Farm to table: Chili cookoff in Over-the-Rhine

Posted at 11:00 AM, Jan 28, 2016

CINCINNATI -- Call it the magnum law of chili. As the culinary scene in Cincinnati expands, becoming more eclectic, so too does the celebration of one of its traditional foods – its famous chili.

One of the proving grounds is Park + Vine, the farm-to-table, green-products general store in Over-the-Rhine.

Park + Vine’s annual chili cookoff, now in its sixth year, provides a counterpart to meat chilis with a vegan chili competition this year to be held from 3 to 5 p.m. on January 31.

Owner Danny Korman said offering a forum for vegan chili cooks is his shop’s way of joining up with this very particular local tradition. But entrants won’t be expected to mimic the classic meat-over-spaghetti or be bound to any kind of “ways.” As long as ingredients are plant-based and chili in some form is involved, it’s an open field. One year a winning entry was a raw chili, Korman said.

Award categories this year will include “best chef entry”; “best enthusiast entry” (i.e., civilian or non-chef); “best use of ingredients”; and “most likely to serve to unsuspecting family and friends” (read: meat eaters). There will be two sets of awards: people’s choice, decided by ticket buyers, and judges’ choice.

This year’s slate of judges is: Colonel De, owner of Colonel De’s Gourmet Spices and Herbs; Derrick Braziel of MORTAR, a nonprofit  resource hub for urban entrepreneurs; Lilly Burdsall, the Midwest Culinary Institute’s culinary operations manager; and Joanne Drilling, Cincinnati Magazine’s food editor.

Judges from 2015’s event included WCPO food writer Grace Yek, who said 2015’s contestants used a wide assortment of ingredients. “While there was use of cocoa and cinnamon in some of the entries,” she said in an email, in reference to the flavor profile of classic Cincinnati chili, “it was evident the contestants were not trying to re-create Cincinnati chili. They were creating something delicious of their own. The most memorable thing was the outcome: Jason Louda's entry not only won the judges over, but also the people at large, thus also winning the People's Choice Award. That doesn't happen often.”


Meatless Versus Meat

Park + Vine’s competition is planned – by design – to be held the same day Findlay Market will host its meat-allowed chili cookoff. (Findlay Market's will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) But it didn’t start out that way. Initially Korman tried to avoid having P + V’s cookoff coincide with the market's. 

“We scheduled ours intentionally so it wouldn’t be the same day,” he said, “and they (Findlay Market) ended up moving theirs to the same day. So theirs started in the late morning and ours started in the midafternoon, and at first we thought that might be an issue. But it wasn’t. We had people go there first and then come here.” It worked out so well Park + Vine has coordinated with Findlay Market for several years, creating an unofficial chili festival in Over the Rhine.

“Some people bike,” from Findlay Market to Park + Vine, Korman said. “Some people walk. Some people drive.” It all goes to show there’s room for all types in the melting pot – or call it the great chili pot – that is Cincinnati, and that includes vegetarians.

You Can Do This At Home

Make your own farm-to-table vegetarian chili, that is.

Zefren Vesel (AKA Chef Zef) Park + Vine’s chef and kitchen manager, told us how-to. Vesel said, "The best thing to do in terms of sourcing your ingredients is go to a store that sources things locally or better yet go to a farmers market. … Northside has a good one, Clifton” does, too. As do many other neighborhoods, with markets open in winter (

“A lot of times for a vegetarian chili people use beans and that would not be as easy to source from a local farm [during the winter] but I’d recommend getting organic beans,” if local beans are not available.

The essential ingredients, he said, are chili pepper, cumin, onion, garlic, and paprika. Beyond these, it’s all a matter of interpretation.

“What I do,” said Vesel, who was raised in Hudson, in northeast Ohio, “is start off with some olive oil, cover the base of whatever pan I’m using, then I would add [chopped] onions and [minced] garlic and then add the seasonings. The main seasonings that I use are a red chili powder, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder – and after that you can just get creative and throw in whatever else you want, whether it’s some dried-up jalapenos or some cinnamon. I know people around here like cinnamon and cocoa. … There’s great seasoning mixes at Colonel De’s at Findlay Market.”

After the seasoning has been added and cooked for a couple of minutes with onion, he said, “you can start adding things like farm-fresh tomato or you can use a crushed tomato, canned. And blend them up a little bit so it provides some juice and also some chunks [of tomato]. … And then you can add whatever [cooked] beans you’re [using]. You can add sweet potato, butternut squash, corn. Really anything else that you feel like adding. If it’s too thick you can add some water, just get it to the volume you’re trying to make and let it simmer a good twenty-minute minimum” -- up to two hours.

Recently, this writer made a vegetarian chili with delicata squash, fennel, green pepper, carrots, tomato sauce, ketchup, navy beans and kidney beans, as well as onion and spices. I sautéed onion, carrot, and fennel, then added garlic and spices, then added the rest, plus water. It took about 40 minutes all told, and it turned out great. I served it with a simple cornbread.

These are the ingredients and amounts Colonel De, of Colonel De Gourmet Herbs and Spices at Findlay Market, uses for his chili: 

Guinness Vegetarian Chili 
1 cup Chopped Onion (prefered red)
1Tbsp Minced Garlic
1.5 Tbsp Dark Chili Powder
2 tsp Ground Cumin
0.5 Ground Black Pepper
1 tsp Granulated Sugar
11.02 oz Guinness
48 oz Beans (any of your choice)
14 oz Crushed Tomatoes
0.5 tsp Chopped Red Pepper of choice
0.5 tsp Apple Cider Vinegar
0.5 tsp Ground Ancho Chili
1 tsp Ground Coriander
0.5 tsp Mexican Oregano
1 tsp Sea Salt
1.5 Tbsp Smokey Rub

So what advice does Vesel have for a chili enthusiast? 

“I would say follow your nose,” he said. “And just be creative, don’t be afraid to experiment a little. Don’t try to kill yourself following a crazy difficult recipe. As long as you’ve got those core seasonings in there you’re pretty much gonna be good. Anything else you add in there will just be a little bit more.”

What: vegetarian chili cookoff
When: 3 – 5 p.m., Jan. 31
Where: Park + Vine, 1202 Main St., Over the Rhine

Tasting/judging tickets can be purchased for $10 before 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, or pay $15 at the door. Kids under 10 are free. Drinks, including coffee and craft beer, are separate. Proceeds from beer sales will benefit MORTAR,a nonprofit resource hub for urban entrepreneurs across Cincinnati.