California Chili Cookoff - California's Chili Season Ain't so Chilly


Chili Cook-offs in California...Tustin, Wilton and Williams all have them. But so do California cities named Brawley, Groveland, Kirkwood and Yosemite. Also Sunset Beach, Sutter Creek and Buena Park. There are so many disagreements about who first invented chili and what a real chili should consist of. Many claim it couldn't have come from Mexico and some Texans say that the full-bodied beef dish (with no beans, at all) is the original REAL chili recipe. Even if you add beans (con carne) in the poor man's version, what's clear is the fire still burns for a hot, tasty bowl of this soup, and there's such fervor that "chili" has its own society and contests to determine the best chili sauce and recipe. 

Not everyone subscribes to and pays fees to be a member ICS (International Chili Society), the elite group of chili connoisseurs, but throughout California you'll find chili contests and competitions that bring communities together, act as fund raisers, or whatever.

California Chili Cookoffs

CARLSBAD - Chili Cook-off & Fall Festival. Fall Festival and free Chili Cook-off contest to win prizes includes the taste and feel of the Wild West. Admission is FREE and activity cards can be purchased for $5 (includes unlimited fun zone, 2 crafts and 2 tastes of chili plus a bowl of house chili) or chili tasting cards can be purchased for $3 (which gives you 4 tastes of chili from the chili cook-off and a bowl of house chili). Chili Cook-off tastings start typically before noon. Location: Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park, 6200 Flying L.C. Lane, Carlsbad, CA. Call: (760) 602-7519.

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO - Swallows Inn Regional Chili Cook-off. Location: Swallows Inn, 31786 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, California.  Chili, Chili Verde, and  Salsa. Entry $77. Contact:
Cheryl Krupp: (949) 493-3188. [email protected]

TUSTIN - The Tustin Street Fair and Chili Cookoff. Take to the streets of Old Town Tustin. This 24th annual event features the Chili Cookoff, craft booths, non-profit food vendors, entertainment, kids carnival, music and much more.  Time: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission is free.


FORTUNA - Chili Cook-Off is held in conjunction with the Fortuna Rodeo. The cookoff is held the Monday of rodeo week, and is the launch of the week-long activities and events.


VACAVILLE - Vacaville Chili Challenge - held in Town Square. Time: 10 am to 6 pm.  For cook-off entry details please call the Bruce at (707) 404-6441; or (707) 451-2100.

FERNDALE -  St. Mark's Harvest Festival and Chili Cook-Off. This annual event offers family fun, games, cakewalk, hayride, live music and a candy booth for the kids. Chili judged by local dignitaries at the beginning of festivities, followed by hot dogs and chips with a taste of chili for other attendees, free. 5:30-8:30 p.m. St. Mark's, Fern & Berding Streets. Call St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: (707) 786-9353

Taste, texture, consistency, spice blend, aroma and color and flavor are the main criteria for competition chili. Competition chili is designed to win chili competitions and isn't something you cook for a Saturday football gathering. It contains more chili spices, more salt and doesn't have secret ingredients. The meat must be lean beef diced into small cubes with the winner taking all, based on  his or her cache of fresh spices.

Some of the unusual chili competitions aren't limited to California. Terlingua, Texas (some say it's the home of chili and the first chili cook-off held there in 1967)  hosts Junior Chili Cookoff  which has been held several years for ages 6 to 18, and was sanctioned by the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI). The Kosher Chili Cook-off also comes from Texas (Dallas). There's a national Mexican Chili Cook-Off, Chili Palooza in Seattle

I make a mean pot of chili. It's never the same, never mundane, and to date, I've never shared my secrets, mostly because I love to hear people rave and revere me for my talents in cooking.

In California, chili is most popular in the chilly season--September to May.  While Chili Cook-offs go on all summer long because of the guaranteed sunshine and minimal chances of rain,  Californians find themselves susceptible to the winter chill, be it a five degree drop in temps, or 50 in the mountains, Central Valley, desert and north.

Places like Wendy's restaurant or Wienerschnitzel offer a constant staple of chili served separately or topping off a dog or burger.  Having read the insider stories from former employees of some restaurants kind of turned me off to eating this food. Even the hamburger I used to cook into the meal is now replaced with my own ground meats to avoid the things that are sometimes infused into these blends.

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Chili with Beans (recipe)

1lb. lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon chili powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1 15-oz. can chili beans
2 tbsp. Tabasco  (Green JalapeƱo) sauce.

Cook meat in a large skillet over medium heat until brown, about 5 minutes, stirring to break into smaller pieces. Add onion and garlic and cook until tender, about 5 minutes, stirring often. Drain excess fat. Stir in tomato sauce, water, chili powder and salt and mix. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes more or until most of liquid has evaporated. Stir in chili beans and Tabasco and heat through.  Makes 4 servings.

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The chili I like best has some zip and a bit of fire--not too much, however, because most people are mid-range in their tastes. The Spanish influence does tend to heat up the dishes a bit, however. We've seen the chilies and salsas become increasingly spicy in restaurants around California, especially in regions heading nearing 50% or higher population Hispanic.  Mexicans, Central and South American Hispanics especially use a wide range of chilies and they like their dishes full-bodied, with a bite.

With that in mind, you have to pay attention to your audience. From my kitchen come these tips:  1) the meat preparation is tops.  Quality meat, perfect texture and flavor are king.  I think it would be incredibly boring to just cook beef and let it soak up the flavors of the other ingredients in a chili dish. One thing I do in all my dishes is let the meat exist as a stand-out or stand-alone. With the right sizzle and spices, you can taste the meat morsels as little bursts of enjoyment, separate, but integrated into the theme of the sauce and other textures...onion, peppers, beans, tomatoes. Unlike the typical chili where it is one big bowl of sameness, the key is making the textures provide enjoyment in each bite, kind of like the chocolate chip in the cookie.

Another secret to my recipes is use of woods for flavor. They can be subtle and really work well. You have to experiment with which woods work for your chili recipe. Mesquite is popular as a refined choice, while Central Coast diners like oak. And just to throw them off, I inject my Kansas City roots with hickory--it rocks! It is easy to overwhelm the dish with wood flavors, however. In a contest, you could be downgraded for too much smoke. But for entertaining, see if you don't hit a home run at home, barbeques and community festivals.

Another secret is the beans.  Don't overdue it on the beans. Keep them as an enjoyable texture, not filler. Bean texture is equally important as its flavor.

While all that canned stuff makes cooking easy, it wouldn't hurt to check out local farmer's markets, fairs, tomato fests and other places where you can obtain the freshest ingredients.  Some of the finest meals allow the top foods to shine. Traveling and sampling great meals, we notice that top products help create memorable experiences. That's what you discover about chefs. They grow small gardens with spices, use locally grown, seasonal offerings, and shop, shop, shop for the best ingredients. If you're really into it, you can have your ingredients shipped to you, though it will cost more.

And one more tip is to get creative with the sauces and spices.  While I've found that red curries at less than a pinch can add mystique. I rarely use them, but do include some unexpected spices to throw in ethnic spins. A great chili booster is A1 sauce, but there are hundreds of store shelf sauces that, when blended tastefully, will keep the crowd guessing. 

Having never used a chili recipe out of a book, I should go back and take a look. But when people love my dishes for their unique tastes, textures and user-friendly blends with less beans and more vegetables, why try to follow convention?  


SUTTER CREEK - Sutter Creek District Chili Cookoff. Cookoff Categories: Chili Chili Verde, Salsa. Location: Main Street, Sutter Creek, California.



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Buena Park Silverado Days Chili Cookoff Oct
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Carlsbad Fall Festival Chili Cook-off Nov  
Creston Creston Chili Cook Off Nov    
Ferndale Annual St. Mark's Chili Cook-Off Oct
Fortuna Chili Cook-Off and Fortuna Rodeo July  
Groveland Annual Chili Cookoff Sep
Huntington Beach Elks Chili Cookoff Aug hbelks. org
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Petaluma The Great Petaluma Chili Cook Apr/May  
Redding Asphalt Cowboy Chili & Beans Cook Off May  
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San Diego Ocean Beach Chili Cook-Off  Jun/Jul  
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