No cooks at the 33rd annual Belleville Chili Cook-off would reveal their recipe, but the best ingredients that go into the two-day annual festival can’t be found in stores anyway. They are a dash of secrecy, a heavy dollop of competition and peppery confidence to taste.
More than 60 vendors set up food stalls Friday around the fountain on the Public Square in downtown Belleville — 46 of whom entered the chili competition. There were only three awards to give out, however: best chilis for restaurants and non-restaurants, as well as the People’s Choice Award.
The event continues Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
For many groups, the heat was on, but perhaps no one felt it more than the O’Fallon Sportsmen’s Club, which took first place in the non-restaurant category in 2014 and 2015 — both years the organization has competed.
“We are going for a three-peat,” said Mark Tyberendt, the group’s membership chairman and chili co-chairman, near the southeast side of the fountain where their stand was.
Three years ago, the group was looking for a fundraiser, and someone came across the cook-off. In the first year, the group cooked everything ahead of time and froze it, but after they won, they couldn’t defrost the batches quickly enough to satisfy demand. The club learned quickly and came up with a better system the following year.
Despite the setback, the recipe remains the same. It originated organically, cooked up for meetings and events, before they decided to go public with it.
“We knew we had a pretty good chance (of winning),” Tyberendt said of the slightly spicy concoction, “Two or three guys at the club kind of mixed this, mixed that, whatever together, and came up with the recipe.”
It may sound like a haphazard method, but his breezy braggadocio was tempered by the knowledge of the target on the Sportsmen’s backs. Viewing the Belleville Firefighters Local 53 direct competitors, the chili-slingers at Tyberendt’s stand waged a strong word-of-mouth game, telling everyone theirs as “better than the firemen’s.”
Set up on East Main St. between Circa Clothing the recently-closed Junction Coffee, the Sportsmen’s boasts didn’t reach the firemen, but they had a swagger of their own.
“We definitely try to go for No.1,” said Fred Vrieswyk of the firefighters union.
But competition between the groups may not be that fierce after all. That’s because the firemen’s goal is to win the People’s Choice Award, which is counted by the total amount of donations given to each organization in special containers. The other competitions are judged blindly by a six-person panel.
“We feel like that’s ours,” Vrieswyk said of the People’s Choice Award, though last year, he added jokingly, “Peel came in a stole it from underneath us.”
The firemen’s chili is an acquired taste, Vrieswyk said, though because they don’t change their recipe, people have come to know it and come back for more. During the Friday lunch hour, the stand greeted multiple lines four- and five-people deep.
The firemen pre-cooked 800 gallons of chili on Thursday, and their look was designed to wow people, too. Their version, a straight-forward and milder brew, uniquely incorporated a firefighter look with two cup dispensers fashioned from retrofitted nozzles that had been in service for 20 years.
“It’s fair game,” Vrieswyk said about the appeal of presentation. Last year, the firemen sold out of chili at 4 p.m. “Now, would we rather take first place and People’s Choice? Sure, but we understand that there are a lot of competitors out there.”
Like any dedicated chili competitor, Vrieswyk was glib when it came to talking about his group’s entry, but another volunteer summed it up more succinctly.
“It’s just chili,” he said.
The judging began Friday afternoon, and the winners will be announced at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Saturday’s schedule for the Belleville Chili Cook-off:
9 a.m. — Chili Chase 5K run
11 a.m. — Festival; children’s area opens on South Illinois Street
1 p.m. — Junior Idol Competition
3 p.m. — USAF Band of Mid-America-Starlifter
5 p.m. — Chili Cook-Off awards announced
6 p.m. — Queens Boulevard, East Main Street stage
10:30 p.m. — Festival closes