place at all in salsa. The winner was the “Toucan Chili II” group.

Net up was ICS Chili Verde which we did not participate in. “Hot Cali Chili” won that category.

ICS Red was up next. The winner would then be eligible to go on to Reno to compete in the World Championship. Right before they started announcing the winners, my team decided we would not have gone to Reno. It was so much work and we could only imagine how much more it would be in Nevada. But the judges actually decided that for us. We were shutout in the category as well.

At this time, our energy and morale was drained. Our goal was to place in at least one category. The final category announced was People’s Choice. One of the members of my team actually began walking back until we heard. “Fifth place in the People’s Choice is………CHILI OF THE PLAINS!” Actually the KSN newscaster said it with little emotion but we made up for it. We yelled, we cheered, hell….we may have cried. We all walked down and accepted our ribbon and took some pictures to celebrate.

I’ve placed fifth place in a lot of things in my life (anything else is overachieving) but have never been so proud than this little ribbon.

It was amazing how a simple fifth place finish could lift our spirits after being down about the whole earlier part of the awards show. We now know how Patriots fans feel after getting beat down by the Falcons for most of the Super Bowl only to come out and win. Except they won a Lombardi Trophy and we won a dollar ribbon.

The winner of the People’s Choice Award went to Kan-Grow Hydro Farms with their Pho Chili which is the only chili I was able to sample. Amazing. There was also a Grand Champion which was a combination of People’s Choice, Team Spirit and Booth and that went to Old Mill Tasty Shop. I can’t complain since I order their chili every time I have lunch there.

So out of roughly 90 teams, our team, The Chili of the Plains, finished fifth overall in People’s Choice. It’s something we are so extremely proud of. We’ve been chatting in group texts since the event and everyone commented on how it was a lot more work than envisioned but a ton of fun.

To the teams who do it every year, it’s incredible everything they do. The time, the money, the effort it takes to pull off a successful booth isn’t minimal by any means. The meat, the ingredients, the food you go through cooking over and over to work on the recipe, the equipment….it’s not cheap. And the time it takes is a lot. Two of my buddies who are married spent probably the previous 48 hours working on this. Fortunately I was the wedding officiant at each of their weddings so their wives are never allowed to get mad at me; I’m the untouchable friend. But with all that said, we now have a stronger appreciation for the cooks. They are what makes any cookoff event what it is. And these people are essentially doing it for free while the attendees reap the benefits. For $5, it’s the best value for any foodie event in town.

Some takeaways on what we learned on putting a team together. Organization, communication and delegation are key. It’s like any work project, everybody needs to have a role. We also had a core group of four of us who decided what recipe we would use, what we would order, what we would need etc. You don’t need too many cooks in the kitchen. Four was the perfect number for us. Everybody on our team was also simply fantastic to work with throughout the day. Everyone knew what was needed and got it done. Flexibility is needed because things can change on the fly and you have to be able to work under pressure. For us it went by well and it went by quick.

I want to take this time to thank all the supporters who came out. From all the friends, family, coworkers and even blog readers who came to stop by and vote, it was greatly appreciated. I know there were so many times we didn’t have much time to talk in depth with people and we apologize. Having to focus on serving over 10,000 people was a tough task.

Overall we thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff. It was a memory we will never forget and one we’re glad we did. It took us years to get us to do it and thanks to Ruse Brown with UBS Financial Services for talking me into making the jump to the cooks side. He and his company sponsored our team. If you decide to enter and have a sponsor, just know there’s plenty more expenses than just the entry fee.

Will we do it again? We know we’ve been asked to come back for another year. Whether we do has yet to be decided. We are still trying to let this whole experience soak in and see if we want to judge, cook or just be there as an attendee. It’s fun but it’s also hard work. Maybe over the next few months, we will know for sure. All we know now is we are so happy to finally be able to say we’ve done this. All the talk over the years and we finally did it and took fifth! Dreams do come true!!!!

One thing we do know, the Wichita Wagonmasters run the best foodie event in town. They deserve the final round of applause for putting it all together. Nobody envies what they do.

Until next time.

Happy Dining,
Eddy


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