2015-02-12 / Around Town

Chili Cook-Off Turns 20

By James Merolla

Mike Neves, left, of Midtown Oyster Bar, was joined by other restaurant staff to serve up samples at last year’s Chili Cook-Off. Mike Neves, left, of Midtown Oyster Bar, was joined by other restaurant staff to serve up samples at last year’s Chili Cook-Off. If anyone should know how to make five-alarm chili, it would be the Newport Fire Department.

For almost two decades, the local firefighters have been among the most enthusiastic competitors at the annual Chili Cook-Off, a Newport Winter Festival highlight, and they hope to finish strong in this year’s contest on Saturday, Feb. 14.

“The firefighters make some of the best chili you can imagine and they are a great group of guys,” said David Rosenberg, organizer of the Winter Festival. The group has claimed top honors in the past and last year nabbed second place.

Valentine’s Day will be full of potential for sweethearts and heartburn alike as the 20th Cook-Off takes place at the Newport Harbor Hotel, 49 America’s Cup Ave., from 11:30 to 3:30 p.m. Guests can sharpen their taste buds, eat heartily, and choose their favorite chili in the all-you-can-eat event.

“In 20 years, there have been lots of great stories, no drama, and just spicy good times,” said Rosenberg. “There are always fun stories” – like the year P.J. from Loca stole the winning trophy from the Newport Fire Department and the firefighters had to go to the restaurant to get it back.

Rosenberg said he never had any idea the event would be such a long-running success. “It is not just about chili, but also music and camaraderie among contestants and the public.” He noted that during the 20 years of the Cook-Off participating restaurants have come and gone, but special recognition has to go to the Wharf Pub and Pier 49 at Newport Harbor Hotel, as they have competed in every contest. Rosenberg added that Chef Kevin Thiele from Hotel Viking probably holds the record for the most wins, placing first three times and finishing third twice.

Local restaurants this year include Wharf Pub, Diego’s, Pier 49, Pour Judgement, Ben’s Chili Dogs, Barking Crab, Provencal Bakery and Tito’s Cantina.

Mary Wall, owner of Ben’s Chili Dogs, said they have altered the iconic family recipe for this year’s competition. Since Ben’s Chili Dogs has been a traditional Coney Island place since 1969, they never made a chili and bean recipe. “From time to time over the years some customers would ask if they could just have the sauce in a bowl and we would explain it is not made to eat that way. It’s too rich,” said Wall. “This year we are going to enter with a competition chili and bean recipe that we hope is a contender.”

Having been voted “Best in Rhode Island” by various magazines for the dog topping sauce, Wall thinks she has a shot. “We have been experimenting on our customers since last October,” she said. “It is their feedback that has helped shape what we hope is an awardwinner. It is completely different than Ben’s Coney Island sauce.”

The day should be full of fun for all, and taste-testing guests of all ages will be full of delicious chili long before the winners are announced.

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