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The Chilly Blues Cook-off: The start of summer

Rose White • Apr 24, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Fourteen teams simmered their way through the 25th annual Chilly Blues chili cook-off Saturday, but when the pots were empty, S&M Chili took first place for the second year in a row.

Dragon Spit took second place, while Big Red Chili was third. The showmanship award went to Haven Hillbillies.

Blues music mixed with the smell of spices during the competition held on the deck of Snug Harbor Restaurant, 311 S. Harbor Ave.

The teams cooked their chili on location from noon until 3 p.m. Each group had a booth where they could prepare their original recipes. Some tables were decked out with cooking equipment and others had simple set ups. But all were aiming to take home the first place prize: a red wooden chili carved by the Grand Haven artist Bearclaw Jack.

Scott Beck and Mike Nelson are the masterminds behind S&M Chili’s recipe.

“It’s a straightforward chili,” said Nelson, who declined to share any of their secret ingredients.

The use of a pressure cooker is what sets it apart, he said.

Ralph and Amy Kendall and Craig Williams have been competing in this cook-off for 15 years. Their chili, Dragon Spit, won three years in a row.

“It’s the same recipe every year,” said Ralph Kendall. “We use three kinds of meat, chorizo, sirloin steak, and hamburger.”

At 3 p.m., guests filled the deck ready to sample some chili as the sun glinted off the Grand River.

“It’s a beautiful day. There’s fun people and fun music,” said customer Stephanie Hicks. “All the ingredients to a great day.”

Ginger Giaimo has been coming to the Chilly Blues Cook-off periodically over the years.

“This is the start of summer,” she said. “It’s when all the people from Grand Rapids begin coming out, and it means summer has started.”

Big Red Chili is a team that has been coming to the cook-off for nearly 20 years. Their chili simmered on a large keg, which crowded the booth.

Roger Rau and Denny Looman are the duo behind this recipe.

“Once you taste the rest, come back and taste the best,” said Rau as he pointed to their batch.

Big Red Chili, like Dragon Spit, has won the Chilly Blues competition three times.

The winner is determined based on four categories: color, consistency, aroma and taste.

A team of judges awarded points to the chilies within that framework.

Howard Blodgett has been a judge for the entire history of the Chilly Blues Cook-off, and he has seen the event change over the years.

“But it’s still the kickoff to spring in Grand Haven,” Blodgett said.

“It’s fun,” said Steve Nadeau who has come to the event for a couple of years. “They’re all delicious, and there are a lot of different flavored chilies.”

The booth showmanship award went to the Haven Hillbillies for the third time. This was also the third year the team competed in the Chilly Blues Cook-off.

The booth had a western theme with denim draped over the edges of the table and team members Marlene and Tim Wierenga decked out in jeans, cowboy boots and bandanas.  

It’s not all about the competition though. Many of the teams have been coming to Chilly Blues for years.

 “It’s interesting to see how many people have been doing this for years,” said Stella Zondervan, a first time competitor who was taking part in the cook-off with her husband, Dan Zondervan. “It’s fun to be out here with people who are passionate about chili,” she said.  

Deb Everett has been preparing chili in the cook-off since the early years. She changes her theme every time, and this year she called it Boom Boom Chili. Her recipe hasn’t changed much though. “It has bacon,” she said. “Everything's better with bacon.”

Many of the teams are motivated to come back each year because they enjoy attending the event.

“Everyone is here to have fun. Winning is more about bragging rights,” said Bill McDaniel one member of the chili duo, 2 Bad Dads.

Proceeds from the event are donated to the Educational Support Foundation. The program gives students the opportunity to experience the culinary arts and hospitality fields.

“Students can find out if that is what they’re passionate about,” said Steve Loftis, host of the event and owner of Snug Harbor. “It creates that opportunity for them.”

After celebrating 25 years of Chilly Blues, Loftis plans to host the event again. “As long as people want to participate, we are here to make that happen,” said Loftis. “It’s a fun thing to do, and I’m happy to see people take us up on it.”

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