“Right now, it’s salt, salt, salt, salt, salt.”
As a band plays in the distance, classic car owners show off their rides, and chili lovers wander through Pahrump’s Petrack Park sampling the creations of over 40 chili cooks, Ken Hook is in the home stretch. It’s nearly time to submit the homestyle chili he’s been cooking for much of Sunday morning for judging. Getting the seasoning just right really matters.
“In two minutes, it’s changed,” he notes as he has a taste. “And it’s gonna change (again) in another two minutes.”
After a few more tastes, he calls over his friend Chuck Harber for a second opinion on the salt. Harber, like Hook, came to Pahrump from Corona, California, for the two-day Silver State Chili Cook-off.
“No, you (still) need a little bit,” he says. “Just a smidge.”
Harber clearly knows his chili. He was one of five first-place finishers in Saturday’s competitions, taking home $1,000 in cash in the red chili division and advancing to September’s World Championship Chili Cook-off in Des Moines. So Hook heeds his friend’s advice before packing up a large cup of his creation for judging.
That kind of camaraderie was common among the competitors who mixed up bowls of red, green, homestyle and vegetarian chilis for separate contests on Saturday and Sunday. Although they hailed from Ohio to Oregon to Arizona, most were regulars at International Chili Society (ICS) competitions. Some travel the country entering competition after competition until they’ve secured the entries they want at the “World,” as they sometimes refer to September’s big event.
“We cook in eight to 10, sometimes 12 (competitions a year),” Hook explains of his and Harber’s annual itinerary.
“It depends how long it takes us to win. Each time you go to a cook-off you try to win a classification, and then you move on to a next one. Right now I have what they call a hat trick, which is three. I’m doing a veggie today, hopefully to get the fourth.”
While the cook-off was familiar territory for many of the cooks, it was new to many attendees.
“This is my first time coming, and so far it’s awesome,” said Pahrump local Alexandra Fox, despite admitting she would have preferred the spice level a bit higher on some offerings. “I feel like it’s a great way to connect with other people.”
Jiefei Wang and his fiancee Jin Zhou, who live in Buffalo and traveled to Las Vegas to get married, discovered the festival during a random drive out to Pahrump on a beautiful sunny day. The couple admitted they weren’t terribly familiar with chili, but were learning as they tasted.
“It’s pretty cool, because even though they look really similar, actually they (all) taste different,” he said, as the pair debated their favorite before casting a vote for audience choice.
Later in the day, after the casual fans have gone home, the cooks gathered to hear the day’s winners announced. Despite prize money at stake (the World Champion in the red division takes home $25,000), they seemed more like old friends than competitors, cheering each other on and sharing inside jokes.
Among the winners were Pahrump’s own Mark and Cynthia Haught, who took home $400 in cash, a plaque and a bottle of wine for their chili verde.
“Absolutely wonderful,” Cynthia replies when asked how the win felt. “I’m happy, now we get to go to the World.”
And how does she plan to represent Pahrump?