Chili Fest

Ithaca winters are marked by cold temperatures, gray skies, and reliably, the crowning of a new scion of spice after the Chili Cook-Off in early February.

This year’s event, featuring at least 25 participants and organized by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, kicks off Saturday, Feb. 8, from 11:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. Attendees can roam around the Commons stopping at the various booths, most of which will be serving cups of their own recipes of chili from their respective restaurants. Tickets are being sold for $10 for 10 tastes and $20 for 20 tastes and can be bought online, over the phone with the DIA or in person at the event. 

Vendors will line the Commons and nearby blocks competing for the top prizes, which were claimed last year by Ithaca Beer for “People’s Choice Best Chili,” Simeon’s for “Best Presentation,” while Cornell Dining took home “Best Meat Chili” and Moosewood snagged the “Best Vegetarian/Vegan Chili” award. There’s also an annual award given for “Best Beverage,” which was awarded to Wagner Valley Brewing Company. 

There’s always a wide variety of options available for taste-testing at the cook-off, and this year promises a similarly competitive contest as year’s past. Certain veterans of the competition, like Tim Mooney of Moosewood, are annually searching for a new angle to elevate their recipes. Mooney’s been preparing Moosewood’s submissions for eight years, and after so many entries now he has to spend significant time thinking of and testing new ideas for chilis. 

“For Moosewood, we have chili recipes that date back to the original book,” Mooney said. “We try to find ways to have some interesting flavor combinations and profiles in a chili that might be interesting to people. And especially if they’re meat eaters, make them not really consider the fact that they’re eating something that might not normally be in a chili, like ground beet or something like that.”

Moosewood has won plenty of times, both during Mooney’s tenure and before, so it wouldn’t be ludicrous for them to return to an old favorite, especially when their roster includes past entries like “bourbon bac’n apple” chili. 

“I have nothing against repeating one that we’ve done before, because a lot of them have been fairly unique,” Mooney said. “But I always feel that self-pressure to come up with something different this year.”

Moosewood is likely to see more competition this year, as upstart Angelhearts Diner has entered the competition. Angelhearts, which opened in July, is a vegan-only restaurant that becomes the latest challenger to Moosewood, certainly the most well-known restaurant of its kind locally but among plenty of others. 

“I’m always interested to see what they do,” Mooney said, referring to the city’s other vegan/vegetarian specialty eateries, adding that Ithaca Soy and GreenStar have both beaten Moosewood’s entries in the past. “We’re known for our thing, but it’s a friendly competition. It’s always interesting to see what other ideas they have, especially in the vegetarian space.”

Elsewhere, Gorger’s Subs has decided to go particularly ambitious this year, with four different creations as they try to knock off perennial meat chili leaders Cayuga Medical Center and Cornell Dining. Paul Darrow, a member of the chili team with Gorger’s, said they want to provide a wide variety for customers, so Gorgers is also trying their hand at a vegan offering, a “Chili Rojo” with seitan, as well as their traditional meat offering, which will be a chipotle cocoa chili with andouille sausage. They’ll also be attempting two dessert options as well: a chili chocolate chip cookie, and a habanero-key lime cheesecake. 

“I’ve never had anything like that before,” Darrow said. 

Gorger’s team offered a bit of trash talk last year, but decided to remain more reserved in the run-up to this competition. 

“We offer hugs to our competitors,” Darrow said, laughing.

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